As far as optimism goes, three teams who should have been full of it before the start of the season, Newcastle, Stoke and Aston Villa, will now be feeling rather foolish for thinking that way. Their teams sit at the bottom of the league with only one win between them – Villa’s victory over new boys Bournemouth in the first week of the season.
They say that the path to hell is paved with good intentions. The path to the Championship is paved with teams who have played well and not got results. And that’s exactly the start of the season that’s befallen both of these teams.
They’re not alone in losing games, Sunderland prop up the table on goal difference and Liverpool, Chelsea and Southampton all languish lower down the rankings then you’d expect, even so early in the season. The difference is in the style, not the outcome.
Which is sad, really. In football you don’t always get what you deserve. So often we see teams have 70% possession, 25-30 shots and lose to a breakaway goal or just draw the game 0-0. It’s not fair, but over the course of the season playing well usually gets rewarded – you don’t lose every game because of bad luck.
[ffc-gal cat=”premier-league” no=”5″]
Now, Newcastle, Villa and Stoke haven’t been playing that well. But their performances so far could easily have yielded a mid-table place at this stage. Newcastle and Villa have improved on their performances from their low points of last season, Stoke are trying to get used to a more sophisticated style of play. All three sides have done some serious strengthening over the summer and, Villa and Stoke especially, have overhauled what they had already.
So you’d expect a slow start. Teams need to gel and it takes time before a team filled with new faces can execute the manager’s wishes to the letter. But the problem is that after six games, form seems to settle down. Looking at the table before about six games in is futile and it still doesn’t tell us that much right now. I’m not suggesting that any team is in particular danger of relegation just yet, but the teams who are losing games even though they’re playing alright might start to worry that their form settles and their performances become less exciting.
We shouldn’t underestimate the power of bad form. Liverpool’s sluggish start to this season seems like a continuation of their sluggish finish to last season. Leicester, on the other hand, are going from strength to strength since their great end to last season. When defeats or poor performances kick in, it’s hard to dig yourself out of that particular hole.
And here’s the worrying part: you forget how to win.
Crises of confidence hit even the best of sports people – David Duval was Tiger Woods’ challenger at the very top of Golf in the early 2000s, but your average man in the street will have forgotten about him by now. There are probably newer golf fans who simply won’t know who he is.
Last week at Leicester, Villa threw away a two-goal lead. This weekend, Stoke did the same against Leicester and Newcastle, who were 2-0 down at home to Watford, couldn’t do what Leicester did.
There’s no shame in losing one game, or drawing a game, or even losing a game in which you were 2-0 down. Not in the Premier League. But the difference between Leicester and the three teams I’ve been talking about isn’t personnel. It’s hard to argue that Leicester have more quality than the other three teams. They don’t, they are simply more together as a team and they have form behind them. They believe they can come back when they’re ahead, and they keep finding a way to grind out a result.
The teams at the bottom, however, have the yips. When you’re playing badly and losing you try to change tactics and players, but when you’re playing well – or at least well enough – and losing, it’s a different story. You just have to trust that playing the same way will get results sooner rather than later.
The problem is that football is an unfeeling, cold, results-based business. If you don’t get them, you’re treading the primrose path straight to the Championship. By now, the fans will just want to win ugly.