Bored at the weekend, I was flicking around the sports channels and came across Sunday Supplement. For those of you who don’t know, the concept of the programme is to take a group of newspaper columnists, and let them debate football issues from the morning papers. What it invariably turns into is a series of increasingly outlandish statements and predictions as they try to outdo each other.
One of the topics they were discussing was whether the title was a two or three horse race, and they came to the conclusion that since United are only two points ahead of us with a tougher run in, then you can’t claim them to be in the hunt while excluding us. On the flip side, they all agreed that were we to pip our two rivals and lift the trophy, we would be the most undeserving Premiership champions in history. Granted, columnists do like their hyperbole, but it got me thinking.
Their entire basis for the claim was our record against the big teams. Five of our six losses have come against the two Manchester clubs and Chelsea, and for that reason they insisted we could only win the league by chance – we aren’t as good as them. But our record against the traditional Big Four is Played 6, Won 2, Lost 4, whereas United’s title charge last season came off the back of the record Played 6, Won 1, Drawn 1, Lost 4.
Yes, that’s right. They had a worse record against the big teams than we do this campaign – it passed unnoticed because their defeats weren’t back to back. How many times did you hear United labelled as undeserving champions?
The reason they lifted the trophy last season was their remarkable ability to destroy the weaker sides in the league. While everyone else dropped points here and there, they relentlessly and routinely took all three. In fact, their record against the bottom half of the league was a frankly astonishing Played 20, Won 19, Drawn 1, the only blip being a draw with Newcastle on the opening day.
It didn’t matter that they couldn’t beat the elite, because they were more consistent than them. So it is strange to hear criticisms of our team going the same way – by playing so expansively we have found the knack of winning the so-called ‘smaller’ games, and a lot more efficiently than our supposed superiors.
To put it in perspective, here are everyone’s records against teams from outside the current top five:
Arsenal: Played 21, Won 16, Drawn 4, Lost 1, Points 52
Chelsea: Played 22, Won 15, Drawn 4, Lost 3, Points 49
United: Played 22, Won 14, Drawn 3, Lost 5, Points 45
Against those fifteen opponents, we have played a game less than both our rivals, yet have a far superior record. Given that our remaining matches are more of this type of fixture, and not the sort we have been losing, we can realistically expect to stay in contention.
This easily unnoticed record is the reason we have a genuine chance this season – the mark of champions has long been the ability to be consistent, and we are precisely that, more so than our rivals. It matters little that we lost to United and Chelsea when both were beaten at Goodison Park, a fixture we scored six in.
We have failed in matches against the top two, but United did the same last year, lifting the trophy anyway. There is no reason why we cannot do the same, and if they deserved it, so will we.