With every passing week, every Arsenal win, every dropped point by a rival strengthening our position at the top of the league, it becomes more curious that the North London title challenge is considered unworthy, temporary and liable to fall apart at any moment. Inconsistency, a poor defence, a friendly fixture list – these arguments have been crushed by impressive results in the most testing period of the season thus far – so instead the focus is placed on the fact we are yet to face our two most likely rivals – Chelsea and Manchester City.
It is a fair point – we haven’t played either team. But how much stock should really be put on the order of the fixture list, when we are only a handful of games from the halfway mark and the point at which everyone has played everyone else? Will the league really be determined by these clashes? It is one of a few myths laid forward by television coverage, which makes sense since they stand to gain the most from the belief that such matches are the ultimate deciders.
Time for a deconstruction.
Myth 1 – The ‘Top 4′ mini league is the deciding factor
In the 2008/09 season, the top four was the (at the time traditional) ‘Big Four’ – Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United. At the end of the season, their mini-league looked like this:
Liverpool had an exceptional season, and we did pretty well too (except for our defensive record – we lost 4-1 at home to Chelsea and drew 4-4 with Liverpool that year). But who won the league? United, at a canter. Not only that, but they finished a mammoth 18 points ahead of us.
In case you think this is a statistical anomaly, and in that season United lost only against those rivals, think again. They dropped points to Everton, Villa and Spurs (5th, 6th and 8th), and lost to Fulham (7th). West Ham, in ninth, were the top team they did the double over.
So how on earth did they win the league? Simple. Their record against the top eight was appalling, but their record against the bottom twelve was nothing short of extraordinary. After drawing at (eventually relegated) Newcastle on the opening day, they went on to win all 23 of their remaining games against teams who finished 9th-20th. Against the bottom twelve, they picked up an ridiculous 70 points from 72.
I wonder if the pundits were writing off their chances that year, based on their inability to produce the goods in The Big Games™? If they did, they ended up with egg on their faces as United’s tally of 90 points hasn’t been matched since.
Consistency is the key. It doesn’t matter if your rivals beat you, if they drop points in matches you win. United and Arsenal are again the perfect example. Only a couple of weeks ago, United won at Old Trafford to close the gap from eight points to five. Fast forward two games, and both teams have played Cardiff and another team in the top half. Arsenal won both, United drew both and the gap is now an even wider nine points. Their victory is a hollow one, as the advantage gained has been eroded almost instantly. That is the most striking thing about United this season – in previous years they would ruthlessly dispatch the lesser lights, but now those teams don’t fear them, stand up to them, and take points from them.
Their malaise brings me neatly to the second myth…
Myth 2 – It is all about the unbeaten runs
You know what really kills title challenges? Too many draws.
I think most people would agree that United are struggling, but did you know that they are on a seven match league unbeaten run? Given our defeat to them just a few short weeks ago, we know that we cannot boast the same, yet our form is more effective because we are not drawing matches.
This was best highlighted a couple of years ago, during our annual “give Spurs a big lead, wait until they are sure it is Their Season™ and start to gloat, before watching them fold like diarrhetic origami as we surge past” trick. The sides played back to back on a Sunday afternoon, and Sky opened their analysis by looking at the form of the pair. The way they did it still sticks in my craw today. Richard Keys (yes, he was still there), said:
“Arsenal have lost three of their last seven, while Spurs are unbeaten in that time.”
I remember that sentence to this day. The implication was clear – their form was a lot better than ours, a conclusion that would be backed up with one look at the respective results. Right?
Spurs’ unbeaten run consisted of two wins and five draws (11 points), while our three losses were offset by four wins (12 points). We had a better points tally for the exact period Sky were talking about. Aside from the rather obvious slant on reality, it was a clear example of pundits not knowing (or not caring) about what actually matters.
It is all about the wins, wins, wins. Ahead of a pair of tough fixtures, I often hear fans declare that they would settle for a pair of draws. I wouldn’t. I’d much rather we won one and lost one, and took the extra point on offer for doing so. Occasional losses are perfectly acceptable when they merely punctuate a winning streak.
The only team that ever won the Premiership with a high number of draws was the Invincibles. Fun fact – eight of the nine winners since actually won more matches – Arsenal’s tally of 26 wins that season is a couple short of what it usually takes. Of course, that is a statistical anomaly because our draws replaced the losses of others, but you have to wonder if that squad could have set record tallies had they taken a few more risks, winning a few more games at the cost of also losing a few. However, had they done so, they wouldn’t have a remarkable and unprecedented (in the modern era) achievement, so it would be a bit churlish to complain.
So what are the keys?
- Don’t settle for a draw – risk losing to give yourself the best chance of winning. Like him or loathe him, Alex Ferguson knew this better than most, and United would rarely settle for draws under him. A point a game saves you from relegation, a draw every other game makes you Everton. This point is why I think Man City are a bigger threat than Chelsea – City attack with abandon and won’t draw many games as a result.
- Win your home games. I know I’ve mentioned United a lot in this post, but they feature in the perfect example of this. Three seasons ago, they won only five of their nineteen away games, a pretty pathetic record that Blackpool, who finished 19th that season and went down, matched. But they made up for it with a 18-1-0 record at home and won the league by nine points.
- Keep concentrated at the back. Saturday was the perfect example of a game that could have ended in a disappointing draw, but Szczesny pulled off a remarkable save at 1-0, preserving our lead, and giving us the platform to finish off the game. Chelsea did the same thing under Mourinho (in his first spell) to the extent that teams lost the belief they could ever score. It is a handy trick to have.
Are Arsenal on course?
I’m not going to sit here and say that we are going to win the league. But I am going to say that we can. We aren’t drawing matches (just the one so far), we’ve won ten games already (two more than anyone else), and since that opening day false start against Villa we have an unblemished home record. We have the joint best defensive record and have just gone through an extremely testing month conceding only a single goal, and that from a set piece.
The puzzle is coming together. If the others continue to slip on every banana skin they come across, it won’t matter what they do when they play us. Those matches, like the opinions of Hansen, Shearer and the other bilge merchants out there, will have become an irrelevance.