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It’s an entertaining pastime but divining the future so early in the season has often proved to be a fool’s game
In mid-October, Ange Postecoglou was asked how it felt to have reignited the Scottish Premiership title race. His Celtic had just beaten Motherwell away – their second straight win on the road – and Rangers had dropped points at Ibrox, cutting the gap at the top from six points to four. That was round nine of 33.
Three weeks earlier – in round seven – the media had already effectively awarded the trophy to Rangers following the Hoops’ home draw with Dundee United. So when a journalist at Fir Park posited that the table must now look more attractive, Postecoglou was sharp.
“I thought the premiership race was over, mate, so I’m not looking at the table anymore,” he said. “We are just kind of doing our own thing and it’s of zero significance for us.”
His truculence aside, Postecoglou taps into one of the most irrelevant but also satisfying phenomena in domestic football: the premature prediction. And it is playing out right now in his old stomping ground, the A-League Men.
Sydney FC are on the slide, Western Sydney are a shoo-in for finals and Melbourne Victory, who were “back” by virtue of having not conceded a goal all season (two rounds), are no longer after a 3-0 defeat on Sunday to Perth Glory, who are now themselves “back”.
It is true that this may all ultimately come to pass. Steve Corica’s Sky Blues dynasty might be shaking under the ageing legs of a dad’s army who finally rediscovered their attacking spark against Newcastle but still chucked a two-goal lead onto the street outside Jubilee Stadium (suspect VAR cameo aside).
The Wanderers, currently sitting fourth after Friday’s 2-0 win over Wellington, could yet bounce around the table before settling for eighth as they did last season. Carl Robinson could be gone by Christmas, or he could experience “redemption”. The only way for Victory is up after last year’s unprecedented self-immolation and wooden spoon, but Tony Popovic is known for slow starts and gradual improvement.
“It hasn’t been the best start, but it’s two games,” Corica said after last week’s surprise loss to Macarthur (who, incidentally, are top despite their seemingly inherent volatility). “We got a draw and a loss. It’s a long way from the end of the season yet.”
Should we all take note and calm the farm? Or is this a bit too much fun? To have it all sorted in your head and then be grossly mistaken. To not have catered for injuries or refereeing calls or Daniel Sturridge’s sullen face in the stands watching a small-time journeyman do his job for him. No one expected Antonee Burke-Gilroy – with his expected goals probability of 0.02 – to score a belter off his weaker left foot and then add an assist.
Likewise, we did not anticipate the indefatigable Melbourne City would be swallowed up by the mid-table. Never mind that that is exactly where Patrick Kisnorbo’s side were at this time last year before sinking to ninth and then charging back to claim the premiership-championship double.
And how about those Newcastle Jets? They’re down in 10th but we do rate Arthur Papas and also that Valentino Yuel is quite good isn’t he (the league’s top-scorer – after three rounds)? Does this sound skittish yet?
The fact is that early season predictions are about as dependable as toilet paper on a supermarket shelf.
After the 2015-16 Premier League season, won by 5,000-1 rank outsiders Leicester, Arsène Wenger foreshadowed an end to the days of the traditional top four.
“Let’s go to the start of this season,” said the former Arsenal manager, “the predictions were, one: Chelsea will win it again. Two: Man City. In the end, any pundit who would have predicted Leicester would have lost their job. But what happened with Leicester can happen again because every English team can buy players.”
Chelsea won the following season, and City three of the four after that. The top four has changed a bit – Liverpool have risen inexorably, Arsenal have fallen ignominiously and Manchester United have flipped and flopped. Does this make his prediction sound or not?
The A-League, with its salary cap and lack of promotion and relegation, is a fundamentally incomparable beast. Still, it was that same 2015-16 season that Guillermo Amor’s Adelaide United were bottom on three points and without a single win. By November the punters were calling for his head. By the end of April United had won 13 of their next 18 games to finish top and then win the grand final.
What does this all mean? Should we pretend football is like the Melbourne Cup and blindly back the horse with the cool name? Or should we pore over the form guide and claim we have all the answers? Really none of us do – not even the coaches – but that is half the pleasure.