It’s where we are in May that counts. The table doesn’t lie. It’s over the full 38 games that we’ll show our true colours etc etc etc. Such statements may well be selections from the Big Book of Premier League Manager Cliches, but they’re no less true for that. But we’re not here to speak the bleedin’ obvious – that’s Alan Shearer’s job – we’re here to examine where we are after four games – more than 10% of the season.
We’re ninth, which isn’t bad, but below both recent custom and practice and expectations – at least that’s the orthodox view. But it’s not mine – I think. We played two Champions League teams (albeit at home) and came away with just the one point – disappointing, but hardly beyond the realms of probability and we were only a few minutes vs Arsenal from all three, which would have made for a good, if not outstanding return on the Goodison Londoners double-header. The draw at Leicester does not look quite so bad after their start and opening day fixtures against newly promoted teams can often be a bit of a banana skin. Five points after four games is, context-free, a middling return.
What of that context though? The usual suspects are ahead of us already, but our most direct rivals have not got away, for all the relative gloom around Evertonians until West Brom presented us with two goals. Plaudit-laden Tottenham are just a couple of points to the good and Arsenal and Liverpool occupy the two places above us, with six points, despite all that spending. If we, not unreasonably, write off oil-fuelled Chelsea and Manchester City and equally not unreasonably expect Aston Villa, Swansea and Southampton to drop back into the pack, some late summertime Keystone Kops defending has barely cost us any real ground.
Except that it probably has. Thursday sees the start of the Europa League with a tough home fixture against Wolfsburg. We’re back at Goodison for a winnable fixture vs Crystal Palace next Sunday, before an awkward midweek visit to Swansea for a League Cup match that is likely to see squad players given a run out by both managers.
Then come three games that will go far to telling how this season will go. The last Saturday of the month brings a trip across The Park for a game that we, more than ever, dare not lose. Then it’s the long and difficult journey towards the Caucasus for the visit to Russians Krasnodar, before rounding off the triple header with a midday match (less than three days later) at Old Trafford. How the squad deals, physically and mentally with that period of eight days, will reveal much. Oh yes, November brings six matches in 30 days and December as many as eight in 26 days.
So that’s the other aspect of context. Four PL games in four weeks, with an international break in the middle, constituted an easing into the season, with the opportunity for the medical staff to work on little knocks and for the coaching staff to drill the players at Finch Farm. If the four points squandered late on in the first two games of the season came from unexpectedly sloppy play, can that case be made if Manchester United’s huge squad without European distractions pop in a couple in the last ten minutes on Sunday October 5? You would be a hard man or woman to say that – which is why we may well live to regret not having nine points now, having made hay while the sun shone, in preparation for the grind that awaits us.