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This season’s race for the top 4 is terrible and perfect

Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur are all hot messes this season. It’s wonderful.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is not helping Manchester United very much Matthew Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images

One of the dirty secrets behind The Best League In The World™️ is the football isn’t always — or even all that often — very good. This, however, dovetails quite nicely with one of the dirty secrets behind the sport itself: that watchability often has very little to do with quality of play. Sure, it’s great to see two excellent teams play end-to-end football, but in practice, big games between top teams have too much at stake not to be cagey and dull. The real entertainment is watching two flawed teams punch each other in the face a few times, stagger around, and trip over conveniently placed rakes.

Which brings me, conveniently, to the current edition of the Premier League’s top four race. Fifteen years ago, this was a serene affair. Four teams were better than the rest of the league; those four teams got the Champions League places. The arrival of Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City shook that up, leaving us with a ‘Sky Six’ battling for four slots. This led to some exciting races but, mostly, not exciting games. When teams are both competent and closely matched, the higher the stakes, the worse the football tends to be.

An ideal top four chase, then, would keep the stakes and tension high but not actually involve competent teams at all. Last year gave us a tantalising teaser when the four sides in competition for the last two Champions League slots combined to win a total of three games out of their last twenty. Maurizio Sarri’s Chelsea, as the least incompetent of the sides in question, found themselves in third place. Spurs grabbed fourth, mostly from inertia.

The 2018-19 season ending with a months-long parade of incompetence from most of the league’s supposedly good teams was amusing, but clearly there was room for improvement. For one, the cast was stale. Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea and Spurs? Yawn. For two, why wait until the last few games for the lols to break out? The Premier League could do better. Now it has.

Leicester City are currently third. Wolverhampton Wanderers and Sheffield United lurk with intent around the Champions League spots. A survey of the supposed Sky Six is decidedly comic:

  • Spurs, a model of consistency under Mauricio Pochettino, imploded so spectacularly that they are now managed by Jose Mourinho, owner of the strongest chaotic energy in all of sports.
  • Arsenal’s implosion was less spectacular than Spurs’, mostly because because although Unai Emery is dreadful, his dreadfulness sits strictly orthogonal to ‘fun.’ His replacement, Mikel Arteta, is a vast improvement, although he still has to deal with managing a team which willfully employs David Luiz.
  • Manchester United currently have one of the highest wage bills in football yet have no midfield, can’t attack and are merrily ostracising Paul Pogba, the only player in their squad who can, in theory if not in practice, make a difference in games.
  • Chelsea are perhaps the most put together of the competitors (and are the nominal leaders in the race for fourth), but they have been spectacularly rickety all season, spurning the chances they create in front of the goal and conceding as soon as a striker looks hopefully towards goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga.

Frankly, none of these teams deserve to be anywhere near the Champions League places. It’s an open question as to whether or not the Europa League would want them next season. But since someone has to finish fourth, we have a ‘race’ between teams which have vast sums to compete for and no idea how to actually do it.

If you watched Chelsea and Arsenal both fall to almost-literal pieces in the 2-2 draw at Stamford Bridge, you’ll know that ‘slapstick’ is a perfectly acceptable form of football. This, indeed, is the Premier League’s specialty, the allure of the English game that we all recognise but are too polite to mention. It’s fantastic to see that they’ve managed to apply it so wholeheartedly to what is supposed to be a serious competition for good football teams.

Can you imagine having to go back to watching careful, competent sides worry their way to 1-1 draws between each other and barely dropping points otherwise? This way is much better. I hope we never go back.