Richard Buxton: This EPL season is brilliant, not boring
With the underlings taking the fight to the big boys, this is the best EPL season
Prided on being the best league in the world, the English Premier League finally has a season befitting of its self-proclaimed status.
Richard Scudamore's bold vision of a footballing utopia is showing signs of bearing fruit.
Not only can anyone beat anyone - they can now match each other, pound for pound.
Some things remain constant - Arsenal are still yet to prove their mettle as bona fide title contenders while Aston Villa and Sunderland continue to prop up the league's basement
Overall, however, the footballing landscape has changed.
Where it was once a duopoly (Manchester United and Liverpool), and in recent years an unbreakable four-strong hold (United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea), the league has become a free-for-all.
The underlings are now taking the fight to the big boys.
A successful run of results can transform a club's prospects for the season from merely treading water in the mediocrity of mid-table into an outside shot at European qualification.
No one is guaranteed success and, similarly, few are safe from the drop.
Preconceptions are finally shifting.
Only the eternal optimists among Leicester City fans would have placed their side at the business end of the table exactly 12 months after they were rooted to the foot of it.
So, too, would Watford supporters when they welcomed Quique Sanchez Flores last summer, with understandable trepidation, as their fifth manager in just two years.
Other supposed lesser clubs are also making salient points.
Stoke City have belatedly cast off their outdated reputation as a robust side under Tony Pulis even long after he left the Britannia Stadium.
West Ham United and Crystal Palace have disproved the doubters that believed they would spend their respective seasons mired at the opposite end of the table rather than placing themselves in contention for a Europa League place.
Chelsea's often cocksure aficionados, meanwhile, could never have envisaged that title defence would have not only fallen apart in the space of four months under the previously untouchable Jose Mourinho, but also left them perilously close to the relegation zone in that time.
At Old Trafford, they have never been so near and yet so far from challenging for their former birthright.
Across town, Manuel Pellegrini appears no closer to delivering a second and possibly final EPL crown of his Manchester City tenure.
Never in the EPL's history has it produced a campaign as unpredictable or engrossing as the current one.
Fierce critics, like Ian Ladyman of the Daily Mail, have claimed this season is the worst in living memory.
Those seemingly happy with the running order that has dominated the past decade and even longer have clearly lost sight of the league's values, which are what has made this season so memorable.
There is an increased level of competition rather than the underdog tales which were never as extraordinary as revisionists would depict. They all contained an underlying narrative of expectancy.
Blackburn Rovers' success story when they ended Man United's stranglehold on the title with a steal on the final day of the 1994-95 season was bankrolled by their millionaire owner Jack Walker.
Likewise, the romanticism which surrounded Newcastle United's "entertainers" who ran United close the following season and Liverpool's left-field surge into the title race just two seasons ago clouded the fact that neither were even remotely rags-to-riches stories.
Money continues to talk, but less is now more. Cheap and cheerful have become the new marquee signing; anything £25 million ($52.2m) Memphis Depay can do, a £400,000 Riyad Mahrez can do far better.
Managerial rookies like Eddie Howe and Slaven Bilic are able to hold their own against heavyweights such as Louis van Gaal.
Journeymen such as Alan Pardew can also hold a candle to the likes of Pellegrini and Arsene Wenger.
With a £5.13 billion ($10.7bn) broadcasting deal on the horizon, the playing field could be further levelled.
The days of a select group of clubs dominating the league's running order might soon become a distant memory.
No, this is the worst season
Welcome to the 2015/2016 Premier League, the most unpredictable for some time. Trying to predict the scores has become as easy as counting grains of sand.
Anyone who fails to take pleasure from Leicester's journey or the forward momentum of Crystal Palace, Stoke City and Watford is watching the wrong sport.
These four clubs - and there are others too - are benefiting from exceptional management and sound strategy.
Nevertheless, there is an inescapable flip side to this.
Leicester, for example, were top of the league courtesy not only of their own surprising standards, but also because of a clear drop-off from those teams who are expected to occupy the first three or four positions.
Last season, Chelsea won the Premier League while losing just three games. This time round, Arsenal have already lost four, while City and United have lost five each.
So this brings us to an unavoidable question - can a league really be that worthy if it doesn't contain a single exceptional team?
The answer to this is clearly "no".
That's why this season is the worst in recent memory and, furthermore, there is absolutely no fathomable reason for it.
