Managing expectations: what football never does, and seemingly can’t ever do

By Tony Attwood

If you run a business, its one of the first things you have to learn: to manage the expectations your customers have.  If you don’t manage expectations and you allow your customers to expect far more than you can actually deliver for the price, you get complaints, demands for refunds, and legal action in the county court for supplying goods that have been falsely advertised.

As a result you spend far more time trying to solve problems that customers have imagined, and less time doing the things you should be doing – such as making sales.

The problem for football however is that expectations are not in the hands of clubs.  They probably were at one time – and indeed if you go back and read Arsenal programmes from the first half of the last century you’ll see expectations were in keeping with reality.  The club was positive, but realistic. But gradually the press and radio took over, and of course more recently TV and then the blogs.  Everyone can create expectations and then moan like mad if their club doesn’t reach them.

What makes it worse is that 99% or more of the commentaries are either invented and at best a magnification of a story.

For example the Daily Telegraph today runs with “Mourinho ‘given final chance’ by Abramovich” and one is bound to ask, “how do they know?”    The clue comes in a later statement that “Chelsea owner is said to be mulling over replacement for the embattled Portuguese coach.”   “Mulling over” is a little different from the implication of the first headline.

The problem for Chelsea supporters at the moment is twofold

a) There is an assumption that money can buy trophies

b) There is a belief that Chelsea have some sort of right to win trophies.

To a degree a) is true – money can buy trophies.  Man City and Chelsea had a long term history of only moderate success (Chelsea not winning their first league title until they brought in ex-Arsenal man Ted Drake as manager and he gave them the title in 1955).  Man City have only won the league four times (1936–37, 1967–68, 2011–12, 2013–14) to Chelsea’s five (1954–55, 2004–05, 2005–06, 2009–10, 2014–15).

But money is not an absolute guarantee.   Abramovich took over Chelsea in 2003, so has won the league four times as an owner in 11 years.   Not as good as Arsenal who won the league five times in eight years in the 1930s – and without anything like the financial dominance that Chelsea now have.

What’s more, as the earlier articles on the subject showed, even the more simple link between buying expensive players and success is not at all a certainty.  The figures we used in the articles on the subject suggested that only 25% of big purchase players make it in their first year, and even if given time only half of the mega-costly players live up to the high profile expectations.

If we turn to Manchester United there is a different issue.  They have been in the big money league through their successful world-wide marketing activities since the 1960s, and have also always been able to maximise the income from the large stadium.   But that has not automatically brought success.   When Man U brought in Sir Alex Ferguson in 1986 they had not won the league since 1967 despite huge crowds and loads of money.

In other words the assumption that money can buy trophies is only partially true.

But point b) above – the assumption that a club has some sort of right to win trophies is the more dangerous, because it can never be met.

As I have pointed out several times before there are three domestic trophies to win each season and in the last two years Man C have won two of them, Chelsea two of them and Arsenal two of them.  And yet, as we see even on this site, where we do try and ask for evidence to back up claims, there are often people who write in claiming that Wenger is useless and must go.   Seemingly trophies are no longer the issue – one has to win the right trophies.

So when we come to an analysis of Arsenal we now have

a) There is an assumption that money can buy trophies – and Arsenal have lots of it so should spend more and so win trophies.  (As the Venky’s said when they bought Blackburn, “How hard can it be?”)

b) That Arsenal have some sort of right to win trophies.

c)  That the FA Cup doesn’t count as a trophy any more.

Managers and fans can react in all sorts of ways to the view that their club has a right to win.   Mourinho, without citing anything remotely like the sort of refereeing statistics that we produce each week on Untold Arsenal, claims now that all the refs are against Chelsea.   The fact that Costa (despite all his previous) yet again escaped even an FA hearing, let along FA action after he was seen to kick out at Skrtel shows just how wrong his assumption is.

A further belief, which feeds into fans and only serves to take expectations upwards is the belief that changing managers will always help.   After Mourinho left in 2007 Chelsea had seven managers in six years.  And yes they had success – winning a trophy on average once a year.  A good run indeed.

Instead expectations are now completely out of control in football.   Jurgen Klopp, this month’s official nice guy, apparently said to the referee at the end of the game at Chelsea,  “They are asking me about the top four.” Clattenburg replied, “Welcome to England.”


