Earlier this week, I came across a short think piece by the Israeli writer Ouriel Daskal on Soccerissue, in which he discussed the importance of a good start to a season for a team. His conclusion may come as a surprise. "How important is a good start for the season? Not too much," Ouriel says.
This seems to run counter to conventional wisdom, which maintains that getting off to a good start is crucial. Football folk will even automatically add an "obviously" when you ask them about this matter, as in the stock reply we all have heard a hundred times: "Obviously it's very important for us to get a good start."
But is it really that obvious or that important? Ouriel's got a few examples up his sleeve that suggest it isn't. "In France, Lille won the double two seasons ago despite not winning their first four games of the season," he writes. "Milan won the Scudetto in 2011-12 despite winning just once in their first four games."
It also works the other way round. A few teams from various European leagues come to mind that didn't merely start well but were downright majestic in the early stages... and then couldn't go all the way. In 1985, Manchester United won the first ten games of the season but finished only fourth. Five years later, Liverpool won the first eight - and 12 of the first 13 plus one draw - yet were pipped to the title by Arsenal.
In the Bundesliga, there are three teams that hold the record for the best start to a season: Bayern won the first seven games in 1995-96, Kaiserslautern in 2001-02 and Mainz in 2010-11. None finished first - Dortmund, strangely, lifted the title each time. Actually, only Bayern even seriously challenged for the championship in their record season, as Kaiserslautern ended the campaign in question in seventh place, while Mainz came fifth.
The good news for clubs with less lofty ambitions is that a bad start may also be less important than one thinks. Last year, Hamburg lost five of their first six games and Freiburg racked up eight defeats in their first 11 matches. Both are still playing top-flight football. And the season before that, Stuttgart lost six of their first seven games and Schalke lost five, but both teams eventually finished out of the relegation zone.
Then there is the team that holds almost every Bundesliga record for futility and incompetence - Tasmania Berlin, who were relegated in 1966 having scored only eight goals in 34 games. However, one record they do not hold is that for the worst start to a season. In fact, Tasmania won the very first game of this campaign from hell and were probably quite happy with their start. (They had no way of knowing they would have to wait nine months for the second, and final, victory.)
The worst Bundesliga starters I could find were Fortuna Dusseldorf, who dropped six straight to open the 1991-92 season and, yes, were relegated. (A member of that team, by the way, was a certain Michael, better known as "Mike", Buskens, who's now coaching promoted Furth and has already managed to avoid getting off to a truly bad start by leading the team to their first ever Bundesliga win a week ago.)
But if you lose only one game less to start a season than this early 1990s version of Fortuna, your chances of turning things around are actually quite good! Of the seven teams I could find that opened a campaign with five straight defeats, four ultimately stayed up. The three that went down are Oberhausen (1972-73), Dusseldorf (in that record season of 1991-92, of course) and Rostock (2007-08). The four that laughed in the face of popular wisdom and avoided the drop are Karlsruhe (1963-64, the league's inaugural season), Dusseldorf (1976-77), Nurnberg (1981-82) and Mainz (2005-06).
Actually, Mainz even managed to finish the season that had begun so disastrously in a respectable 11th place. The man who coached this team, incidentally, was a certain Jurgen Klopp.
Or maybe it's not so incidental. When you talk to Klopp about the ups and downs of his managerial career - and there have been downs, don't forget that he got relegated with Mainz in 2007 - he often mentions that, unlike almost any other manager you care to name, he has so far never ever been in a position where he had to fear for his job.
And it's true. On the day after that fifth defeat in the fifth league game of the 2005-06 season, Mainz's business manager Christian Heidel said: "This is a difficult time and we will brave it out together. We will keep absolutely calm, as we see no reason to panic. Every once in a while, you'll have bad runs like this one."
Heidel was saying that, for Mainz, losing the first five games was by and large the same as losing five in December or February. By the same token, winning the first seven matches five years later didn't fool him and the rest of the club into believing they were now in a serious race for the title. In other words, for a stable, sober club like Mainz, having a particularly good or a particularly bad start to a season indeed isn't that important.
But there are clubs where it's different. A good case in point are Hamburg, who have started the current campaign with three straight defeats, two in the league and one in the cup against a lower-division team. Even before that second Bundesliga loss, panic had clearly set in, as the cash-strapped club suddenly found €17 million to sign two new players shortly before the transfer window closed.
The club's director of football Frank Arnesen denied charges that these were panic buys triggered by the team's bad start, saying: "We would have liked to have these players with us earlier, but we couldn't because there was no money a month ago. That's football." What he didn't say was that the money for those transfers had suddenly materialised because the local businessman Klaus-Michael Kuhne once more agreed to help the club he loves. And chances are he wouldn't have done so if Hamburg had won the cup tie at Karlsruhe and then the home opener against Nuremberg.
Because those two defeats didn't really come as a surprise, they merely served to confirm misgivings that had been simmering beneath the surface all along. Despite the club's reassurances - "This is going to be our year!", coach Thorsten Fink told his players before the cup debacle - supporters and journalists alike had been very sceptical about the team's chances.
That's why it was ("obviously") very important for Hamburg to have a good start to the season. Not getting it has proved to be costly in a very literal sense and could come back to haunt a club that had planned to get its finances in order by saving instead of spending.
However, one of the panic signings Hamburg made was that of fan favourite Rafael van der Vaart, whose return had been rumoured many times before. If the Dutchman delivers what the fans expect, they will look back on that drubbing at the hands of a third-division team and say this awful start was the best thing that could happen. But that's another theory.