18 April 2014

Who says we haven't improved on last year?

Look, I get the frustration. I do. I share it. I've flirted with giving into it. With the collapse of Man U and the continuing follies of Spurs, we should have climbed higher up the table. We should be in a better position than last year. Instead, we find ourselves in an all-too-familiar dilemma, scrabbling and clawing just to hold onto fourth place. Our direct rival this year might be Everton, but it's the same squabble. They've done us a solid by dropping points unexpectedly at Crystal Palace, but it offers cold comfort as we look up the table and again see three clubs ahead of us. Even admitting Liverpool's rise (one that I dismissed repeatedly to my eventual chagrin), don't we have a right to expect—nay deman—something better than fourth place?  Just two weeks, we were sharpening pitchforks to storm the castle and evict Arsène.

The cup may not runneth over, but it looks to be more than half-full.
For one, Liverpool. Let their assault on the Prem title stand as testimony to the virtue of not competing in Europe. The six-to-ten matches they haven't played against the likes of Dortmund, Napoli, or Bayern not to omit Montpellier, Fener, or others, have allowed them to focus exclusively on the Prem Maybe it wouldn't be so bad for us to fall out of the Champions League. While we're at it, maybe we should fail to qualify for Europa as well. Then, all we'd really have to worry about is the Prem. Absent the confidence draining losses, as well as the travel and fatigue, we could attack each Prem match with the same gusto and vigor as Liverpool have. The only downsides? We'd have to snap that 17-year Champions League streak. We'd risk losing out on signing players who expect or crave Champions League football. There's the money and prestige as well. Hm. Come to think of it, maybe we really should press on to stay in the Champions League...

Next, Man U and Tottenham. One-time rivals have fallen to the point that we can watch their squirming with bemusement, much as one watches a turtle on its back. As they currently stand, neither will qualify for Champions League or Europa League football next year. Their ability to spruce up their squads will rest largely on the clubs' reputations, the reputations of their respective managers (whomever they turn out to be...), and the money they can throw at their targets. However much money they'll throw, though, players will have to consider just how much they're willing to leave a club to join one in transition, if not in shambles. As our closet proxy, consider Man U. Despite the club's reputation and willingness to spend, the only player they were able to sign was Marouane Fellaini. Juan Mata seemed like more of a jettisoning by Mourinho than an acquisition by Moyes. If Man U, fresh off a Prem championship and unfettered by budgetary concerns, couldn't attrct other top-talent, there's certainly a warning there to consider.

Finally, us. With four matches to play, we've 67 points. We finished last season with 73. If we can win those four matches, we'll end the season with 79 points—a six-point improvement on last season. Assuming that Liverpool, Chelsea, Man City, and Everton also win their remaining matches (an impossibility given that a few face each othere here or there), we do have to admit that our improvement has not kept pace. Liverpool and Everton, who had much more room to improve, well, improved. Everton could go from 63 to 78 points. Liverpool could go from 61 to 87 points. Chelsea and Man City also stand to build on last year, going from 75 to 87 and 78 to 86, respectively. When's the last time three clubs finished with more than 85 points? 2009 came close, as did 2008 and 2006. That's some fierce competition at the top.

The answer to our current status or struggle may lie at the bottom of the table rather than at the top.

Last season, the relegated teams—Wigan, Reading, and QPR—finished with 36, 28, and 25 points, respectively. They offered such cannon-fodder that other clubs would pummel them with impunity. This time through, though, the relegation-candidates still include as many as ten clubs continue to fret over their status. Sunderland, the worst of the bunch, already have 26 points. That's one more than QPR finished with, and Sunderland still have five matches to play. What I'm suggesting is that the Prem this season is much more competitive on the whole, with far-fewer teams offering little to no resistance, and points are therefore much harder to come by. Last season, 12 points separated Man U from the pack. Another 12 separated 7th-place Liverpool from 8th-place West Brom. This season, there is one large gap—nine points separate Man U from Southampton. This isn't quite parity, but the more-gradual gradation from top to bottom suggests that there's much more competitiveness top-to-bottom than there was last season.

Despite more-stubborn resistance at the bottom, and despite fiercer competition at the top,  we do stand to improve on last season's performance. Whether it's enough improvement is the question. With Man U collapsing, many of us anticipated being able to at least move up one more spot, but that was before Liverpool defied many expectations by sustaining their assault to essentially trade places with them. So it goes. There is still an outside chance that we can finish in third. That's not up to us, though, so it doesn't really count. What does count is that we're not hoping desperately to climb to fourth. In a tougher, tighter Prem, we're already there defending it and looking to build from there towards third and towards the FA Cup, having beaten Tottenham, Liverpool, Everton, and cup-holders Wigan to get there.

Lest you misread this as a full-throated defense of the status quo, let me make clear my attitude: I'm not saying that this is good enough. This is not merely another version of "AKB." It's more like stoic acceptance. Knowing now that fourth place is more than likely our best bet in the Prem, I'm simply looking at it and saying, "okay. I can live with that." Can you?

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