2022/23 Premier League: An Attenborough-esque survival of the fittest?

I would argue that three things are guaranteed when watching a David Attenborough documentary: you will see some beautiful scenery; you will meet some heart-warming and inspirational characters whose stories are equal parts inspirational and unbelievable; and you will ultimately be reminded that we live under merciless laws of nature. There may be hope and brief reprieve but finally the prey will bleed and the predators will feed.

This season’s Premier League followed these tropes remarkably well. There was beautiful football played across the league, probably a result of the league containing more talent than it ever has previously with even relegation scrappers boasting multiple world beaters. The likes of Brighton and Brentford provided feel good stories that’d be hard to disparage. And watching Man City chase Arsenal down in the title run-in was as brutal and remorseless a demonstration of nature’s age-old adage of the survival of the fittest as you are ever likely to see.

Of course, Arsenal will have their excuses and justifications. A loss on penalties to Sporting Lisbon was not disastrous in itself, but the injuries suffered during it to Takehiro Tomiyasu and, especially, William Saliba did prove ultimately catastrophic. With two of their regular back-four absent, it would take eight Premier League matches before Arsenal held a clean sheet. In hindsight, conceding in the first minute to Southampton, a team rooted to the foot of the table for much of the season, and then only being able to rescue a draw looked pivotal. But then again, so did Bukayo Saka’s missed penalty against West Ham the previous week, which was, itself, the second game in a row Arsenal surrendered a 2:0 lead in.

However, now is not the time to focus on Arsenal. Watching Attenborough’s documentary, it is inevitable to feel heartbreaking sorrow as the gazelle who once looked so sleek and effortlessly quick gradually begins to tire. It is easy to feel pity for them as you notice the lion gradually and only just perceptibly narrow the distance. And it is impossible not to feel sympathy for the poor gazelle as you see it realise that the lion has won, again. But whatever deep and sincere emotions the gazelle may generate, they are nothing to the awe and shock evoked by the lion. How powerful, how fearsome, how irrepressible, how inevitable. That is how it feels to watch Manchester City under Pep Guardiola.

Erling Haaland provides the ruthless, robotic killer instinct they have perhaps been missing previously. Debates may continue about how well his poacher style of play meshes with Guardiola’s intricate passing football, but there is no doubt about his efficacy. Records have been broken with disdainful abandon. Behind him, the likes of Bernardo Silva and Kevin de Bruyne – ably assisted by Phil Foden, Riyad Mahrez, Julian Alvarez and Jack Grealish – offer a frankly greedy hoard of attacking talents.

In most situations this top-heavy accumulation of offensive artillery would be reckless, verging on suicidal. However, Man City have managed to accrue the defensive talents to render their foundations almost unfairly unbroachable. Rodri and Ilkay Gundogan have guarded the defence so irreproachably well that Kalvin Phillips has been forced to spend the season watching games from the bench. On the rare occasions when they are breached, a backline featuring some selection of Rico Lewis, Nathan Ake, Kyle Walker, Manuel Akanji, Aymeric Laporte, John Stones and Ruben Dias stands between the invader and Aderson in goal.

In fact, if anything, Arsenal should be praised for making this season seem quite so competitive for so long. Because truly, this title race has been over almost since it began. Man City’s efficiency and effectiveness is just too intimidatingly excessive for there to be any doubt of that. 

And yet, look beyond the very top of the league and there are signs that things are changing. The achievements of Newcastle, Aston Villa and Brighton coupled with the relative disappointments of Chelsea and Liverpool suggest that the stronghold of the ‘Big Six’ on the top of the table is perhaps beginning to weaken. Perhaps the Premier League won’t follow Attenborough’s documentaries quite as formulaically as I thought. After all, I have never seen what happens when the predators lose their speed and the prey sharpen their claws. 

Image description: A Premier League match between Manchester City and Wolverhampton

Image credit: Bex Walton via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)