I’m not very good at predictions. I lucked out with one about Harry Kane, but last year I said that Nabil Bentaleb would be our main man and that Mousa Dembele should be sold to Sunderland (or the highest bidder). Essentially: I know nothing.
But what I am good at, even if I say so myself, is summing up a moment; of assessing a ‘state’, of distilling my thoughts, and of encapsulating a point in time.
And so I am writing this with exactly that in mind. This is not a set of predictions for me to come back and gloat over, or — more likely, if my record tells me anything — to never mention again. This is an assessment of where we are right now. Because I think a benchmark at the start of the season is useful in order to fairly judge our achievements (or lack of) at the end.
Last season we over-achieved compared to what was expected at the start of the year, and anyone who says otherwise had unrealistic expectations. But, of course, expectations shift as seasons progress, and that’s fine. Once we got into the title race (it still feels strange to be writing that), and got into a position where we looked on course to finish above Arsenal, a large proportion of fans expected that. Rightly, because we’d become that good. But when benchmarked against pre-season expectations, we had little right to make those assumptions, regardless of the mid-season shift. Periods of bad form are just as normal as periods of good form.
So where are we? We’re good. We’re really good! We’re an excellent team now, and there’s no reason to think that we won’t be better in the coming season, having added Victor Wanyama and Vincent Janssen to the squad, and having a bunch of youngsters that have grown and developed along the way.
But here’s the rub. Most of the top half of the Premier League under-performed last time out. New managers, new players, millions spent — surely they’ll deliver, or some of them at least. Manchester United should be good, though there’s something that makes me doubt them; Jose Mourino lost his swagger at Chelsea, became desperate and made mistakes. Liverpool will take another stride under Jurgen Klopp, but their squad still has weaknesses. I can’t help but feel that Manchester City and Chelsea will be back to their old selves, given the riches and talent available to them. I like Antonio Conte, and Pep Guardiola is supernatural. It feels unfair to leave out Leicester City, but I just don’t think they’ll be anything like last season’s Leicester City. And Arsenal? So much depends on their transfer window activity.
But we’re established. It wasn’t just Dele Alli, Eric Dier and Kevin Wimmer having their break-out Premier League seasons last year; you could argue that Mousa Dembele and Erik Lamela did too. Josh Onomah and Harry Winks have now had a full year of training with the first team. Cameron Carter-Vickers, Marcus Edwards and Kyle Walker-Peters are poised and just about ready to break through. Another year older, another year more experienced, another year more accustomed to Mauricio Pochettino’s style.
A case for any position from 3rd to 6th can be made, and the justifications can all be made to seem plausible. Anything above or below those positions would be a surprise, but then achieving 3rd last season was a surprise too — we were ahead of the programme. Ultimately what I am saying is that I will not be calling for Pochettino’s head should we finish 6th, and nor will I be getting over-excited if we finish 3rd again.
Fans expect year-on-year improvement, but with the money sloshing around, plus the number of under-achievers last year, that may not be viable. In a way, we’ll need to benchmark our achievements against ourselves, rather than against others. And, indeed, one of my two main hopes for the season is that performances don’t regress from last season (the other being that we do not embarrass ourselves in the Champions League…). It sounds as though I’m making excuses for us: I’m not. Well, maybe a little. We’re as good as or better than most of the top 6, despite having a far lower wage bill, but many of those teams have scores to settle, and will be extra-motivated to settle them. We will be in fierce competition for the top four, whilst trying to compete in the Champions League for the first time in five years — it will be tougher, and we will need to be patient.
We need to show that last season was not a freak, and that we are as good as we were for much of the campaign. With a little individual and team progression we can finish in the top four again. And there are progressions to be made in other areas too: particularly with our youngsters.
We have, arguably, our best ever crop of youngsters coming through. Josh Onomah and Harry Winks are now seen as established squad members, but we have barely seen the tip of the iceberg where those two are concerned. Carter-Vickers, Walker-Peters and Edwards will push for minutes (and, judging on pre-season, so might Shayon Harrison, Will Miller, Luke Amos and Anton Walkes!). Not only is the team moving in the right direction, the squad is too. We have an excellent starting XI, have improved our back-ups, and now have genuinely viable youngsters amongst them. With another month of potential transfer activity, and Pochettino hinting at more signings, this situation should only get better.
Being under the radar and having the pressure off us a little can only be helpful; not only is it the way that I prefer us to operate, but I think Pochettino enjoys it too. The only times he seemed flustered last season were when the pressure was on. With expectation levels low, we can go about our business in a workmanlike fashion, until it becomes impossible to ignore us.
It’s far easier to enjoy a football season without the added pressure, and I think that’s one of the things that made last season so great. We weren’t in the title race until late on, and so there was no need to feel anxious or stressed — instead, we were able to enjoy each match for what it was, with some wonderful football to watch along the way.
So, without further caveats, here are my predictions/benchmarks to look back on in May — leave yours in the comments!
Premier League: 4th
Champions League: Progression from the group stage as runners-up, but eliminated in the first knock-out stage.
FA Cup: Quarter-finals
League Cup: Winners
Player of the Year: Toby Alderweireld (with a 15-goal and 15-assist Erik Lamela a close second)
Young Player of the Year: Dele Alli (I can’t believe he’s this good at 20)