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Premier League tighter than ever


It's too early to start asking big questions about this season, really, but since everyone in Britain is snowed in, huddled around a two-bar electric fire and plunged into darkness by 4 p.m., nobody's got anything better to do. And look at the table, it's begging to be interrogated: after 15 games, just six points separate first and fifth -- with only eight points between fifth and 15th. We've seen a clutch of high-scoring games, a record-breaking weekend of goals, and we're on course for the lowest clean-sheet count in Premier League history. The question is: is this brilliant or terrible?

For those who lean toward the latter, these stats don't exist in isolation. There's England's horrible World Cup (which wasn't a great tournament for many Premier League players), the paltry three Premier League Ballon d'Or contenders recently announced (average in last 10 years: 9.5), and last season's Champions League showing (from nine of 12 semifinalists between 2007 and 2009, to zero in 2010), too. Put it all together and, the argument goes, you have incontrovertible proof that the scrunching up of the table is due to a lack of quality at the top.

It's certainly true that the traditional top four has lost its sheen of untouchability, simultaneously hit by significant injuries, the effects of reduced/minimal squad investment and, in some cases, backroom unrest. The decline in Liverpool's fortunes, coupled with the infringement of Tottenham Hotspur and (in all likelihood) Manchester City on this territory has made "the top four," as we're accustomed to using it, an anachronism.

At the other end, just seven points separate 11th and 20th: it hasn't been so tight at this stage of the season since 2002-03. By now the table should be hinting indiscreetly at what May will bring, but no team in the bottom half -- below sixth, perhaps -- can confidently predict a brush with merriment or misery. Is all this exciting? Or are we so malnourished on a diet of top-four-and-the-rest that we've forgotten the taste of competition and gleefully clamped our pale, scurvy-ridden gums around the artificial sugariness of rank mediocrity?

It feels exciting. Accustomed to correctly predicting at least two out of three relegation candidates each season, nobody gave newcomers Blackpool a hope. "On the brink of his first season ... like a snowball waiting outside the gates of hell", was my reluctant assessment of manager Ian Holloway's chances. Right now, the Seasiders are mid-table, the league's entertainers, everyone's not-so-guilty pleasure.

And Blackpool isn't alone. Tottenham is a stronger prospect than it was even a couple of seasons ago, showing the resilience that it always seemed to lack. Its Champions League campaign confirms the impression that it has gained at least as much ground as the top three may have ceded. Bolton is improved almost beyond recognition, making a significant shift up the spectrum between intractable and intricate. Stoke is developing a game with more finesse and flair, even if it hasn't abandoned the industry that helped to consolidate its Premier League status.

Sure, some clubs have fared worse than expected, but no team -- not even West Ham -- has been consistently abject, an improvement on last term. Four years ago, when the goal rate was at a low ebb, we complained at the abandonment of play-to-win principles. Steve Bruce, then Birmingham manager, said: "you've got 12 clubs s**t-scared of relegation". The drop is still a financial nightmare, but there's been a refreshing lack of fear on pitches this season. Matches that you'd previously have bet on being low-scoring, attritional fare have been some of the most entertaining.

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And even if the gap is closing because the top few are faltering, shouldn't we give credit to the teams that have capitalized? The famed "aura of invincibility" is the same invisible force that tells us we shouldn't try to be funny while sat next to Larry David; the ability of the big clubs to win when playing badly ("the form of champions") goes hand in hand with the opposition's risk-averse "respectfulness."

This season each of the top three has shown off its devastating best, yet dropped points in uncommon places on its off days. When forced to rely on squad players, they've looked as vulnerable as the rest; if we don't want the Premier League to become billionaire's Subbuteo, isn't this what we do want?

There are those who would argue that it smacks of desperation to try to extract flavor from such things, and maybe they're right. In the wake of Spain's World Cup triumph there have been lustful glances at the quality on show at Barcelona and Real Madrid, arguably the two best club teams in the world. Though we've seen some delightful goals (from unexpected places) this season, this week's El Clasico reminded us that the Premier League lacks such concentrations of artistry.

But it was also a reminder that La Liga is dominated by two clubs that have claimed 45 of the last 59 championships. Whether or not its less illustrious clubs would play Premier League teams off the park, Real (second) finished 25 points ahead of Valencia (third) last season. For some, the quality of a league is not in direct correlation to the quality of the stopovers: for every person mesmerized by tiki-taka there's another who prefers to see a bit more passing and moving in the table.

In an ideal world, of course, you'd take top-end, World Cup-winning quality and ferocious competition, but the two aren't often spotted out together. And though it's tempting to think that they courted in the good old days, nostalgia's fingerprints are all over our memories on that score. We remember the last-day title deciders, the surprise contenders that nearly made it, the drama of the lead relinquished, and edit out the bad bits.

The gripping title race of 1971-72, for example, or 1985-86, when three or four teams chased the trophy to the last: brilliant. But Nottingham Forest and Huddersfield were all but relegated before a 1972 calendar was opened; in 1986, Birmingham and West Brom, in miserable form, were relegated weeks before the season's end -- and any of four teams could have joined them on the final day. In 1996, when Newcastle let go a 12-point lead, its 4-3 defeat to Liverpool was dubbed the match of the decade. But, wrote the Guardian's David Lacey at the time, "the game would not have raised Anfield to such feverish heights of excitement had the defending of both sides not been so manifestly inept."

What our old favorites have in common is drama. Arsenal's invincible season (2003-04) wouldn't have been the same had it not been so fragile at the end of the previous campaign -- and at points as it went unbeaten. Down to 10 men in a bad-tempered meeting with Manchester United that September, conceding a late, late penalty that Ruud van Nistelrooy missed? Being outplayed by relegated Leicester City for 45 of the season's last 90 minutes? The best heroes are 90 percent deity, 10 percent fallibility.

In recent seasons we've seen a hunger for those percentages to swing in the other direction, for the Big Four to flash enough underbelly for others to land a few blows. Now that they have, we fear for our grip on that buttery concept: quality. Is the Premier League delightfully unpredictable, or depressingly inconsistent? Are we watching a decent contest or an unseemly scrap?

Maybe we should stop fretting. There are, and probably always will be, plenty of things to moan about. For now, we're almost halfway through the season, and a five-point advantage has already been won and lost. Some weeks we're giddy on the subtle bouquet of a fine wine, others we're plain drunk on a slug of home brew. Maybe the most important question is: are you having a good time?