This suits me juuuuuusssssst fine, so well, in fact, that I’m willing to use a few extra u‘s and s‘s to make the point. Let’s slip below the radar a bit—but not too far, of course. We’re still just a point behind Chelsea, and two ahead of game-in-hand Man City, and while the idea of slipping to third may put a few people out on a ledge, it’s not the catastrophe some are making it out to be. In fact, it might be just what the lads in the squad need after a long, sustained run at the top.
It’s bound to fray the nerves and create extra, unneeded urgency around a campaign that is already fraught with tension. Expectations soared sky-high, after all, once Mesut Özil was signed, and for good reason. His reputation, his statistics, his style, the size of the signing, all seemed to state that we were serious. We reinforced those expectations through our performance on the pitch, carrying over a fine end-of-season run-in with a start to this season that saw us spend 11 weeks in a row, and 17 out 19, top of the table. This seems to have bred a certain expectancy on our part that we would simply stay there. For a bit of perspective, our legendary Invincibles spent 26 weeks out of 38 in first place—established by an end-of-season run that started after matchday 22. They spent 26 weeks in first place over all.
However, there are no trophies for being in first place after 13 or 26 or 31 matches. There’s just one trophy, and it goes to the squad that’s in first place after matchday 38 (Yes, yes, I know that some teams have it sewn up earlier than that, but—just—try to focus on the larger point). With this in mind, our recent little slump could release a bit of pent-up pressure, and this lower profile might just put a little more wind in our sails. Sorry to mix my metaphors. This paragraph is really turning into a mish-mash.
There. New paragraph. Sorted. Instead of trying to run away from the pack, which can make every single match a win-or-die scenario, we might feel more comfortable in the role of plucky underdog. Despite Mourinho’s “little pony” comment from last week, we are far and away the David in this David vs. Goliath vs. Goliath battle. Yes, we splashed 42m on Özil, and no, we’re not paupers by any stretch. However, that’s the kind of transfer-activity that Chelsea and Man City conduct two or three times per season, year in and year out. Hell, the fact that the two of them haven’t run away from us or the rest of the league indicts them, not us.
All season, we’ve been beset by injuries, one after another, to a squad woefully short on options in key positions. By contrast, both City and Chelsea have second squads that could challenge for a top-five spot in their own rights. Maybe. I don’t want to oversell it; you get my point. The pressure, then, should build up on them. Why, despite deficit-spending that would make the Labour Party green with envy, Chelsea and Man City are barely more than a point ahead of us, and this takes into account our first real dip in form all season. I doubt that Pellegrini or Mourinho have written us off yet, but the media, perhaps more-famous for its short attention span than for its interest in things like nuance and subtlety, has already started beating the drum for our demise, and the ascendancy of Liverpool, Everton, and Tottenham. Scan the headlines, and it might seem as if we’re already locked in a all-out scrum for fifth place.
We’re not. We sit second, albeit tenuously thanks to City’s postponed match with Sunderland. As I say, fine with me. If this gives Giroud and Özil and others a chance to play more freely, without so much internalized pressure to do every single thing perfectly, so much the better for them, their performance, and our results. Everyone’s been pressing, pressing, pressing so relentlessly that they’re more-nervous than a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking-chairs. Every single mistake has become a referendum on their ability, their careers, the season…
Let’s accept things for what they are—a mild slump whose significance is exacerbated by a dramatic scoreline and a less-than-satisfying draw against an historic foe—and enjoy the gift for it is. It’s a chance to take a deep breath, let someone else try to lead the pack for a while, and draft behind them for a little while. Along the way, we can play that underdog role to the hilt until the time. Let Chelsea and Man City plunge deeper into the Champions League and see their league-form dip as a result. We’ll bide our time in the long shadows they cast and emerge, hopefully, atop the Prem.
Stranger things have happened…