IT’S the end of the world as we know it — and it’s extraordinarily good fun.
At the halfway stage of the Premier League season, the state of the nation is a state of unprecedented flux.
Three of England’s four Champions League places look very likely to change hands.
Three fully-established top-flight clubs occupy the relegation places — West Ham, Southampton and Everton, an ever-present since 1954.
Fulham, Brighton and Brentford all sit proudly in the top eight, above Liverpool and Chelsea.
This wasn’t supposed to happen. Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City and Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool were meant to be continuing their duopoly — two truly great teams dominating the English game as they’d done for the previous five years.
And while the resurgence of Arsenal under Mikel Arteta and United under Erik ten Hag have been thrilling tales of the unexpected, neither would be sitting so loftily without the collapse of one empire and the alarming cracks beginning to show in another.
Suddenly, both Liverpool and City have lost a lot of what made them so great.
Liverpool are no longer dynamic, manic pressing, never-knowingly-beaten “mentality monsters”.
And City aren’t quite the pass-you-to-death, liquid-football, Barcelona-built model we are used to.
For Klopp, it feels terminal. For Guardiola, it is too early to say.
But both managers have lost their sense of permanence, both teams their aura of near-invincibility.
Liverpool have clocked up 92 points or more in three of the past four seasons — the only exception being the freakish behind-closed doors 2020-21 campaign when all of their senior central defenders suffered long-term injuries. This season they are on target for less than 60.
Klopp’s side have been humped at Brentford and Brighton in their last two league games, with the German finally running out of daft excuses and admitting Saturday’s visit to the Amex was the worst performance he had ever presided over.
Before the World Cup, Klopp spoke reasonably — but tellingly — about the impossibility of competing financially with clubs funded by nation states, City and Newcastle.
It sounded like the time when Bayern Munich nabbed one too many of his Borussia Dortmund players and he finally realised that, after two Bundesliga titles, he was fighting a losing battle in German football and quit his former club.
Yet it is not just City and Newcastle that Klopp’s men are failing to compete with — the Reds are 19 points adrift of an Arsenal side with a significantly lower wage bill.
Liverpool, built on athleticism, stamina and mental fortitude, have suddenly grown old and tired, as has Klopp himself.
And now you genuinely would not be surprised if he left Anfield this summer, an eventuality which seemed unthinkable when his side came close to completing the Quadruple eight months ago.
City, second in the table and the highest scorers in the top flight, are in nowhere near as bad a state — but the signing of Erling Haaland has weirdly destabilised them.
On the surface it seems ludicrous that a team which won back-to-back titles without a regular, authentic centre-forward should decline after signing the most prolific striker of the Premier League era.
But City’s best recent performance, and certainly their most typically Pep-ish display, was the 4-0 FA Cup hammering of Chelsea, which Haaland sat out.
Guardiola may have been sulky and sarcastic in the wake of Saturday’s Manchester derby defeat at Old Trafford when he claimed “I don’t care” whether City win the title because they had “won it a lot”.
When the mighty fall, as Liverpool and City have done, the chaos can be glorious.
City’s focus, even more so than usual, is on winning the Champions League — especially with England’s other three representatives, Liverpool, Chelsea and Tottenham, all in disarray.
But Guardiola’s team are often struggling to play to Haaland’s strengths and, after last week’s deserved League Cup defeat at rock-bottom Southampton, Ilkay Gundogan made the stark admission that City’s players were lacking “hunger and desire”.
All in all, the problems of City and Liverpool add to the gaiety of the nation.
For too long, the Premier League — while offering thrilling one-off matches — had too predictable a table.
Now, with English football’s financial might allowing smaller Premier League clubs to compete financially with major European powers in the transfer market, there is far greater potential for unpredictability.
No fixture can be taken for granted. Brentford have beaten both Manchester clubs and Liverpool, while Brighton have defeated United, Liverpool and Chelsea.
Run your club as well as the Bees or the Seagulls, and you can thrive.
Spend your riches badly, like Everton or Chelsea, and you will struggle.
When Leicester won the title in 2016, it may have been the unlikeliest story in football history but it was only possible because most of the Big Six were in transition or turmoil.
For when the mighty fall, as Liverpool and City have done, the chaos can be glorious.
This is a season to cherish because we haven’t got the slightest clue what will happen next.
THE violent intimidation tactics of Everton supporters forced board members to stay away from Saturday’s loss to Southampton.
But even worse were the appalling nursery-level rhymes on the protestors’ banners at Goodison Park.
As Rik Mayall’s Lord Flashheart, surely a closet Evertonian, said in Blackadder Goes Forth: “I’m sick of this damned war — the mud, the noise, the endless poetry…”
BIG GUNNS AGAIN
THERE’S fury among Arsenal fans after their side was charged with “failing to control players” twice in the space of a week — after confronting referees mob-handed in matches against Newcastle and Oxford.
But we know they love it really — because you can only hold a proper persecution complex if you know you’re big enough and relevant enough to be persecuted.
And Arsenal are big and relevant again.
LUKE AND LEARN
EARLIER in the season, we all speculated on whether a centre-half in the entire Premier League could keep Erling Haaland quiet.
Erik ten Hag decided the answer was to play Luke Shaw in central defence, in front of three experienced international specialists in that position.
Unlike the other bald bloke in a roll-neck sweater managing in Manchester, when Ten Hag “over-thinks” things, it actually seems to work.
THERE was some surprise Eddie Howe selected Joelinton to play for Newcastle against Fulham days after being arrested and charged with drink-driving.
As if a manager happy to take Saudi blood money could worry too much over morality.
A huge banner of Howe unfurled at St James’ Park on Sunday read, “We’re not here to be popular, we’re here to compete”.
After years as a comedy club, the Geordies are fully embracing villainy.
WE are fast approaching the moment when the average length of a contract handed to a new Chelsea signing will overtake the average amount of time served in prison for committing murder.
DON’T GIVE SMITH A SNIFF
AUSSIE run machine Steve Smith has been offered some batting practice in English conditions by playing county cricket with Sussex before this summer’s Ashes.
If you have a healthy perspective on life, you might consider this mere stupidity.
If, like me, you consider beating the Australians at cricket to be one of the most important things in life, it is high treason.