Do the teams you play at the start of the season have a long-term impact?
It doesn’t take a lot to constitute a crisis in modern football. Sunderland entered September, possibly even October on track to achieve the season’s goals and now a couple of demoralising home defeats leave a miserable cloud hanging over Wearside.
Manchester City are also edging towards the dreaded ‘c’ word, such is the madness of football. The league champions, who remain undefeated in the Premier League‘s European failings leave the manager players feeling the heat. My point is in this crazy sport where the difference between success and failure is so minimal does the timing of when you play certain teams impact a team’s long-term results?
Bolton Wanderers weren’t among the favourites for relegation but ended the season in the drop-zone after picking up six points from their first nine games. During this tough tenure Wanderers met five members of the traditional top six of the league. A torrid start de-railed the ambitions of a team looking to build on a 14th place finish and a FA Cup semi-final appearance. After a momentum draining start, the Trotters lost winnable games against Sunderland, Swansea and West Brom putting them directly into a dogfight.
Other factors were at play, the influential Stuart Holden missed the entire season, while Lee Chung Yong had been an important player for the club and missed a majority of the season through injury. When Gary Cahill left in January the club were also left with a sub-standard back four, with centre backs Zat Knight, Tim Ream and David Wheater lacking the quality needed at Premier League level.
However, going against this trend, bottom club last year Wolverhampton Wanderers picked up 11 points from their opening nine games and enjoyed a relatively manageable opening quarter before fading badly. Blackburn Rovers the other club relegated that term met three of the traditional top teams in their opening nine fixtures. They managed just five points however they were always among the favourites to go down and matched people’s expectations throughout the season. Wolves weren’t many people’s favourites for relegation but were also not expected to be far away from the drop-zone perhaps not making the two clubs the best examples.
The biggest over-achievers last year were Norwich City. Guided by the highly rated Paul Lambert, the Canaries reached 12th spot in the Premier League rarely close to the relegation places all term. They managed a solid total of 12 points in their opening nine matches. This came against a steady level of competition including three of the traditional top six teams in the division. Losses to Manchester United and Chelsea didn’t halt the momentum of a well-organised squad who caught many by surprise last year. Birmingham City were perhaps the surprise package in the 2010-2011 relegation zone. The Blues over-achieved finishing the previous year in the top half and showed their team contained genuine quality, winning the league cup in the same year they exited England’s top division. That year the Midlands side started steadily with 12 points from their first nine playing two top six sides in the process.
While my small Premier League sample shows that many factors are in play during a season and the fixture list is perhaps low in ranking among the problems a football club faces. I do believe Sunderland to an extent are a victims of a tough start. Taken individually prior to defeat at Villa, Sunderland had acquired good away points and only tasted defeat at the hands of the league champions.
Plus the two draws at the Stadium of Light were against difficult opposition in tough circumstances. But failure to win matches combined with a demoralising cup defeat meant the Black Cats couldn’t play with any real confidence or conviction against Villa. Liverpool FC are also victims of the fixture list to an extent. The Reds are going through a transitional period under Brendan Rogers, and the Ulsterman has had a torrid run, playing four of last year’s top six already. The Merseyside club are currently in an unsatisfactory 12th.
However if my findings are accurate and the cliché of things evening themselves out over a season is true, both Rodgers and O’Neill should take comfort and remain defiant in trying to lift their teams up the Premier League table.