When you were a little kid, Saturdays began with your dad waking you up. It was early. While not exactly the hour that would put off a farmer, it was still dawn enough that you’d have to double-check the VCR was programmed to record your cartoons. Pull on your shorts, your reversible township league t-shirt—if it’s blue, you’re home—and those long, ribbed gym socks that weren’t intended for soccer, but you could still jam a shin guard underneath. In the garage there was a small pile of bargain and beat-up molded cleats. The best pair has duct tape on the right toe—right-footer that you were.
These days, Saturdays begin with the alarm on my iPhone. On East Coast Standard Time, the clock strikes 7:44 AM and my wife nudges me sleepily to stop the noise as I turn on my side and unfurl the iPad close enough to my face that I won’t need glasses to see the players. I can feel proud—and maybe my dad would be, too—that I’m awake so early, but before the 10:00 AM fixtures kick off, I’ll still be in bed with the iPad, my wife will have brought me coffee and already returned from a jog around the park. Mine is a lifestyle worthy of a club like Aston Villa: one that is comfortable, however institutional, and behavior that will surely see you relegated to a lower division after a quarter of a century.
Speaking of, on Saturday Aston Villa mathematically solved the equation of their demotion to Championship football—imagine Tim Sherwood in A Beautiful Mind feverishly scrawling formulas onto a pain of glass, trying to solve X for Y, Jack Grealish for Joleon Lescott. Villa’s fall has now been seasons in the making. Some would say the turd has been rolling downhill since the departure of manager Martin O’Neill in the summer of 2010, but for me I’ll never be able to shake that dead look on Paul Lambert’s face and the equally lifeless slump of his body on the sidelines of Villa Park. Even as Christian Benteke inflated his transfer fee one goal spurt at a time, Lambert always seemed unmoved, recognizing the rot at the center of the club that would ultimately have to find bottom to resolve whatever backroom issues they seem to have.
The remarkable thing is that Villa’s relegation is by far the only certainty this season in the Premier League. One can bet money that I’ll have migrated from the bed to the couch before Saturday’s 12:30 PM kick off, but at the start of the season the bookmakers had pretty decent odds on Arsenal winning the title. All of the pundits could sense the peculiarity of those odds: Petr Cech, the best summer signing? The legendary keeper has been good on delivering a few points for the Gunners, but as we saw against Crystal Palace on Sunday, one soft goal against your star signing will not only cost you two points, but it also casts an immense amount of light on an outfield that’s been mismanaged (or poorly motivated) to within an inch of fifth place. I dare say it’s not Arsene Wenger’s season to miss his eternal target of top four, nor do I think it’ll be time for him to step down. However, I will issue this warning: Considering the staggering amount of managerial talent flooding into the league (see: Klopp, Guardiola), the various teams on the ascendancy (see: Spurs, West Ham), and Wenger’s favorite scapegoat of financial doping about to be a league-wide epidemic thanks to the new TV broadcast spoils, next season could be the Frenchman’s ultimate humiliation.
Arsenal, they are the bad boyfriend who promise each season that it’ll be better. Yet they can’t shake those harmful habits: they’re still late to every movie, forget your birthday, suck at parties, can’t cook dinner, and generally leave you with that discontented feeling of compromise when you gaze at them on the couch, completely unmoved emotionally. Listen, they seem like a good guy. They have a unique talent and you’ve never met anyone else who can entertain quite like they can. But it’ll never work. So we’re happy to have known them. Happy to have moved on.
It’s halftime of the final Saturday fixture and it’s clear to my wife at this point whether my fantasy team is having a good day, a marginal day, or an awful day. Am I pleasant to be around? Is the blanket over my head as I’m sat on the couch like E.T. in a bicycle basket? Do I appear to be washing the omelet pan in some sort of spiteful fashion—perhaps speechifying about Louis Van Gaal’s nonsensical defensive rotation? There is no greater frustration for a beleaguered fantasy manager in Week 34 than when he sees a starting eleven announced and one of his assets is not named. Yet this is the part of the season when squad rotation becomes akin to placing replacement soldiers three quarters of the way through the Battle of the Bulge: players have made it this far without contracting trench foot or hypothermia, however exhaustion and mental trauma must be equally weighed knowing that campaigns are being waged on multiple fronts with the FA Cup, Champions League, Europa League, and FIFA online tournaments on countless Playstations. In HBO’s drama series Band of Brothers, members of Easy Company are bombarded by Nazi tank fire. Fearing for his life, Private Albert Blithe is unable to aim his rifle and can only cower behind some cover before he’s confronted by a braver soldier, Captain Ronald Speirs. Speirs says to Blithe, “You hid in that ditch because you think there’s still hope. But Blithe, the only hope you have is to accept the fact that you’re already dead, and the sooner you accept that, the sooner you’ll be able to function as a soldier’s supposed to function.” This is exactly how I imagine the conversation went between Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp and his brilliant-yet-brittle striker Daniel Sturridge. (Klopp told the press that Sturridge, who had been out with injury for most of this season, had to learn more about the difference between “serious pain and what is only pain.”) And what do you know? The German boss is now getting the best out of his forward—a goal and an assist against against Bournemouth on Sunday—and out of the remarkably deep squad left to him by dismissed Brendan Rogers. While Liverpool is seeing perhaps the most amount of squad rotation in the Premier League right now, they’re still winning, and winning on multiple fronts as they head toward a Europa League semifinal tie with Villarreal. It somehow doesn’t matter how far they go this season, or by how many goals they clobber Everton on Wednesday. There’s something brewing up in Anfield, and the chatter is almost solely how far Liverpool will go next season.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though. There’s ever so much more to sort out before we close the book on this season: a few more relegation scraps, a few more pieces of silverware, and what is undoubtedly the greatest Cinderella story in football history. (With the demolition of Stoke City on Monday, Spurs have pulled within five points to further intensify the narrative.) Accordingly to the thesis of this piece, it’s still just Saturday. The alarm will go off at 8:29 AM tomorrow morning. My wife will turn away from me and pull the covers up over her head. And I’ll cue up the next match with all of the groggy excitement of that little kid trading cartoons and shin guards.