Manchester United and dangerous expectations

by Omar Soliman

Expectations are dangerous for football fans. Currently, there is so much investment in the Premier League that fans of the elite clubs feel almost entitled to trophies. The flip-side is that too much of what is deemed as success can lead to the the good times being taken for granted. United fans are no different and the season after winning the treble, there were grumbles the team had ‘only won the league’. How times change.

There is an argument that the pain of last season under David Moyes was just what the fans needed, a chance to sit back and remember what this great club stands for. There was a sense of pride in supporting a team that was suffering, a begrudging adoration and an admittance that you have to experience the lows to truly appreciate the highs. In fact, Moyes did very well in lowering expectations to the extent that consecutive victories and the odd point over a top six side looked like progress. United should have been aspiring to the likes of Manchester City and Liverpool despite being champions. Expectations were that low.

That was last season and right now it seems that no-one is quite sure how high the expectations should be. There has been a record outlay on the likes of Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao, an outlay that demands a top four finish. With Louis van Gaal we have a manager who has high expectations of his team and demands success. Then you have 43 injuries and you wonder what this team could do with a fully fit squad. Despite five wins in a row should the team be performing better?

Make no mistake, beating Southampton away to move into third was impressive enough as Manchester City and Chelsea are expected to be the top two this season. If that’s the case then wasn’t it weird to feel disappointed by the performance. Van Gaal certainly was and Gary Neville rightfully thinks that there is more to come from this team. Even then, United beat the third best team in the league at their own ground yet it still did not feel that rewarding.

Now for a bit of science and neurologists at Cambridge University have studied the effects of expectations and rewards based on dopamine. For those with only a basic knowledge of Chemistry, dopamine is the chemical that makes us feel happy. They found that the more expected the win was the less rewarding it felt and less dopamine was released.

Seeing United compete with the top two has been a welcome boost to the team’s development and demonstrates that progress is being made in a transitional season. For fans this means that a last minute equaliser against Chelsea and wins away at Arsenal and Southampton have been celebrated vociferously and felt very rewarding, especially after the travails of last season. That’ll be the dopamine kicking īn.

Winning while playing badly is a good sign for any team yet perhaps it would be best to keep expectations in check. After all, having a team that’s expected to win isn’t that fun, just let the good times roll.

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