One thing has struck me while reading all the pre-season predictions from supposedly neutral commentators and columnists, and that is how wildly opposed they are in their foretelling.
Broadly, we are either going to challenge hard for the league, or fall out of the top four entirely. Great, or terrible, nothing in between.
And that got me thinking. Just what would be an ‘average’ season? What is the level at which anything better is an achievement, anything worse a disappointment? In a world where many deem Football Manager to be completely realistic (with comments such as ‘Sell A for £10m, B for £15m and you can replace them with C, D and E with money to spare, as if it is that simple), I’m going to shamelessly steal one of the game’s features – expectation level on a per competition basis.
Note – These base levels are neither predictions nor hopes. They are simply the benchmark we need to examine the season by. If we exceed it, the season has an element of success about it, and vice versa.
Premiership – 3rd
I call a third-placed finish the benchmark because I feel fourth would be a disappointment, despite so many saying we’ll finish even lower. If we were to end there again, it would be the fourth time in five years, and it would become increasingly hard to argue that we’re keeping pace with the remainder of the Big Four.
On the other hand, a top two finish would be considerable progress, and would require us to finish ahead of one of United or Chelsea. That, for me, would constitute a success.
Champions League – Quarter-Final
‘Only the Quarter-Final??’ I hear you cry. Ah, but this is the benchmark, remember. If we go out before this stage, it would be a let down, especially as it is a stage we have only failed to reach once in recent times, a defeat to PSV in the last 16. And that season was certainly a disappointment in the competition.
On the other hand, we’ve only reached the semi-finals twice, and last season’s Champions League run has to be considered a good one, irrespective of the disappointing way it ended. The same would be true again.
FA Cup – Quarter-Final
People talk about reaching semi finals, the real ‘business end’ of competitions, and like the Champions League, when you get to the last four, this trophy feels within reach. If we get that far again, it’d be great.
Carling Cup – Semi-Final
If there is one competition we expect success from these days, it is the Carling Cup. So accustomed are we to seeing a group of insanely talented teenagers knocking established Premiership opposition out of the competition that we almost take it for granted. Last season’s quarter-final defeat to Burnley was an exception, an anomaly.
And that in itself puts a massive amount of pressure on the kids, although you wouldn’t know it from some of their sparkling displays. And with access to the squad greater than ever, these players are household names already. There are big hopes, and only an appearance in the final would surpass expectations.
It is likely that last season’s benchmark would be the same as this, which means we exceeded expectations in the FA Cup and Champions League, but slipped in the Premiership and Carling Cup. But one crucial point is that we were only one position or one round from the benchmark in all cases.
So really, last season could be described as adequate, average or any such unflattering adjective that equally does not render it an unmitigated disaster.
Now is the time to take at least one competition, and properly surpass what is merely expected. It is the step you must take to win trophies.