Since the start of the summer of 2013, the two Manchester clubs, Chelsea and Arsenal have spent around £1.1 billion ($2.3b) on transfers.
That is an extraordinary amount of money and is a figure that will only accelerate once next season's TV deal kicks in.
VALUE FOR MONEY
Looking at the Premier League standings at the moment, however, it is hard to present a case for any of those clubs really receiving value for their money.
Consider the wholly remarkable case of Manchester United to understand this further.
There is no doubt that Louis van Gaal has recently presided over some of his club's worst football for many, many years.
Yet as the storm over van Gaal's future raged over Christmas - as the Dutchman considered walking away - United remained in touch with those above them in the table.
After City lost at Arsenal just before Christmas, for example, they led their neighbours by just three points.
Today, United are only two points behind Tottenham, who are fourth (before their match against Everton this morning, Singapore time).
It is these numbers - rather than United's miserable football and results - that have seemingly convinced chief executive Ed Woodward that all is not yet lost at Old Trafford.
This, therefore, is the reality of life in the Premier League.
The great coaches of our time - van Gaal, Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger - have sold themselves short this time round.
You only had to watch last Monday's draw between United and Chelsea to understand this further.
At Arsenal, they may take issue with this argument. They are top after beating Newcastle on Saturday.
Nevertheless, anyone who saw them lose 4-0 at Southampton on Boxing Day will know just how frail and brittle they can be.
CAUSE FOR OPTIMISM
If you are an Arsenal supporter, then you have cause to be optimistic. But confident? That's another matter entirely.
Some people may argue that the closeness of the competition is all that we should be concerned with. There is weight to that point of view.
Last Tuesday, Leicester hosted Man City as Claudio Ranieri attempted to take his team back to the top of the pile.
It was one of the most anticipated games of the holiday programme and nobody would ever have expected it to be so.
Everybody adores an over-achiever and we welcome all that Leicester have given us.
This is a poor league, though. If it wasn't, they simply wouldn't be near the top.
WHAT THE BOSSES SAY
>Arsene Wenger (Arsenal, 1st)
How do you measure that (the best or worst season ever)... public opinion decides that. In Greece, Olympiakos are 18 points in front of second-placed AEK Athens. In France, Paris Saint-Germain are 19 points in front. If you have that, everybody will say it's boring and it is better (in the Premier League) where seven or eight teams can win it.
>Claudio Ranieri (Leicester City, 2nd)
I think it's good because there is more of a battle. Nobody can say, 'This team or that team will win'... It's good for the league...
>Manuel Pellegrini (Man City, 3rd)
It's difficult to use the word 'worst'. Maybe it's the closest... It's more interesting with six or seven teams involved in the title race...
>Louis van Gaal (Man United, 5th)
It is an unpredictable season, but I am probably not the best person to judge as I've been in the Premier League only since 2014.
>Slaven Bilic (West Ham 6th)
This season is kind of logical. Every club in this league can buy good players.... It is harder for big clubs to improve.
>Quique Sanchez Flores (Watford, 9th)
The worst? Who says it's the worst? It's amazing... Every weekend, I don't know what happens.
>Mark Hughes (Stoke, 10th)
We know we can beat anyone in this league, although there are a lot of teams who will say exactly the same.
> Roberto Martinez (Everton, 11th)
It's been the strongest Premier League that you're going to get. I think the psychological element has been affected this season, simply because every club know there's a jackpot for staying in the Premier League because of the new television deal... Everybody thinks, 'It doesn't matter who we play against. We have to get points'.
RED-HOT POTTERS: Stoke City have beaten Manchester United, Chelsea and Man City this term.
UPSETS IN THIS EPL SEASON
- lost 3-1 to Everton
- lost 3-1 to Southampton
- lost 2-1 to Crystal Palace
- lost 2-1 to West Ham
- lost 2-1 to Leicester
- lost 1-0 to Stoke City
- lost 1-0 to Bournemouth
- lost 2-0 to Stoke City
- lost 2-1 to Bournemouth
- lost 2-1 to Norwich
- lost 2-1 to Swansea
- lost 3-0, 2-0 to West Ham
- lost 3-0 to Watford
- lost 2-0 to Newcastle
- lost 2-1 to Crystal Palace
- lost 2-0 to Stoke City
- lost 2-1 to West Ham
- lost 4-0 to Southampton
- lost 2-0 to West Ham
- lost 2-1 to West Brom