At times, throughout autumn and into winter, the combination of empty stadiums, a packed schedule and a frantic pace seemed destined to usurp the established order. Contenders seemed to rise and fall every week. Earnest conversations were held about whether Aston Villa could win the league or if Arsenal was in danger of relegation.
It did not, it turns out, quite come to pass. It soon became clear that Manchester City — the team with the best and biggest squad, the side with the brightest coach — would be champion while spring was still fresh in the air. Pep Guardiola’s team sits 14 points clear of Manchester United, its fingers already brushing a third crown in four years.
Relegation, too, is largely settled. Sheffield United and West Bromwich Albion will be playing in the Championship next season; all that remains to be decided is whether Fulham can muster enough momentum to condemn Newcastle, drifting and directionless, to a place alongside it.
In that relative certainty, the Premier League is something of an outlier across Europe’s major leagues. Elsewhere, the curious circumstances of the pandemic season do seem to have had an effect. In Spain, Barcelona and Real Madrid are slowly reeling in a stuttering Atlético Madrid. In Italy, Inter Milan has six points on its city rival, AC Milan, and 10 on Juventus and Atalanta. But with at least one fairly spectacular choke in fans’ relatively recent memory, that is not yet a gap broad enough to permit any comfort.
In the absence of questions at the top and bottom of the table, the Premier League has concentrated all of its drama, jeopardy and intrigue into the jostling for position immediately below Manchester City. There are three more spots available in the Champions League for next season and seven teams with a realistic shot at one of them.
Some are fallen giants, teams desperate to salvage something from a bitterly disappointing season. Others are surprise packages, those teams that have best adapted to the strangeness of this season. It is at this point that the consequences of all the chaos and unpredictability of the last seven months are made flesh, and it is a race that is all but impossible to sort — at least not yet. “It will go until the last day,” Carlo Ancelotti, the Everton manager, said last month. The challenge, he said, is to make sure you are still in contention by then.
A glance at the table would indicate that two of the seven Champions League contenders — Manchester United and Leicester City — have a considerable advantage. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s United has an eight-point lead on West Ham, currently the first team outside the places in fifth. Brendan Rodgers’s Leicester side has a seven-point cushion.
More than in any other season, the final prize on offer in the Premier League will go to the teams that can best minimize the effects of fatigue, thanks to a reduced workload or by possessing the strength in depth to ride it out. In all the chaos, in the end, there will be some sort of order.