We’re in something resembling a summer at the moment and I must say, if I didn’t have to wear a suit and spend the best part of the day in an office where I can’t see the sky, I’d probably be delighted about it.
But I can’t. So I guess that’s just life. A bit like the football fixtures, which come out today, in which everybody will be able to analyse until the nth degree. It gives Sky something to get more excited about today, but more importantly it reminds us all just how horrid international football is and just how much we miss real football, especially after having to watch another England game as I did last night. ‘Twas another average affair, even though there were plenty of goals, and I only really flitted in and out of the game. But no matter because after 9am this morning the fixtures will be out and nobody will bother talking about England again.
There will be some who say that it’s an irrelevance of who plays when, that every team has to play every opponent, so who cares what happens when. Yes, on paper, that may be true. But when you look at Southampton, Stoke and West Ham towards the end of the season just gone by, you see that in reality it’s quite different. Playing Stoke away in November when they have started to build a bit of momentum and have won a few games, for example, is a little different to playing a Stoke team away from home with two games to spare and absolutely no chance of them competing at the top and bottom of the league. That’s why I firmly believe that there is an ‘ideal formula’ for getting certain games and if you can get as close to it in your fixtures, then I think it can be a big advantage.
Take the beginning of the season for example. What you want to do is get a run of games against teams that are not expected to be in the top eight. I know the old cliché about ‘no easy games’ and as Arsenal fans we know our team are prone to brain farts, but for the purposes of today I’m dealing purely in the ‘on paper hypothetical’, ok?
So, as I was saying, the start of the season. What you need is for your season to start with some momentum. So if you can have the first five or six matches as ‘winnable’ ones, you’ve got some early points on the board and the team can start to build some momentum. It doesn’t always work that way and in two of the recent six seasons we’ve lost the first game, but gone on a winning run, so there are some anomalies. But broadly speaking you want to get a relatively kind set of fixtures.
Then after about eight or nine games you want to face your first big team. I’d probably say at home because particularly from an Arsenal perspective, we’re a confidence team and a win against a big side will make a difference. Like we did last season against Chelski. That helped to continue the momentum right through until December when as we all know we hit the skids with two tricky away games. And that’s what you don’t want in your fixtures. You don’t want to play back-to-back ‘big’ matches, or have them clumped together, because if you lose a couple of those in a row it can feel like the walls are crumbling down around you.
So ideally you want to have your ‘big games’ evenly spread throughout the season, probably no less than three matches apart, because if you lose one you can get back to winning ways in the next match, to avoid any theories of ‘slumps’ setting in.
Of course we saw that Arsenal fell apart in March for Arsenal this year against so-called ‘lesser’ teams, but that’s more of a debate for the mentality of the side and the way the manager sets them up, which is a discussion for another day and probably one I’ve done to death in 2017. For today however, and the ‘hypothetical’, the types of games you want in March are the away trips to teams like Newcastle, or West Ham, etc.
Then when you get towards the end of April you want the teams that are mid table with nothing to play for. The players aren’t as motivated, if your team are motivated by potential glory then you have the advantage and in theory at least, you should be able to overcome these teams. We saw it ourselves against Stoke and Southampton last season; traditional bogey teams for us, yet we managed to get what was two relatively comfortable victories in the end.
So whilst I do understand the “everyone has to play everyone” argument, I am firmly of the belief that with some teams there is a ‘right’ time to play them, although I am happy to admit that sometimes it’s down to chance. Take Watford in the season before last. I’m not sure anybody would have predicted that they would be in mid table towards the end of the season and therefore not scrapping for points with three or four games to go. Playing Watford at that time would have been perfect for a team fighting for something, but at the beginning of that season you’d probably say an away game at Vicarage Road with a couple to go would be a tough ask, because you’d expect them to be fighting for their lives. But actually their form earlier on in the season meant that they should have been easier pickings. Conversely, you might have thought that Leicester could be an easier opponent with a few to go, but in fact they were fighting for a title. So whilst my idea of ideal fixtures has some element of analysis in to it, I recognise that there is of course an element of chance, dependent on how the season plays out.
On a personal level I’d like to see us away to Burnley and Newcastle in the warmer months i.e. The beginning or end of the season. Those are away games I always try to get to for friends or family reasons, so I wouldn’t mind being able to take the Management there when it’s warm. But in reality it doesn’t matter too much.
What’s your preference for games? How would you draw up fixtures if you had the opportunity? Let me know in the comments.