16 Replies to “Managing expectations: what football never does, and seemingly can’t ever do”

  1. The problem with fans (of any club) is that we are usually far too emotional about our chosen passion and have wildly varying degrees of expectation which can also change from day to day or match to match.
    The only sensible and proven level of expectation is based on salary bill. Arsenal are the fourth highest payers (and lower than that if you include amortised transfer fees) and should therefore never finish above fourth.
    Wenger thus delivers at or above rational expectation every year while simultaneously planning in a new stadium (usually associated with relegation) and long term player development.
    Problems seem to arise when the actual management of clubs adopt the same unrealistic expectation.
    When they disregard logical expectation and seek to ‘live the dream’ there appears to always be an accident waiting to happen.
    All people associated with any club should always be very very careful about what they wish for. For one to succeed it means the vast majority must ‘fail’ and the odds are firmly stacked against any individual club.

  2. If you run a business, its one of the first things you have to learn: to manage the expectations your customers have.

    Having recently retired having spent the whole of my working life in sales at all levels, I discovered that the best word in your armoury was “” NO “”. If you never promise what you cannot produce you will have a better relationship with your customer and get repeat business . Promise the earth and don’t deliver and that man has gone. My first sales manager had a plaque on his wall which said “”The easiest thing to do is to lose a customer, the hardest is to get him back “”.

  3. If you wish to find a past master of managing the expectations of those who follow his business, look no further than Arsene Wenger.
    Year after year since he took charge of Arsenal FC, the fortunes of his firm have fluctuated between triumph and disaster, yet the supportive expectations have never faltered, season after season.
    It is typical of the man that an air of quiet confidence exudes with all the decisions he takes, confidence in the ability of each of the players he selects to wear the
    And it is this confidence that perpetuates the expectations of the vast majority of world-wide supporters of our great Club. 😉

  4. Mr Attwood, morning Sir. Expectations could be realised if supported with Prayers, focus, dedication to duty, hard work, endurance, perseverance and the hunger(will) to win/succeed. Which are the embodiment of discipline. I think Arsenal have shown to possess these qualities not only in the past years but also in recent years as they have displayed the quality of being a top class football club on the management level and on the field of play by finishing in the 4th place consistently for 19 years to qualify for the elites Ucl competition and also won the FA Cup back to back for the last 2 seasons. And look with more successes in the pipelines to follow this season. The right to have a good meal can be dictated by how much we have in our pockets. If we don’t have the good meal after we’ve spent handsomely for it, then ofcourse we have the right to complain. Man City, Man Utd, and Chelsea have been the big spenders in recruitment of new players in the last 2-3 seasons. And 2 out the trio have put delicious dishes on the table for their masters (who have spent big to eat better meals) at some points in the last 1-3 years to eat. And they deed eat. But, we all know the insatiable urge of human beings, especially the very successful ones among them to be: Give me another tumbler.

  5. Tony,
    So obvious and so well said; i wish all teams and coaches will adopt the point of view and drum it on their fans as some kind of mantra. perhaps, then, they’ll gain some room to focus on the more important matters in their clubs and, by extension in the national teams…

    Nonetheless, Mr. Mourinho, of all coaches had been the chief architect of pandering to unrealistic expectations of clubs’ fans and owners.The worst example of this was his video speech to Chelsea faithfuls upon winning the league last year. therein, he trolled all the club’s competitors for the coveted trophy painting them as having been less astute in their pursuit than himself.

    This is why, now, that football is reasserting itself to Chelsea as a game that respects no array of last year’s stars or or last year’s expert coaches or last year’s effective tactics but as a game that respects incremental tooling and re-tooling; of continuous management of tenuous player and team confidence; played by players and coaches steeped in acute superstition and capable of both great genius and stupidity all within a 90-minute space of time, Mourinho seem to stand alone as the the game metes him fresh and public lessons in humility and circumspection.

    I bet it must truly gall Mourinho today to consider that Wenger’s and Pellegrini’s teams that he mocked at the end of last season are today, tied in the first position on the league table and that Ranieni, with whom he had conducted a continuous battle has taken lowly and unheralded Leicester to the third position in his first year back in the premiership. Some would call this karma.

