I’ve been reluctant to look too far ahead for obvious reasons but even the lads at Archant are dipping their toes into the water, so I may as well put in my two-penneth.
I’m talking of course of the club’s chances of making 2021-22 more than another single-season stopover in the Premier League. All caveated of course with a big IF.
Also, I should predicate all of what follows with a very valid view shared on Twitter at the weekend by Dan Brigham – co-founder of the Little Yellow Bird Project and, more recently, the club’s publications head honcho. Knows his stuff does Dan…
Hard to argue, isn’t it? Have we had more fun in the last decade than, say, Everton? Have Crystal Palace *really* enjoyed their seven (soon to be eight) consecutive seasons of Premier League toil more than we have enjoyed those same seven seasons of toing and froing?
Palace’s owners, directors and bean-counters have obviously loved every second, but the Holmesdale Fanatics have pretty much had to generate their own fervour rather than rely on their team to generate it for them.
Is that what we want?
Yet, of course, that has to be the aim and is the very reason Stuart Webber has meticulously formed a plan for Team Farke to enact over five(ish) years. If the club isn’t aiming to establish itself in the country’s top 17, then why are we doing it? And having achieved the first of their milestones – to be a top-26 club – then the next step is naturally to try, against all odds, to become the next Crystal Palace.
That has to be the aim. Has to be.
So, whether we like it or not, and however much we nip up at the thought of having to go toe-to-toe with Manchester City and co again, that’s how it has to be.
Dan’s yo-yo take is spot on, but there is no choice to be made.
But we yo-yo for a reason. Under the Webber/Farke umbrella, we’ve proven ourselves to be a bloody good Championship club. Dare I even say we’re too good for this division. A succession of opposing managers have deemed us the best side in the division by some way for a reason, and while this structure is in place and with the current key personnel in situ, it’s hard to see us slipping too far from that plinth.
The tricky bit is the obvious one.
Once upon a time, being a really good second-tier team would equip you nicely for a bash at the top tier, but that was a long time ago – back in the day when Piers Morgan was a mere (alleged) phone-hacker and before Sky had managed to get their grubby mitts on the national game.
But not anymore.
Some teams do, of course, succeed in breaking that first season duck, but their particular ducks do have to be in a perfect row, their planets have to be aligned, and their dollops of good fortune have to be plentiful, regardless of the depth of pocket of the respective owners. When those pockets are not deep and are, in fact, the shallowest of the shallow, then that challenge is even greater.
Which brings us neatly on to our chances of avoiding a repeat of 2019-20.
There was an interesting debate on Twitter earlier in the week, prompted by a thought-provoking piece from MFW’s own (I still call him that) Connor Southwell, in which he argued that City’s new-found defensive solidity will enhance their chances of doing a Sheffield United in year 1 (not year 2).
Connor: “In the last six seasons, only one team that has conceded the fewest Championship goals has failed to survive in the Premier League the following year. That was Middlesbrough back in 2016/17.”
And therein lies the core of Farke’s (and Connor’s) case when arguing this City side is, or will be, better equipped to tackle year 1 than their 2018-19 counterparts.
Worth reading in conjunction with this is Samuel Seaman’s MFW piece from yesterday in which he demonstrates, in practical terms, how City have sought to bolster that central midfield area that got so horribly overran last season, while also adding protection in wide areas when our full-backs have advanced.
As a collective, the defensive shape is better, the system is more refined and, despite losing Ben Godfrey and Jamal Lewis, there is now a more cohesive and organised unit protecting Tim Krul. I’d also argue that one of the key components of this change probably won’t be wearing a City shirt next season.
Webber has clearly put the feelers out with regard to extending Oliver Skipp’s loan for another season but given that Jose Mourinho ruminated on recalling him in the January window, then it looks a long shot. And where, given the expected size of City’s summer transfer pot, do we unearth another Skipp?
The answer is we don’t, at least not on a permanent basis, and so the best we can hope for is another quality loanee. That said, whoever he is, will be hard-pressed to have the impact on the team that Skipp has.
As well as being resigned to losing Skipp, there also has to be a realisation that even with promotion assured – if/when that happens – that one or more of our other starlets could fly the nest. Messrs Aarons, Buendia and Cantwell are all at the peak of their powers and with that comes a price tag that makes them ripe for those with the fat wallets, and therefore also ripe for being cashed in.
It is, after all, part of the model that we sell. re-invest, sell, re-invest…
The rights, wrongs and pitfalls of that approach are for another column on another day (and always gets me in far too much trouble) but for now let’s assume that is how it works and how it will work this summer.
If, for example, Max is the chosen sacrificial lamb – as my notoriously unreliable gut tells me he will be – then that defensive solidity immediately takes a hit. It would take a brave coach to hurl Bali Mumba, the heir apparent, straight into the fray and an even braver one to rely on the fitness of Sam Byram. But to lose Emi and/or Todd leaves an even bigger hole(s) to fill.
To lose Max and one of those two would create a major headache for Webber, if it hasn’t already, but it’s clearly a scenario that will have been modelled and hopefully mitigated against.
Crucially, if Emi were to depart then so too does a creative and productive force in the team that, on the face of it, looks almost impossible to replicate. His assists, his goals, his energy; all irreplaceable as the stats remind us.
In a recent piece in The Athletic, the Emi-effect was spelled out in numbers. Since his arrival, with him in the team, City have a win percentage of 49%; without him 6%. The average number of goals scored per game with Emi in the team 1.7; without him 0.7.
Do the maths.
And so while the departure of Max would be a tricky, but not impossible, one to contend with, to try and plug a five-foot-seven shaped hole in readiness for a Premier League is an altogether different matter.
All the defensive solidity in the world won’t help City at the other end of the pitch when it comes to that most precious and prized footballing quality of them all.
So, while there is plenty to be optimistic about and plenty of reasons to be cheerful, including having a defence that’s as Premier League ready as it can possibly be in the circumstances, the task that awaits Stuart Webber is every bit as tricky as it was in the summer of 2019.
He does have, however, one thing tucked up his sleeve. Something that doesn’t come with a price tag. Something that money can’t buy. And that’s a full season of Premier League experience for the majority of this squad.
That said season was filled with hurt and horror may, just may, count in the club’s favour, as not one player in that squad will want to relive even a second of what happened in Project Restart. Equally, the few good bits, like that never-to-be-forgotten evening when Man City were in town, will serve as a reminder of how good it feels when everything clicks.
Who wouldn’t want more of that?
So, jumping the gun I may be, but let’s squeeze every last drop of joy out of the spring of 2021. In terms of fun, this is just about as good as it gets.
Then once that transfer window re-opens it’ll be time to fasten our set belts. And for Stuart to turn his phone off.
While you’re here…
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