From the vantage point of its end, there is something strange and distant – almost alien – about the start of a season. It is only 10 months ago, after all, barely the blink of an eye, and yet beliefs and convictions and truths from back then now seem as archaic as the idea that we once believed you could see the future in the entrails of a goat, or that people carried pagers.
It is, for example, not yet a year since Nuno Espirito Santo was chosen as the Premier League’s manager of the month for the start he had made to life in charge of Tottenham Hotspur. Likewise, the idea that Romelu Lukaku “completed” Chelsea’s team, or that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer could deliver a title for Manchester United, or that running a repressive autocracy should prevent you from owning a Premier League team might as well belong to a different world.
It may not seem like it, but all of that occurred in the same Premier League season that concludes on Sunday. And while those matters have been settled, countless others have not. As far as we have come, as much as we have learned, very little has yet been decided. There is still no champion crowned, no complete list of teams that have qualified for Europe, no conclusion to the relegation battle. A season can feel like it lasts a lifetime. This time around, it all comes down to one game.
Pep Guardiola, above all, wants his players to be relaxed. In the aftermath of Manchester City’s draw at West Ham last weekend – the one that effectively guaranteed the identity of the Premier League champion would be decided on the season’s final day – he did not, as might have been expected, haul his squad in for extra work.
Instead, with the club’s season now hanging on a single game, he gave them some extra down time. The whole squad was granted two days’ break, a chance to rest and recuperate and escape the pressure. Ilkay Gundogan went off to get married.
Guardiola is right, of course, to identify that the test awaiting City is primarily psychological. In ordinary circumstances, it would easily dispatch Aston Villa on home territory: a couple of quick, early goals, a brutal display of superiority, an imperious saunter over the line. The challenge, this weekend, is to make the circumstances appear as ordinary as possible.
City does not, as it turns out, have any margin for error. The 14-point advantage over Liverpool it held in January has been whittled to just one. City has had several chances to settle the matter in recent weeks – Riyad Mahrez might have beaten Liverpool in early April; he might have beaten West Ham, too – but it has failed to take them. Now, if Guardiola’s team stumbles again, and Liverpool beats Wolves, the title will go to Anfield.
The teams have been in this position before, of course: In 2019, they went into the final day separated by a single point, too.
At Anfield that day, a great roar went up when news filtered through that Brighton had taken a first-half lead over visiting City. On the sideline, Jürgen Klopp knew it was “too early.” City duly struck back, emphatically – winning the game by 4-1 and claiming its second successive title. The “intense pride” Klopp felt was tempered only by the knowledge that his team had picked up 97 points and it had still not been enough.
Things are a little different this time. Liverpool has already won two trophies this season, sweeping both the FA Cup and the Carabao Cup. Just as in 2019, it has a Champions League final on the horizon as solace, too.
More important, perhaps, its yearning for a domestic title is no longer quite as desperate. It ended its three-decade wait for a championship in the eerie silence of pandemic soccer in 2020. Klopp and his players are more circumspect than they could be in 2019.
City’s task is complicated not so much by the nature of its opponent, but by the identity of Guardiola’s counterpart. It is doubtless just a coincidence that it should be Steven Gerrard who should have the final chance to push Liverpool over the line, but soccer does not really do coincidence. Villa has two former Liverpool players – Danny Ings and, in particular, Philippe Coutinho – in its ranks, too. There has been a lot of talk of narrative determinism on Merseyside over the last week.
It is City’s great strength, of course, that it rarely succumbs to such superstition. It is more than good enough to swat Villa aside, regardless of Gerrard’s intentions and motivations. Guardiola is well aware, though, that his team will have to be relaxed to do it. No matter how good this City side is, if the outcome is in balance with 10 or 20 or 30 minutes to go on Sunday, the nerves will start to shred.
Of all the issues yet to be resolved, the battle for Champions League places next season is perhaps the most straightforward. In theory, anyway, the identity of the fourth English team to qualify for next season’s Champions League was settled 10 days ago, when Tottenham beat its bitter rival, Arsenal, in the North London derby.
That win – followed by a win over Burnley three days later and Arsenal’s defeat at Newcastle on Monday – allowed Spurs to leapfrog Mikel Arteta’s team. It also means Tottenham goes into the final day with a two-point advantage, and a vastly superior goal difference. Simply avoiding defeat in its final game would be enough to ensure its safe passage back into Europe’s elite, and condemn Arsenal to another year on the outside.
That should not be too much of an ask: Antonio Conte’s Tottenham faces Norwich City, long since relegated and the proud owner of exactly one league win since January. The outcome of Arsenal’s curtain call, at home to Everton, should be irrelevant. (The squabble over the last slot in the Europa League is almost a mirror image: West Ham will snatch that from Manchester United if it overcomes Brighton and United fails to beat Crystal Palace.)
For both Arsenal and Spurs, the immediate future hinges on which side of that divide they finish. Once a mainstay of the Champions League, Arsenal has not been featured in the competition since 2017. The club intends to offer Arteta considerable financial support in the transfer market this summer regardless of where the team finishes, but the options it will have for how to spend that money will be defined by whether it is in the Champions League or not.
Spurs’ absence is significantly shorter – a finalist in 2019, it has missed only two years – but its return is no less meaningful. A place in the Champions League may be enough to convince its restive coach, Conte, to stay on, not least because it would allow him greater freedom in bolstering his resources. It might also stave off another summer dominated by doubts over where, precisely, Harry Kane sees his future.
There is a photo of Dominic Calvert-Lewin, shirtless and smiling beatifically, that just about sums it up. He is standing on the field at Goodison Park, surrounded by fans and by police officers, wisps of smoke passing above his head. His eyes stare into the camera. It is an image of outright salvation.
At halftime on Thursday, Everton looked doomed. It was losing at home to Crystal Palace, and the possibility of the club’s first relegation in close to a century was hovering ever nearer. And then, in 45 minutes, Frank Lampard’s team performed a pulse-quickening rescue act. One goal. Another. Then with five minutes to go, Calvert-Lewin launched his body at a cross and headed home a winning goal. Everton had taken it right to the last moment, but it had survived.
As fans flooded onto the field at Goodison Park, swarming their heroes and, in at least one incident, using their moment of euphoria to needlessly antagonize Patrick Vieira, the Palace coach, the relegation battle was reduced to two. Watford and Norwich are gone to the Championship next season. One of Leeds United and Burnley will join them.
The probability is that it will be Leeds. It travels to Brentford, a place it has not won since the end of rationing in the 1950s. Leeds must, realistically, win and hope that Burnley loses at home to a Newcastle team that has long since fulfilled its ambition for the season.
The reason for that is significant. Leeds’s form has turned around, just a little, since Jesse Marsch was installed as its coach – replacing the beloved Marcelo Bielsa – at the end of February. Marsch has won three and drawn three of his 11 games, and three of the five defeats he has suffered have come against teams in the top six. The other two came in his first two games.
It is the nature of soccer, though, that it will be deemed Marsch’s fault if Leeds slips back to the Championship after two years in England’s top flight, if the return to the elite that the club spent 16 years dreaming of turns out to be nothing but a fleeting visit. That is the nature of management; the ruthlessness of it explains the salary.
And yet, if Leeds is demoted, the defining factor will not have been its form under Marsch but its permeability in the last days of Bielsa’s regime. Bielsa lost his last four games by an aggregate score of 15-0. In the space of four days in December, Leeds conceded 11 goals. Its vulnerability, ever since then, has been its goal difference. That is why it is effectively a point behind Burnley even as they are level on points. That, more than anything, is what leaves Leeds United on the brink of the abyss once again, relying on nothing more than hope for salvation.