Soccer

English Premier Analysis: The Middle of the Pack

| by World Soccer Reader

We’re a bit past a quarter of the way through the season, with each team having played ten games with thirty points available to all. This is about the point in time when things tend to begin sorting themselves out to some extent; nothing is ever anywhere close to written in stone this early on in the going, but the table starts to make some sort of logical sense at least. Teams might be a bit higher or lower than was expected (or deserved) but for the most part everyone knows where they stand and what needs to be done in order to meet their expectations or continue on taking a step forward.

If you start at the top, things look to be in order. Chelsea’s point total and goal differential are a bit eye-catching, but while their performance to this point in the year has certainly been impressive it’s hard to think of it as all that surprising. Arsenal, Manchester United, Manchester City and Tottenham are all right there, just about where you would expect them to be. After the top five though, things start to get a bit weird. West Bromwich Albion is not a name I am used to seeing highlighted denoting the club’s holding a place that will earn European competition at the end of the season. Newcastle are a proud and massive club, but that doesn’t change the fact that they were playing in the Championship last season.

And yet, there they are. West Brom level on points with a club fresh off dismantling the European Cup holders in the Champions League with Newcastle just a point behind. Blackpool, the third of the newly promoted clubs, are just a point being Newcastle in 9th and only two behind Spurs. Allow your eyes to follow the point totals all the way down to 14th place and you see Aston Villa with 12; only Spurs hard-fought victory at White Hart Lane separate the two clubs in terms of points, but that’s enough to put nine spots between them in the table. Liverpool and Everton both got off to positively nightmarish starts from which they would surely never recover, and yet there sits Everton in 8th and Liverpool three points away from the top six. And though there’s a bit of padding between the middle of the pack and the relegation zone, there are a lot of supporters of a lot of big clubs who can’t be all that happy seeing themselves that close to the danger area. At this point last year there were eleven points between 5th and 18th; this year there are six.

To the neutral observer it’s most likely rather entertaining. Lots of games that would typically be relatively unimportant affairs are suddenly quite a bit more meaningful. Sunderland-Stoke and Blackpool-Everton aren’t usually the types of fixtures that people put down on their calendars, but come Saturday there’s quite a bit at stake. It is at least possible that if West Brom defeat Manchester City on Sunday the Baggies could move into sole possession of fourth place. No offense to West Bromwich Albion, but that is absolutely insane. Strange things happen early on in the year, but a fair bit of season has gone past and all three newly-promoted clubs are in the top half of the table within a result of the top six while two clubs who earned a place in Europe last season are within a result of the relegation zone.

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With that in mind, it’s a bit less fun for those of us with a vested interest. A few poor results are a given each year, but with this much parity this far into things dropping points to a club you probably shouldn’t can put you in a fairly unenviable position. It’s enough to make a trip to the DW Stadium bit easier to wake up for, that’s for certain. If you’re a supporter of Liverpool, Sunderland, Everton, Aston Villa or Fulham, clubs with an eye towards Europa at the very least, looking up and seeing Blackpool isn’t an especially welcome sight. At the same time, the upper-reaches of the table are still tantalizingly close. The problem of course is that with results so evenly distributed there have likely been more than a few performances to this point that have left supporters feeling less than enthused with the performances of their teams. The lesson here is that individual teams do not exist in a vacuum; there are a fixed number of points available at any given point in any given season and for any serious purposes comparing point totals to previous seasons won’t tell you much. It’s all about your performance relative to the rest of the league.

For the most part, the “rest of the league” has been much better than in years past. The English Premier League is not really in any danger of turning into MLS where parity is concerned, but to this point things have been rather even. There have been more than a few gaudy results, but just as often as you’ve had results like Chelsea defeating Wigan 6-0 you’ve had results like Blackpool defeating Wigan 4-0. So I suppose that even in inordinately fairly contested Premier League campaigns there are always constants which is comforting in its own way. Unless you’re a Latics supporter, of course. And it seems like a bit of a stretch to think West Brom, Blackpool and Bolton are going to keep up this pace as well. There’s a very good chance that come this time in January, when things are nearing the halfway point, that this relative competitiveness will have faded away and the table will more closely resemble what was predicted coming into the year.

In the end though, all sports fandom is about hope. Hope is a relative thing, of course; Chelsea supporters have hope of winning a treble. Arsenal supporters have hope of winning the League. Wigan supporters hope to stay up. And at the moment, supporters of quite a few clubs can look at the table and dream on something that didn’t seem possible just a few months ago. I’ve followed a lot of losing teams in my life, and we’re not dumb; I doubt there are many West Brom supporters who can seriously convinced themselves that they’ll be hosting Barcelona in the group stage of the Champions League come this time next season. But that little moment that your mind drifts to the “what-if” before the kill-joy that is rational thought kicks in is absolutely amazing. It’s one of the best parts of being a sports fan. And even though this season hasn’t really been much fun for me where my team is concerned, I’m thrilled that at least a few teams are letting their fans have just a little bit of fun dreaming.