(A return to writing about soccer)
Early on in the season there seemed to be three protagonists: Arsenal, Manchester City, and Chelsea. Arsenal did unusually well after a superstar summer signing, Chelsea held together better than a team with no strikers capable of scoring ought to, and Manchester City succeeding in their ambition to be faceless automata.
And the rest of the league took up supporting roles. Manchester United’s decline, then their race for fourth, then their further decline, and finally their proper crisis. Cardiff’s evil owner. Sunderland’s complete collapse as a footballing force. And Liverpool’s successful improvement into a team that could almost certainly get a Champions League place, especially once Arsenal fell off into a supporting role.
The title race was odd for quite a while, because Manchester City ended up with two games in hand. They were likely to win those games and thus put themselves in first place, but in practice they were stuck behind Chelsea, who led the league but who did not actually have control of the outcome due to City’s games in hand.
And then, slowly, from a point dropped here and there, Liverpool found themselves in a position where they could win the league. With a game against both City and Chelsea to play, it became the case that both Liverpool and City could ensure the title if they won all their remaining games. This was unexpected, to say the least, especially after a long period where City was the one team that had the ability to win or lose the league.
What followed is one of the finest crafted moments in the history of television sports.
It is not always the case that an important game is a good one. But the Manchester City/Liverpool game was. Liverpool have a particular style - they have a phenomenal attack and a mediocre defense, and the usual way they win their games is by scoring one or two early goals and then nervily riding the lead to the end. This was a prime example - they hammered Manchester City early on and went 2-0 up. Then Manchester City pulled level with two goals. City could afford the draw - Liverpool couldn’t.
But then Liverpool scored a winner. Off an error from the Manchester City captain Vincent Kompany, who was playing with an injury. It’s a game with five goals and a plot, which is essentially the definition of a good game. No matter who wins the title, this game is one of the tentpoles of the season. And as a result, Liverpool became the only team that could guarantee themselves victory.
Except this isn’t even everything. It also happened to be the game adjacent to the 25th anniversary of HIllsborough. Coinciding with the inquest to finally lay the issue to rest and apportion the blame where it belongs. And Liverpool won a game that is going to be one of the important ones of the season, and possibly the decisive win in their first title in twenty-four years on the anniversary. And then for good measure the game ends with Steven Gerrard, a lifetime Liverpool player who everyone knows was crushed that it looked like he’d retire having never won the Premiere League title, whose cousin died at Hilsborough, huddling the team and, holding back tears of joy, telling them all that they’re not done yet and they have to go to Norwich next week and play just as well.
Even if Liverpool do slip up in one of their final three games, this is an immaculately good moment of sports television. If they win it, which looks increasingly likely (they can now even afford to have two wins and a draw), it will be difficult to top.
So the result in the overall narrative of the league is that you have a team that it is nearly impossible not to root for. With Chelsea having seemingly actively given up the title race, freely admitting that they’re going to field a weakened team for their Liverpool game to focus on the Champions League, the only other credible winner is Manchester City.
Absolutely nobody except for Manchester City fans and a couple of Everton fans will root for Manchester City over Liverpool under these circumstances. Even if you hate Liverpool, the feel-good factor and the fact that a league where it’s possible to go from 7th to 1st in a single season is fundamentally more interesting than one where you can buy a title makes it essentially impossible not to support them.
Meanwhile, the rest of the league provides high drama: a great relegation battle, a great race for fourth place with another feel good contender, Everton, up against a faltering Arsenal, Manchester United imploding, Arsenal in the FA cup, Chelsea in the Champions League, intrigue, bitchiness, controversy. It’s phenomenal television.
And Liverpool are, bizarrely, not even playing like major characters. They’re just likably going and playing well, acting like the static supporting characters they’re supposed to be. They appear a startlingly uncomplex team - even Suarez is behaving himself. There’s not even been a major refereeing controversy or anything to make the teams they’re beating feel like they could score a moral victory. They’re just blithely on their way to winning the league in the most appallingly likable way imaginable. Even if they lose, they emerge from the season as moral victors, taking the Champions League slot left open my Manchester United’s disintegration and, at worst, being the runners up in a phenomenally exciting league run.
At some point there will surely be a backlash or a troubled period, but right now, for this season, it’s too far into the game for the narrative to flip that decisively. For this season, at least, Liverpool have managed to accrue such a massive amount of likability and romance that it distorts the entire season.
It is one of those rare and beautiful cases where reality television provides drama to equal the best scripted drama in the world.