We have seen over the years what the crushing weight of expectation has done to teams. Few could argue against the notion that we, as a fanbase, have become spoiled over the years, winning everything going including the top domestic prize four times in just a few years. How many times have you been sat in the West Stand and heard "this is nowhere near good enough" or "this is not what I pay my money for"?
Expectation. Liverpool. The funniest (to us) aspect of their grand delusions is their delusions of grandeur. They still expect to win trophies every season. We know they will spend their season trying and probably failing to get into the top four, whilst in their minds they are one of the favourites for the title. They honestly believe they will hold onto their top class players when the elite clubs come knocking, purely out of loyalty and sporting ambition. The press is filled with stories about how they are going to sign X or Y world class international superstar, and their fans truly believe the lad will ditch Real, Barca, Bayern, Juve etc to go there. It’s hilarious.
Don’t know about you, but I’m not laughing any more.
Missing out on elite European football for us this season has been a catastrophe. We are no longer one of the elite clubs in the UK by that metric at least. How long this exile lasts is anyone’s guess but with a Jose Mourinho-managed Man United, a Pep Guardiola-managed Man City, a good side in Arsenal, a very much on the up Tottenham and (dare I say it) a not very far away Liverpool all very much in the running next season, we cannot take anything for granted. And that isn’t even counting Champions-in-waiting Leicester, a very solid and well managed West Ham side plus a good Everton side which will invest heavily in the summer. There will be nine teams who will be realistically wanting/expecting to get into the top four next season.
Expectation is a dangerous thing. How many truly world class players do we have?
Costa, Courtois, Azpilicueta, Fàbregas, Oscar (Brazil think so even if we do not) and Hazard. Of those, only Fàbregas and Azpilicueta is likely to resist one of the huge elite should they come knocking. With the greatest of respect, why would any of the others stick around for no European football and the very real prospect of longer than a year away from the European top table? And this at a side mired in controversy and media hysteria, where they have to defend and track back, get kicked off the park every week but disciplined harshly if they react. In Costa’s case I think he loves the club but the media always get their man and the witch-hunt will hound him out eventually.
So we get a gazillion quid for them, what then? Who will replace them?
There’s that Liverpool style delusion. Griezmann? Pogba? Cavani? Sánchez? Icardi? Ibrahimović? Stones? Isco? Rodríguez? That’s Playstation territory. In pure sporting terms while we may wish money can buy everything, where players of this calibre are concerned, it likely cannot. We have little chance of signing these sorts of players without Champions League football. We have an even smaller chance of keeping them if we spend more than one season out of the Champions League and don’t mount a serious title challenge. World class players don’t get you into the Champions League, they are supposed to keep you there. Ours just didn’t do a very good job.
We couldn’t attract these luminaries last summer when we had the money and Champions League football to offer, what makes anyone so sure we can do it now?
It isn’t impossible. Certainly we are in a better position to sign top talent than Liverpool, West Ham, Everton and probably Tottenham. Yes, Antonio Conte is one of the world’s elite managers. Clearly being in the greatest city in the world and having a gargantuan global brand and fanbase also helps. We also have the possibility of paying top level wages to anyone who comes in, above and beyond anyone else outside the top four in England, even if we will have to be much more frugal without the revenue we are missing out on (and may well do again after next season if things do not go as planned). I’m saying attracting and keeping world class stars in our position isn’t as easy as people think. Will we have to? The answer has to be yes.
Everyone seems to think there will be no fire sale at the Bridge this summer but I wonder how much of that is arrogance. How many better keepers could be available on the market than Courtois? How many finer wingers than the mercurial Eden Hazard? How many more prolific, deadly strikers than Costa? And of these, how many are easily gettable? Not many. And if and when the big bids come in, who really expects us to "do an Everton" and keep a player regardless of what is offered even against their will? We have a new stadium to pay for and books to balance. Conversely, does anyone really expect the likes of Courtois to turn down more money, European football and a chance of winning the top trophies just because…? When the bids come in, business will surely happen and the market will know that.
The club has been quoted as saying recently that there will be no mass transfer market activity in the summer. The media are led to believe the club feels the talent is there and it is matter of leadership. I do wonder if they actually believe that, and that we will knock back all bids for our top stars this summer who will all be fine with it. It would be classic Buck/Emenalo/Granovskaia to hold this view and not to bother identifying replacements until the start of August when all the top players (including ours) have made their moves…
So back to expectation. Expectation is a dangerous thing. There seems to be a lot of it right now. That our top players will stick around. That we will walk back into the top four and be title challengers next season. That we can attract world class players to spearhead this, despite the issues raised above. That this season was a blip and that we are not going to spend a prolonged period stuck in mid table mediocrity. That the chronic mismanagement at the club won’t affect us moving forward and that they have done their worst.
My expectation is that when we eventually get back into the top four it won’t be world class stars who get us there, and that it may take longer than many are expecting.