Is anybody out there excited by the prospect of the final two weeks of the Premier League season? From Friday onwards there are games scheduled on seven days out of 10, but for the so-called “most competitive league in the world,” there is a distinct sense of anticlimax as we enter the final straight.
Chelsea, leaders since before Christmas, will win the title; the top four will almost certainly remain as it has been for at least a month (Chelsea, Tottenham, Liverpool, Man City), while the relegation battle could be settled this weekend with Sunderland already down and Middlesbrough set to follow them.
Even if it isn’t, nobody would be too surprised to see Hull and Swansea City battling it out for the final survival place on May 21. It would take something special for Crystal Palace (four points clear of the drop zone with two games left) to be dragged into it.
When the dust settles on the 2016-17 season, it will not be remembered as a classic. That’s despite the optimism of last summer when we were ready to watch Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola renew their La Liga rivalry in the Premier League, only to see two of the game’s most high-profile managers spectacularly fluff their lines at Manchester United and Manchester City.
Mourinho may end up with two trophies at Old Trafford this season (following his EFL Cup success with the Europa League) and Guardiola is on course to guide City into the Champions League (via the playoffs at the least), but both would have raised their eyebrows in incredulity had they had been told last August that they would spend the campaign as also-rans.
There have been some great storylines within the season, such as Antonio Conte’s incredible drive in turning Chelsea into champions-elect, Arsenal’s midseason meltdown (nothing new there), Leicester’s decline (they could still finish just one position outside the European places) and sacking of title-winning hero Claudio Ranieri, as well as Burnley’s unexpected cruise to safety.
But for the third successive campaign, the title race has been a procession, United have failed to press the reset button (four years after Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement), and Sunderland have spent most of the season in the bottom three.
The Premier League is sold to the world as one of the most exciting, competitive and unpredictable leagues around, but the reality of this season is that it has been none of the above.
We are quick to point out the empty seats at Arsenal and Manchester City games, mocking City’s stadium as the “Emptyhad,” but there is a bigger issue at play than clubs being unable to fill their grounds on a weekly basis. High ticket prices are one factor, but perhaps the product is becoming stale — too much football is leading to fatigue on the pitch and apathy off it.
The Premier League needs a genuine revival at United, Liverpool or Arsenal, the country’s three biggest and most successful clubs, with the most illustrious histories, to restore the sparkle to the competition. They are the three teams that generate the greatest interest, from their own supporters and rivals; the three most recent champions — Chelsea, Manchester City and Leicester — simply do not engender the same degree of love, hate and envy.
The most exciting title race of recent seasons was the 2013-14 campaign, when the nation was split between those wanting Liverpool to end their 24-year title drought and those desperate to see them fail. Rightly or wrongly, Chelsea, City and Leicester do not have the weight of history and support to generate the same rivalry and emotion.
Somehow, the Premier League needs to find a way to bring back the tension, unpredictability and quality of seasons past. Perhaps it is time to condense the fixture list, get rid of the Friday night games and Saturday evening kickoffs, and give players and supporters a break from the seemingly endless diet of dirge. Fresher minds and legs would lead to a better product, and it may even help English clubs become competitive once again in the Champions League.
Last week’s Champions League semifinal first leg between Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid may have ended in a 3-0 win for the home team, but despite the scoreline, the quality on both sides was clear to see.
Five days earlier, City and United had played out a dismal 0-0 stalemate in the Premier League at the Etihad, with weary bodies on the pitch offering a pale shadow of what was on show at the Bernabeu between the two Spanish giants.
At the Emirates on Sunday, two tired teams played out one of the tamest Arsenal vs. Man United fixtures of the Premier League era in front of a crowd lacking in any kind of atmosphere or tension. It felt like a preseason friendly, or one of those postseason games that Liverpool and Tottenham have inexplicably decided to play in Australia and Hong Kong respectively, and the end result — a 2-0 Arsenal win — is most likely to have no significant impact on either club at the end of the season.
When Arsenal vs. Manchester United in May means little or nothing to the Premier League title race, then those in charge of English football should be very worried indeed.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_