“Who cares? You play everybody twice whatever happens…” is the usual crying call from many at around 8:45am on the morning the Premier League fixtures drop.
Some live for the moment, eager with anticipation to find out who their team will face on the opening day of the season. When will their local derby be? Who will they face off against over the traditional (and busy) Christmas period? Who will they need to sweep aside on the final day to win the league or to beat the drop?
It’s true, you do play everyone twice. Whether you’re Manchester United or newcomers Huddersfield Town, you will play the other 19 sides home and away over the course of the season. But to suggest it’s as simple as that would be wrong, especially when you look back at how last season panned out – and so many seasons before that.
There are many variables that shape a Premier League season, those teams who play on a Tuesday/Wednesday/Thursday in Europe will instantly be looking at who they face before/after long trips around Europe. Some will draw the short straw and end up with tough away games after European exploits, while some will be thankful for home comforts.
Tottenham and Manchester City in the Champions League, and indeed even Manchester United in the Europa League, had identical records after their respective European group stages last season. Each only picked up two wins, with two draws and two defeats. Arsenal fared better, they didn’t lose after any of their group stage games but did draw two of them.
Some teams were probably thankful to be facing Jose Mourinho’s United towards the end of the season. With the Europa League the priority, United threw away points in the final months of the season, with weakened teams winning just one of their final six league matches.
Arsenal as ever ended the season strongly after their usual mid-season collapse, any team will be looking at their final six fixtures and hoping Arsenal aren’t in it on that basis. But if you see Arsenal in your fixture list in November or December, you’ll be feeling much more comfortable about walking away with a positive result.
Anyone is prone to succumbing to mental fatigue, Arsenal went 14 matches unbeaten after their defeat to Liverpool on the opening day, but a loss at Everton was then followed by a loss at Manchester City. Five wins and a draw later, defeat at home to Watford sparked three more losses in their next four league matches, all but ending their title and top four hopes.
Manchester United probably felt the same after they lost at home to rivals Manchester City in September. After winning their first three league games, defeat at home to Pep Guardiola’s side was followed by defeat at Watford just a week later.
Speaking of Watford, it’s a similar tale at the bottom of the league. Whilst Walter Mazzarri’s side were inconsistent during the first half of the season, they picked up impressive wins over Leicester and Everton as well as their already mentioned victories against Arsenal and United.
But if you’re looking at your final few fixtures on Wednesday morning, you’d probably be happy to see the likes of Watford, West Brom or Stoke City in there. With safety almost assured, Watford lost their final six league games of the season, whilst Tony Pulis’s West Brom picked up just five more points after hitting the 40-point mark in February.
Just one more win would follow in their final 12 games of the season – two draws and a staggering nine defeats before the season ended in May. Some variables you have no control over, like the famous ‘new manager syndrome’.
Leicester were the perfect example of that last season, they were easy pickings for anyone who faced them before Claudio Ranieri was sacked. But once that was out of the way, the Foxes won their first five league games in a row under Craig Shakespeare, with Liverpool the first to fall foul of the new manager. With Champions League football coming down to the final day for Jurgen Klopp’s team, you can’t help but feel it would have been secured a week in advance had Ranieri been sacked a week later.
It wasn’t quite as smooth for Crystal Palace, they struggled initially under Sam Allardyce but picked up six wins from eight between February and April. But like some of their rivals, once safety was assured, the club sat back and lost four of its last five matches.
Swansea and Hull had similar success stories after hiring Paul Clement and Marco Silva respectively, the former won on the day Clement was hired before winning four of their next six and went unbeaten in their final five games of the season with top tier football at risk.
While Hull continued to struggle away from home, it looked for a while as if Silva was going to pull off a miracle on Humberside, winning six of his first seven home games in charge of the Tigers.
With so many variables across the length of a football season, it would be wrong to suggest that what the computer throws up on Wednesday morning has no bearing whatsoever on the destiny of the Premier League season.
Follow Rich Laverty on Twitter @RichJLaverty