How is it possible that 17 of 20 Premier League teams could finish this season in a state of melancholy? The winners narrative and West Ham have screwed us.
Consider the following progressively improbable set of circumstances: Chelsea win the FA Cup; Manchester City win the Champions League; Manchester United lose the Europa League final; Liverpool finish third; West Ham finish fourth.
Chelsea and Leicester would be just outside the top four and we’ll assume the remaining clubs would stay roughly where they currently are. For the vast majority of fans, that finish to the season would either leave a bitter taste in the mouth or – at best – with the saving grace of a Tic Tac in place of something that they feel, by and large spuriously, should have been far sweeter and more satisfying.
Considering all the clubs’ pre-season targets and/or altered expectations through the linear narrative of the campaign, given this very specific state of affairs, the joy at season’s end would be reserved for Man City, West Ham and Leeds fans, while the rest would be left to wallow in a chasm of self pity. Even if the table stays exactly as is, Leicester fans could be added to the triumphant trio and United would make it a party of five if they overcome Villarreal, but still, that’s a whole lot of misery besides.
No team in the bottom half will be content with their position. Unless you’re Norwich of 2019-20, relegation is an obvious cause of misery. Brighton’s position of eighth in the xG table is enough to have them feeling glum, though not as glum as Newcastle fans, who are the authority on glumness. Burnley fans presumably just exist without emotion, like the incredible but incidental team they support.
Southampton were tipped for big things and Ralph Hasenhuttl even bigger, but they’ve been little more than Premier League fluff, like Crystal Palace, whose fans are keen to get rid of Roy Hodgson but terrified of what will happen if Frank Lampard replaces him. Wolves being 12th is an excellent example of just how bad the teams below them have been, as we’re convinced they haven’t won a game all season, and Aston Villa would have taken 11th were it offered to them on day one, but will be kicking themselves having drifted away from European contention with a whimper.
Villa’s tale would be similar to Everton’s: a strong start shifted the narrative in a positive direction, making the atrophy all the more frustrating and painful. Along with the ‘what might have beens’ – a group to which Leicester must also regrettably belong – are the ‘what should have beens’. Liverpool had their sights set on the title and now mere Champions League qualification – placatory though it would be – is a jazz mag and a box of tissues compared to the bed-shaking marathon they hoped would continue. Tottenham were presumably targeting an undervalued but commendable second place. And Lampard built a squad to win it all before Roman Abramovich realised – too late – that it wasn’t the materials but the builder that was the problem.
And then we have Arsenal, the ‘what should have beens but actually shouldn’t because their fanciful fans are judging a very average squad – who are in exactly the position their talent merits – against those of a bygone era’.
It makes little sense that 17 teams are underperforming. In a totally unbiased scenario, levels of underperformance must be matched by overperformance, right? That doesn’t mean one team has to be as bad as the other is good, it could be that the huge overachievement of one club is equalled by the smaller underachievements of three others, for example. But even with Leeds’ excellent season and more so West Ham’s, who have gone far beyond what anyone would have expected of them, those combined ‘plus points’ get nowhere near matching the minuses of 17 others, do they?
We must surely, simply be expecting too much. And that is the impossibility of the winners narrative: this belief not just from fans of a specific club, but most people watching that club, that they should be doing a lot better than they are, despite the obvious absolute unfeasibility of all clubs doing better than they are. It’s the problem with all of these narratives in football. They all provide false hope of some sort and they very rarely play out as forecast.
It’s lovely, the whimsical belief; it can power us through adversity, and particularly in Covid times that’s no bad thing. But it does of course, leave the vast majority of us with feelings of melancholy come the end of the season. For some fans perhaps it’s time to reassess what success actually looks like, for others this will be a season to take on the chin in the knowledge that fresh, probably unjustified, hope will return on August 14.
And just remember Leeds, West Ham and City fans – sitting their smugly – you’ll almost certainly be one of the 17 in a year’s time. Or even one of 20. It’s headed that way.