Jonathan Lee > 2021/22 is on the distant horizon and the fixtures are out. Everyone’s initial observation will have been Newcastle on the opening day, again! Given they did the double over us last season, it is time to set the record straight and come away with something this time while trying to keep 11 men on the pitch. That aside, the fixture calendar does not appear to have thrown up a nightmare run of fixtures (although given we were the sixth best team in the country last time out, theoretically, only five teams should really keep us awake at night) with matches against the so-called ‘Big Boys’ evenly spread throughout the season and even the prospect of a home game, against Southampton, on Boxing Day.
The hope will be, of course, that games can be played in front of full houses sooner rather than later although nobody can be sure what new variants may be lurking round the corner or which current ones may spiral out of control – we can only hope that the more of us who are vaccinated the more fans will be allowed into games. But working on the presumption that fans will indeed return, we will see whether those who put our improved form down, in part at least, last season down to no pressure from fans being present, were actually right or not. I think what must be undeniable is that certain clubs clearly suffered from having nobody there; the likes of Liverpool and Sheffield United spring readily to mind.
As ever, there will be 6 or 7 clubs scrapping to avoid being in the bottom three, 8 or 9 clubs vying for European places, and the remaining 4 or 5 clubs ultimately ending in mid-table obscurity with their season petering out in early April. Norwich have a challenging set of games to open their return to the top flight (Liverpool; Man City; Leicester; Arsenal – gulp) and could easily see themselves near the foot of the table early doors, while it may similarly not be easy rides for fellow promoted teams Watford and Brentford. Southampton probably had the worst form ending 2020/21 and will want to start afresh, while the likes of Burnley, Palace, Wolves and Brighton will be looking for better returns after disappointing campaigns. Leeds and Newcastle will probably have mixed seasons again given the former’s expansive style of play and the latter’s inconsistency.
For us to repeat last season’s top 6 finish – whilst also competing in the Europa League group stages – will be a tough ask no matter the squad assembled over the summer. Us more ‘experienced’ supporters clearly remember the Boys of ’86 narrowly missing out on the title and finishing 3rd only to follow it up with a 15th place finish the season after, then 16th, and then relegation; we don’t anticipate a similar fall from grace this time but it does show that each season has to be earned off its own merit and with no less energy, as all teams will be striving to improve.
If we want another decent league season, we will again need to consistently pick up wins against those teams outside the top 8, and to keep in that top 6 (or even better) we will need to improve our results against the ‘Big Boys.’
Last season read: Man United L2 Liverpool L2 Man City D1 L1 Chelsea L2 Arsenal D1 L1 and Spurs W1 D1. That was 6 points from a possible 36. We have no reason to go into these games scared or intimidated, but it may take a different game plan to ensure our return is greater next season.
Two weeks into the new season (27 August) we will have our Europa League group confirmed, even the draw is likely to be quite exciting with a near guarantee of one big name in our group (given we won’t be in a top seed pot), plus the transfer window will shut the same week. Given we did so well last season, expect to see mild evolution of the squad rather than a revolving door of ins and outs, scores and scores of names have been lazily banded about by sites that need to fill space when most reliable sources have indicated we are after a striker to support Antonio, centre half to replace Balbuena and either Lingard or a similar attacking midfield replacement.
It will be interesting to see how the summer evolves but, in the meantime, let’s enjoy watching our WHU boys in the Euros.