The first four home games of the season have been played. Bournemouth, Watford, Southampton, and finally Middlesbrough. Three games away at Chelsea, Manchester City and WBA. Before the season began, when we looked at the seven games that the fixtures computer gave us in the run-up to the second international break, how many points were we hoping for at this stage? If we were going to be making a realistic challenge towards the top, as we did last year, then I would have said a minimum of 11, and possibly anything up to 15, based on those games.
So our return of 4 is way below expectations, puts us into the relegation places, and leaves us with a fight to climb the table from this point. Our only realistic aim in the league this season is to obtain a comfortable mid-table position. Even at this early stage it would be unrealistic to even contemplate the possibility of a finishing position similar to that attained last year. Last season we had 20 points after 11 games, so we can measure ourselves against that position after the four games that come up following the resumption after this international break.
Those four games are away at Palace, who currently sit eighth in the table, and Everton who are fifth, both of whom have had good starts to the season. With our current form we wouldn’t expect to get anything out of those two games, but we really need to start to win away from home. Last season we won both of those away games, scoring three goals in each, and we must really be hoping for a repeat, however unlikely it seems at the moment.
Our run of “relatively easy” home games, you know the ones that look easier on paper, continues with the visits of Sunderland and Stoke who occupy the bottom two places in the table after seven games, with neither having managed a win yet. Of course these are games where we often don’t perform as well as we should, and in the comparative fixtures last season we only scored one goal (in the 1-0 victory over Sunderland, the Stoke game being an entertaining 0-0 draw).
So who knows what this year will bring? To bring us up to the level of averaging a point a game (which is something we need to do as soon as possible) then we would need 7 points from the four games between this break and the next, and this is the minimum that we must hope for. Because even if we have 11 points after 11 games, our next four fixtures are away games at Tottenham, Manchester United and Liverpool, and a home game against Arsenal, four of the teams currently occupying the top six places in the league.
We then return to four of the easier games on paper against teams currently in the bottom half, with home matches against Burnley and Hull, and visits to Swansea and Leicester. At that point we will be exactly half way through the season, having played 19 games, including every other team once, by 31 December. We really need to have at least 19 points by then, giving us an average of a point a game. Even with this tally we would still be in a lowly position, so let’s hope we are above that level.
Last season only the three clubs who were relegated didn’t achieve a point a game. Newcastle, who finished third from bottom had 37 points and were relegated, Sunderland just escaped with 39 points. Even a point a game is no guarantee against going down, so we must really start to improve very quickly if we don’t want to be in that position.
The Middlesbrough game was an improvement defensively, although in a creative attacking sense there is a lot more needed. Let us hope with the return to fitness of more players, and a nearly full squad to choose from, that we can start to climb the table sooner rather than later. Once teams become embroiled in the relegation dogfight, then psychologically it becomes more difficult as fear of losing inhibits performances.
On paper, when you look at our squad of players, then most people would say we are too good to go down. But that’s what they said in 2002-03. In the 2001-02 season we finished seventh, and hopes were high for the following season. But we finished third from bottom and were relegated.
Last season we also finished seventh, and hopes were high for a repeat performance this time. Let’s hope we don’t get an exact repeat of what happened following our seventh place finish in 2003!