    Whether or not he stays in Chelsea, perhaps, going forward, Mourinho will show that he learned the lessons well and younger, cocky personalities who felt Mourinho had been setting worthy examples for future “modern” coaches will pause to ponder afresh.

    Expectation management ought to start with the coach – even if the club owners and fans act as if it is a four-letter word.

  6. In those days a fool would have been laugh at , at the very least or , tarred and feathered and hounded out of town on a donkey . Today this would be frown upon as detrimental to their mental faculties by psychologists ; undue cruelty to the birds and asses by PETA ! The village idiots in the meantime are breeding – very fast !
    Barnum and Bailey were right – there IS one born every minute ! Maybe even faster than that. Freaks and morons are being feted as the greatest thing since sliced bread . And what was the greatest thing before that ?

    In time past , if you didn’t know something , you tried your best to find the answer from a learned source . Now the wrong answers are at your very finger tips ! The internet is to the trough of knowledge as pig swill is to gourmet fare .

    Everyday at my clinic I see patients who have attempted to cure themselves of chronic ailments by finding alternate treatments , and ending with oftentimes irreversible complications . Leaves , shoots , barks , and others apparently possess healing qualities unknown to doctors and are guaranteed quick fire cures . But sorry , no money back guarantees ! The purveyors of these products aren’t the fools – just as the snake oil salesmen of old .

    It’s very sad really , when you try to correct these misconceptions and attempt to educate them that their ignorance and reluctance stop them form seeing the light of truth .

  7. ‘ Overthinking is a dream killer . Sometimes you can drown yourself in your own thoughts .’

  8. @ porter -November 2, 2015 at 10:05 am – That was a nice saying that he had . I have one at work which says , ” Trust your hopes , not your fears “. Works just fine for me .

  9. 2 quick questions to those that may refute the conclusions Tony makes:

    1) What do you EXPECT Arsenal to achieve this season?

    But more importantly

    2) WHY do you expect it?

    2 simple questions, 2 simple answers.

  10. That’s why I would like us to not talk about the title until game 19, when we are counting downwards. If we find ourselves at the top, then we can begin to expect. More like, Arsenal gets the three points, 16 games left. That would do be the world of good. Pray ye the Red Army at we get 3 points at the Allianz on Wednesday.

  11. Nice article Tony.

    I note today Costa will not be subject to any disciplinary response to his apparent lash out at Skirtel – no surprise there.

    Also, Dr Carneiro has presented papers in her claims against the Odious One – good girl!!

  12. If Dr Carneiro keeps the pressure on him chances are he will implode eventually under the pressure.
    Regarding Costa and Skrtel , two thugs together , shame they didn’t do permanent damage to each other. It was either both off or neither as they were at it throughout the game. Six of one half a dozen of the other.

  13. I must admit I have a full respect for Klopp’s criticism of the whole impatient journalism in Great Britain. And I simply loved this “a wife at home”-comparison.

    Here in Bosnia, we say for someone who is all in a hurry and disoriented as “a headless fly”. I would call it “the end-to-end journalism”. You can go from a hero to zero in less than 24 hours. You are either a king of the world or nicking for a living.

    @Jambug, I don’t refute what Tony wrote in the article but I will still reply, if you don’t mind.

    I expect Arsenal to give Manchester City a good scare for the title. If some things go our way, I expect us to exploit it and win the title.

    We have a team that has been built over the years by Arsene Wenger. Sometimes that process did look frustrating – I guess it could be compared with an attempt to teach your child how to walk by itself.

    In three-and-half years at Arsenal, Olivier Giroud has scored more headers than any other player in the league since his arrival. Theo Walcott – when he returns, that is – will give us a different option, a pace that intimidates the opponents and give the rest of our attacking department a lot of space to operate with. Add Danny Welbeck who has some qualities of both players as an extra option after The New Year and there are goals in this team.

    And just take a look at those cavaliers. Mesut Özil – who has been the best No. 10 in the league now that Mr Wenger acknowledged the constructive criticism from those Arsenal supporters who had written that playing Özil on the wing wouldn’t be a good idea 😉 – is literally a poetry in motion. I’ve called his style once “a ninja football” – it seems that he glides on the pitch without touching a single blade of grass while throwing goals and assists like shurikens.

