Row Z

The Premier League Is Just a Never-Ending Circus of Crisis

How did we reach a stage where each club and every fanbase carries its own ticking Doomsday Clock?

by Hydall Codeen
22 February 2019, 3:24pm

Illustration: Dan Evans

Crisis? What crisis? It's a phrase that perhaps more than any other has come to define the Premier League this season, as 20 sides seem to vie anxiously for the honour not of winning the league, or of qualifying for Europe – or even of mid-table safety – but merely being seen to be the furthest away from crisis at any given time.

Crisis? What is crisis? It's not relegation, nor is it even necessarily defeat. Crisis as defined by the Premier League is more about a loss of face, some humiliating diminution of status. Crisis is being made to look like a wanker down the pub. Crisis is being last on Match of the Day because your games have ceased to matter. Crisis is an expensively assembled team of millionaire strangers not gelling immediately into a slick and remorseless winning machine. Crisis is winning but not winning well enough. Crisis is a fan TV meltdown, or a transfer ban, or failing to keep pace with the league leaders in a profoundly difficult season, despite being on course for the highest points tally in your club's modern history. Crisis is many things, but it always lives in the gap between hyped expectation and unvarnished reality. It also always emerges from this pit just after the question is asked, dismissively: Crisis? What crisis?

Ten minutes of low calibre googling was all it took to discover that, yes, every single club in the Premier League has been accused in the professional media of inhabiting a general atmosphere of crisis at one point or another this season, with the exception of Cardiff City, who’ve exuded the sense that they're just happy to be here from more or less the opening weekend. (They've also, of course, been caught up in a genuinely appalling human tragedy that renders the word "crisis" totally useless for describing anything on the pitch.) For the teams in the top six, crisis is a baton that they pass around more or less every week, Chelsea the latest to go haring off with the shitty stick as Maurizio Sarri struggles to impose his idiosyncratic style of play on a group who were champions playing a totally different type of idiosyncratic football just 20 months ago.

But as dire as Chelsea's situation might seem currently – one not improved by this morning's announcement of a two-window transfer ban – they're still eminently capable of achieving their objective of returning to the Champions League next year, either by finishing in a top four they trail by a solitary point or winning a Europa League they're joint favourites to triumph in. As such, we can see that crisis isn't so much to do with where you are as where you seem to be going; a wickedly resurgent Manchester United side and the general dawdling air of confusion that looms over Stamford Bridge – embodied in human form by the plight of their playmaker, Jorginho – the main contributors to the club's crisis-ridden present.

Comfortingly, it’s highly probable that any of Chelsea’s domestic rivals could be plunged into crisis in the campaign's remaining months. A collapse in the title race followed by a swift Champions League exit would prompt existential angst at both Liverpool and Manchester City, while Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is about to embark upon a run of fixtures that look pivotal to his long-term career prospects and Man United's immediate fortunes. Failure to qualify for Europe’s elite club competition would be more than enough to send Arsenal's support into furious paroxysms of Camembert-munching whinge, while Spurs only ever feel as though they're a heartfelt Mauricio Pochettino leaving video away from square one, all their great work and momentum dangling by the thread of the Argentinian's loyalty.

Away from the specifics and projections, it might be worth wondering how crisis became such a big word in English football. It can't be true that 20 years ago every single club in the top division was flitting intermittently in and out of some prolonged panic attack, but then it’s not true that 20 years ago every single club in the top division was surrounded by its own mini-industry of shrill hype and 24-hour conjecture, the kind of noise that inflates expectations, raises the stakes, increases visibility, jangles nerves. Where once football felt like a welcome break from real life, increasingly real life can feel like a welcome break from football, with its relentless, attention-hungry drum-banging, its terrible banter and its oversold gravy-train packed out with witless pundits, wind-up merchants and dickhead content creators. At times, it can feel as though what really unites a fanbase now isn’t a vague sense of local pride or values-based camaraderie, but a willingness to submit to the demands of the same doomsday clock, one you’re forced to swallow and that ticks away constantly in the gut, urging you, whenever the minute hand nears midnight, to push the big red crisis button and blow everything up so the process can begin again.

When the Premier League traps you in its thrall to the extent that it is designed to, you arrive at crisis very easily. Perhaps it would serve us better to draw back occasionally and see football for the game it really is. To open the windows, let some fresh air in, gain some self-awareness and perspective by having a brief chat with someone who doesn’t even like football, the bloke at the corner shop who barely even knows what a regista is, to stroke a dog that doesn’t even know that the word "football" exists, to realise above all that football doesn’t have to be presided over by some baying, punitive god called Crisis that must be appeased on a weekly basis via ritual blood sacrifice. Or maybe not. Maybe that’s simply too much to ask, and maybe the crisis, now, has become the point of all this, the thing that is holding everything together, the burning midnight oil that keeps the world’s favourite and most infuriating show on the road.

@hydallcodeen / @dan_draws

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