No wins in our first five games. Not just an absence of victories but little prospect of a win. A short-lived equaliser in a battling performance away in Manchester the only bright spot before an all too predictable defeat. Knocked out of the League Cup before the end of August.

Not this season, of course, but rather the opening fixtures of 2018-19, our second in the top flight under Rafa. And it didn’t get any better. Game six was the most turgid uninspiring away performance I’ve ever seen at Selhurst Park, and there have been plenty of those to choose from. Only five games later did a highly fortuitous win at home to Watford lift the gloom after 10 games without a win.

As the familiar media accusations of unreasonable criticism of our “head manager” (or whatever he is) are directed towards us, it’s well worth taking a step back and comparing the beginning of that season with this one. To put it simply, does the criticism that Bruce has been receiving disregard the similarities to 2018-19 and show that this is personal and not based on performances? Or is there a fundamental difference between the opening five matches this season and those three years ago?

Let’s begin by setting the first five fixtures from 2018-19 against those in 2020-21.

2018-19
Spurs (h)          L 1-2
Cardiff (a)        D 0-0
Chelsea (h)      L 1-2
Man City (a)    L 1-2
Arsenal (h)       L 1-2

2020-21
West Ham (h) L 2-4
Villa (a)            L 0-2
Soton (h)         D 2-2
Man Utd (a)     L 1-4
Leeds (h)         D 1-1

What’s obvious is that our overall record is superior this season in terms of both points (a dizziness-inducing two rather than the solitary point of three years ago) and goals scored (six rather than four) – mind you, those triumphantly lauding our ability to score goals this season might want to hold off on the celebrations until we nudge ourselves more decisively above the one goal per game mark.

At the same time, this season emerges negatively from the comparison in three equally obvious respects. The first is the consistency of results in 2018-19 versus the volatility of 2020-21: four defeats by a single goal under Benitez (all by the identical 1-2 scoreline) as compared to a couple of score draws, a goalless away defeat, and two lop-sided defeats in which we’ve conceded four. That in turn points to the second difference, namely the porosity of a defence that has conceded 2.6 goals per game this season. To provide more context to that figure, our opponents have managed only 1.75 per game in their other matches this season. We are a soft touch.

Finally, the most important difference is the quality of opposition. Startlingly, those four defeats in 2018 came against four of the previous season’s top five. By contrast, we have managed to take two points this season against opponents who were ranked 6th, 9th, 11th, and 15th last season. Put these three aspects together – greater inconsistency, a substantially weaker defence, and considerably poorer opponents – and we begin to see the grounds for concern among supporters.

Those concerns only grow when we look in more detail at the performances underlying those results. This is not to say that the defeats in 2018-19 were not merited in terms of chances created. In particular, the losses to Chelsea, Spurs, and Manchester City reflected deficits in expected goals ranging from –1.3 up to –1.9. However, what’s most striking is the way that the relative xG scores this season consistently belie Steve Bruce’s narrative of ill fortune and positive performances. Consider, for example:

“2-1 up against West Ham but haven’t been able to see it through” = -–1.3 xG
“20 seconds away from beating Southampton” = –2.3 xG
“We played very well at a difficult place [Man Utd]: = –2.2 xG

On chances created we have deserved to lose every game this season, and comfortably at that. During the equivalent run three years ago, we can at least point to Cardiff where we had a positive balance of chances (+0.39). Most tellingly, our xG deficit in the first five games in 2018-19 was around –0.95 per game, whereas this season it has been –1.30, worse by a factor of nearly 40% against opponents of vastly inferior quality. In the league table constructed on expected goals, we are rock bottom, below even Norwich.

There’s a broader context here too. The two starts considered above are not isolated occurrences. Slow starts have become something of a speciality of ours in the last ten years. In 2012-13, the team that had finished fifth the previous season managed to win only 3 of their first 14 games. Two years later it was no wins in the first seven, and the following year only one out of the opening 10. In Bruce’s first season it was two out of the first 10.

In other words, as depressing as the opening five fixtures have been this season, they are not atypical. In fact, they’re all too familiar. You might even say they’ve become our expectation, certainly more so than the expectations lazily attributed to supporters. Of course, this is all an utterly damning indictment of the Ashley regime.

And that brings us to the final difference between 2018-19 and 2020-21. Three years ago we had a manager with a clear and coherent strategy who was fighting against the deliberate culture of mediocrity around him. That gave us hope, a belief that was justified in the second half of the season.

Now we have a manager who conspires with that culture, who has picked 18 different players to start in 5 league games this season, and who is much less clear now about his best team and formation than he was 94 games ago when he began. A manager whose record has worsened over time at every club he has managed, a manager who has never completed four seasons with the same club without being relegated.

And that is why we fear the inevitable after yet another false start to the season.

Matthew Philpotts @mjp19731