This article is written by Armchair Hammer
We got off to a blistering start last season. Confidence was high almost from the first kick off. We had an (almost) fully fit squad to choose from. A new manager to bring us a more entertaining brand of football. Some exciting signings. And the prospect of an emotional farewell to our spiritual home. With the benefit of hindsight, it was a season destined for great things. That win at Arsenal set the tone for our entire season.
Fast forward twelve months and our journey begins again.
But it’s a little different this year.
We have a new stadium which is a bit of a venture into the unknown. There’s some injuries to contend with to important players. The promise of big signings hasn’t materialised. Our most important players are a few weeks behind on fitness because of their involvement with Euro 2016. And there’s the prospect of more games.
Loads more games.
You might be thinking – that’s no different to last season. And you’d be right.
But I can’t help but feel the Europa League adventure last season was far down our list of priorities.
This season, I’d expect it to be taken a little more seriously. The club should be aiming for at least the group stages to demonstrate year on year progression. It’s reasonable to expect that as a fan and it’s perfectly achievable. Exciting, yes. But also my biggest cause for concern.
Cast your mind back to our Europa League cameo last season. We qualified through the fair play route – which turned out to be a little ironic considering our dismissal record in the competition. Youth were given a run out and players like Oxford and Samuelsen were given some valuable game time. As the rounds progressed, we saw more first teamers drafted in.
The players were gaining fitness. Rather than getting match sharpness through a series of friendlies, we were having to compete – and win – to progress. It meant that by the time we lined up to face Arsenal, the team was already near full throttle. I suspect that was a decisive factor in the win. We caught them cold.
Now this season, we are entering the Europa League a little later. Pre-season training has reverted back to type – friendlies. With key players (Payet and Collins) enjoying a staggered break after their summer exertions, I doubt they’ll be fully fit for the start of the season. Cresswell is out for a few months and will be joined in the treatment room by Lanzini.
Our search for a striker is dragging on longer than the board would like it to, I’m sure. Bringing in players from other leagues can be a tricky process. You often see new signings struggle in the Premiership in their first season. There’s often a new language, new culture, a faster more physical brand of football to contend with. The later players are signed in the transfer window, the less time they have to adapt to their new surroundings before the season starts – and for their teammates to adapt to them.
Now those are my reasons – and here is my point.
I’m doubting our ability to start the Premier League season in the manner we did last year – and getting that early momentum that carried us through a brilliant season.
I hope I’m wrong.
But if I’m not, we’ll need all of our best performers at their peak as we head towards the Christmas run-in. Whether that is to enable us to stay in touch with the top teams – or keep away from the relegation battle.
The thing is, if we don’t start collecting wins early in the season, and we qualify for the Europa League group stages, the games will come thick and fast as we head towards the end of the year. We all know what the outcome tends to be for teams on Sunday’s that play in Europe on a Thursday.
For those of you that haven’t noticed the pattern – they lose – or draw at best. Rarely does an inexperienced team playing in Europe win a game the following weekend.
I can hear you all groaning – telling me I’m being way too negative.
But bear with me. I’m not saying this will happen – I hope it doesn’t. It would make for an incredibly uncomfortable second half of the season.
What I want to see is Bilic using the Europa League to help develop a number of our promising youngsters. Give them a chance to gain the experience they’ll need to push on and feature in the Premier League. They might make mistakes – and they might lose, but it’ll help them learn.
They might surprise us too – and qualify for the next round.
With our big guns securing us valuable points in the Premiership, we would have the luxury of being able to bring them in to European games at the latter stages, safe in the knowledge we have points on the board domestically.
In case you are wondering, my son doesn’t share my concerns. He thinks we’ll win the league – and possibly a cup. That’s the beauty of youth – you’re not scarred by history.
What do you think? Am I worrying needlessly?
Are we at that stage as a club where we should be challenging on all fronts or would you accept a lower priority for the cup competitions in order to secure a better league finish?
I’ll look forward to reading your thoughts.