    Then, there is Aaron Ramsey. Intelligence, quality, humility and pride.

    What is there left to say about Alexis Sánchez? His goals are the closest thing to Henry’s brilliance, a sudden inspiration that nobody had seen coming. He is essentially a Luis Suarez without either racism or strange biting habits.

    Francis Coquelin is the best defensive midfielder in the league. If Claude Makelele was (rightfully) praised, then Coquelin deserves a similar recognition. A Coquelin-position anybody?

    His partner Santi Cazorla is pretty much beardless Andrea Pirlo, an ambidextrous set-piece master with ability to create chances from the deeper positions. Once Jack returns, we’ll have a different quality in the midfield.

    Speaking of ambidextrous: had Aliaksandr Hleb ever taken a free-kick or a corner with his left foot during his spell at Arsenal? I recall him doing that during his first spell at Stuttgart.)

    We have a defence protected on the sides by the Spanish inquisitors that don’t ask questions. Hec and Nacho. You can’t find two players in our team that are so different yet so similar. No other team in the league has full-backs on their level. Just ask two of our own – Mathieu Debuchy and Kieran Gibbs.

    We have the best central defender in the league (Laurent Koscielny) and the most intelligent one (Per Mertesacker). And, when we need to play a higher back-line, there is a new and improved version of Martin Keown born in Brazil. Finally, there is an extremely talented Calum Chambers who still learns his stuff.

    And, I have to end this comment with a man that had mentioned the negative side of English end-to-end understanding of football a few weeks ago as something that has been a costly thing in Europe for years. A real gentleman, the one that didn’t allow his intelligence to be damaged during years of sharing the same locker-room with John Terry and Jose Mourinho. Yes, I know that people still have a bit of reservation to him because we all love David Ospina but nobody should try to deny the importance of Petr Čech in our great run of victories. Pick any game you want – either last five in the league or the one against Bayern in Champions League – and you will see how Petr made a crucial save. Čech is not just the best Arsenal goalkeeper Arsene Wenger has ever signed, he is probably going to earn the award of “The best Arsenal goalkeeper ever”.

    Yes, Manchester City and Manchester United have spent a lot more money than we have. However, their spending hasn’t been anywhere near ours in terms of wise planning. Their managers have already received the lesson or two from Arsene Wenger on the pitch in 2015 (three victories and one draw that was essentially a victory for us).

    Yes, expectation is usually what disappointment is made of. Sometimes, however, expectation is just the warmest expression of hope, faith and trust.

  14. Firstly I have to say from my own experience, that Gooners generally had a much better understanding of our place in the league before AWs success. Until 96 we may have been a bit ‘carried away’ with the FA Cup or even the league when we got to game 21 and were in the running, but although we had high hopes before Christmas, we didn’t expect to win either (OK maybe the Cup if we were doing well in the league, as we were a bit of a cup team). AWs success and the new fans that it brought in, are the ones with unbelievably high expectations.
    Secondly, you say it’s an English problem but have a look around the blogs and you’ll fully appreciate that the PL is now Global and the expectation comes from Asian, African Continental European and American fans.

  15. Tony, the other media “quote” that was doing the rounds this weekend was that AW had told Joel Campbell that the Swansea game was “his last chance to succeed at Arsenal”. I do not believe AW would ever say that to a young player; but why let the truth get in the way of a good story.

    On the inflated expectations theme, we all have big expectations for ourselves, but as we grow up we find the level and position that suits us and our capabilities.
    So too with our teams (in whatever sport) – there is no divine right to winning the League or CL – Gooners have seen successful teams in different eras – with fallow periods too. The current squad is now starting to win silverware again, and has the look of quality team which plays with style. What more could you want. Seriously

  16. Can any of these fine upstanding defenders of le Groan (we record that they’ve never come on here and shown the same level of support for Arsenal Football Club as for a AAA blog)respond to the understanding as complied by the likes of 7am Kickoff and others that ‘le “i dream of scribbling in aan oligarchs rag” groan’ has a consistent record of petty jingoism and xenophobia? Hint: the clue is in the name, “le groan”. Answer: They won’t, because they can’t.

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