It’s supposedly a nothing game but you still can’t help being excited. Even though this season’s event was almost impossibly close to the World Cup, I still felt the crisp, clean sensation that came with the Charity Shield and the unofficial start of a new season.
That’s how it should be, I think. The new season which, by definition, starts everyone off from zero points ought to be treated with a fresh analysis. That isn’t to say we shouldn’t recognise or appreciate the significance of what has gone before. It’s self-evident that a side like Manchester City, which broke a plethora of league records last year, will be a title favourite. It’s also unremarkable to point out that at least one of the newly promoted sides might struggle, if it doesn’t strengthen its squad. However, the problems come when probability appears to become certainty.
The BBC pundit Chris Sutton was recently in hot water with Cardiff City’s Harry Arter over his early season predictions for the Bluebirds’ final league position. Sutton had based his opinion on Cardiff’s limited spend and his doubts about their goalscoring ability. However, though the former England striker may have been partly jesting with BBC presenter Jason Mohammad, the incident was revealing of a wider issue with this type of footballing analysis.
At the top of the league, several pundits have all but asked the Premier League to give the title to Manchester City now, such is the belief that they will replicate last season’s league results. Part of the reasoning appears to be that, last season, City finished 25 points ahead of Liverpool who are assumed to be their only viable contenders. At the bottom of the league, Sutton’s analysis of Cardiff’s relegation was predicted on the Bluebirds not having enough money or enough goalscoring potential.
The first thing that strikes you about the analysis of the title race is just how impervious it is to logic of the existing present. A new season means just that. Manchester City are clearly favourites based on what they have previously demonstrated as last season’s Champions. However, as Chelsea, Manchester United and Leicester can tell the Citizyens from bitter experience – defending a title is based on nothing else but the points you earn week by week.
This is not just a view. It is demonstrable fact that the league title has not been retained since 2008-9. Therefore, if we’re making predictions based on a title winner’s previous season’s form, the only certainty is that City will not win the 2018/19 title. But why would you do this when quality is quality? City should be favourites based on the fact that they have an excellent team. The best analysis is describing what you’re actually seeing not what you actually saw.
It seems unusual that, despite the frequency with which pundits are encouraged to play this predictive game, so few are prepared to make the almost patronisingly easy point. This is the simple recognition that a season is not determined by what a club did last season or even (necessarily) by the quality of the football a side plays or the money it spends. It is determined by the points a side picks up week by week, in comparison with the other sides around it, that matters.
As it stands, there is no 25 point gap between Liverpool and City (who are both different sides to last year anyway). There is just a one goal difference between these two sides (heavily based on City’s thumping of a Huddersfield side that Chelsea had beaten 3-0 the week before).
The embyronic league table reveals little else except 6 sides at the top of the league with 100% records, with no regard to how they got them. It confirms that, currently, Cardiff City are not in the relegation zone (though other sides with more money and better pedigree are). And then there’s always the small matter of the 36 more games to play. That is all that we know but it feels remarkable that so much of the analysis of the league appears to reject it.
Take Chelsea for instance, here is a side that is unrecognisable from last year. The manager, tactical shape, spine and preferred footballing style are, even before viewing in earnest, night and day in comparison with last season. Who knows where this club could finish based on even these simple factors? And, if we’re going on previous seasons’ precedent, these are (almost to a tee) the exact changes of detail that usually ensure Chelsea win the league. Any takers for that prediction? I thought not.
Even Liverpool who bear more similarity with last season have vast differences in goakeeping and midfield departments. On what basis then is this Liverpool side chasing down a 25 point deficit to catch Manchester City? Do they have to play Manchester City nine times this season with last season’s team? Has the Premier League given them a 25 point deduction?
The strangeness of this way of thinking is also highlighted by its inconsistency. If City are to be granted the league now then why is it that Manchester United and Tottenham, who are closer still than Liverpool to their sides of last season, are not considered their closest challengers? You know the answer already: a new season has new variables.
Punditry can and must be about opinions, even those contradict your (naturally) perfectly considered one. However, it’s a strange business when so much of the chatter is so focused on what is past that it practically ignores what is present. Especially because, as we all know, the most predictable thing about football is its repeated capacity to shock.
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