14 December 2009 ~ "It's a strange Premier League at the moment," David Moyes remarked at the weekend, possibly still in shock at his side managing to take a point at Stamford Bridge in a very absorbing and even game. "There are a lot of goals, and that makes it good entertainment and good viewing, but you have to ask, is it good defending? You could look at it both ways. But I don't think anybody feels they are miles out of being at the top or miles out of being in the relegation spots." So what part is stranger – the fact that the Premier League has an air of unpredictability about it this season, or the fact that there are a lot of goals and that it's entertaining? Good heavens, the two may even be connected.
Twenty years ago and beyond, you would rarely look at the League table in mid-December and be able to forecast with confidence who was going to finish in the European qualification places and who was going down. Now, this scenario is seen as "strange". For the first time in years, there are a number of new names in the chase for the Champions League positions, possibly even the title. Chelsea and Manchester United's dropped home points at the weekend have put a spring in the step of the chasing pack (except for Liverpool, whose step lost its spring shortly after half time at Anfield yesterday), while at the bottom end none of the struggling teams is hopelessly adrift. Any club from the middle to the lower half of the table right now could simultaneously harbour relegation worries and European slot aspirations.
Aston Villa's victory on Saturday certainly worried the commentators. That Villa hadn't won at Old Trafford since 1983 was just the sort of fact that they love to quote, again and again. And they did, but you could discern an air of uncertainty whenever it was mentioned. Should they explain to younger viewers that football already existed in 1983? Should they mention that, back then, teams like Aston Villa could still become champions and that it wasn't the Biggest Shock Ever that they would win on the road at teams like United? You could sense they yearned to muse a little further on those good old days, when every team had old-fashioned English strikers like Peter Withe and Paul Rideout who could reliably poke the ball in from two yards, boasted heads like anvils and played for 90 minutes like a medieval battering ram. Then a producer prodded them with a sharp stick and they changed the subject back to the glorious present.
Just as remarkable as Villa's winning statistic, however, was their approach to the game. They came to play football and they came to win. Many of the Premier League's most tedious encounters over the past decade have been at Old Trafford, with the home side dominating away teams who have come to fight for a point, but caved in either sooner or later. Given how unsuccessful this dull-minded tactic has been, you wonder why more teams don't take the risk that Martin O'Neill did. And given the current vulnerability of the United backline maybe more will. Or maybe Nemanja Vidic has always been this fallible but visiting teams have just never really tried putting him to the test.
It's true that if you travel and try to play decent football, you risk a shellacking like the 9-1 defeat Wigan suffered at Spurs last month. Wolves and Stoke, meanwhile, have been to White Hart Lane this season and stolen 1-0 wins through graft, luck and a snatched goal on the counter-attack. But that game plan doesn't work as often as its managers hope. Wigan went to Stoke this weekend and manager Roberto Martínez held back from moaning about the missed last-minute penalty that cost his side a win. Only when pushed did he mildly state that it should have been retaken. "I am just focusing on our performance – it was what we wanted," Martínez said. Here is a manager who can look beyond a single result to his team's longer term stylistic development.
Stoke v Wigan was, by the way, another absolute barnstormer. It contained the level of excitement you often see between teams lower down in La Liga, where even the strugglers play the game as it is meant to be played – with verve and imagination, based on the revolutionary idea that football is about scoring goals and that one of the most effective ways to get the ball past the opposition is to pass it to a team-mate. All that a good game requires is that both teams show a willingness to attack. Perhaps Roberto Martínez is prepared to risk the odd 9-1 defeat in the name of these weird ideas mentioned by David Moyes – this entertainment thing, all these goals and matters still unsettled as we head into the new year. For the sake of the game, we have to hope this season stays a strange one. Ian Plenderleith