Dec 022013
 

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:

0809

Well, at least Liverpool have won *a* league in the last 20 years

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?

Wrong.

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.

I'm an optimist. What of it?

I’m an optimist. What of it?

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.

  33 Responses to “The mythical ideas of what it takes to win the Premiership”

  1. Brilliant!

  2. Brilliant read. Agree with everything. I’m dismayed every week at how we aren’t considered contenders. Although Lineker on MOTD seems to be coming round.

    • Thanks. Linekar does seem to be realising that they are setting themselves up to look really stupid if this continues much further, and is trying to guide the lines from ‘They can’t win it’ to ‘I don’t think they will’, which at least gives them wiggle room.

  3. Man! you rock with your analysis. that is the best piece of material I have read after a long time.
    You should blog on footytube as well. and you should also post this on sky and bbc websites, those suckers should know that their so called pundits at MOTD are clueless of the game that they once played and are regarded by many as greats, ya right!

    Piece on brother.

    • Thanks – took a while to put together but was fun to. Has been spinning in my mind for a while – the emphasis placed on 5-6 out of 38 games is crazy.

      In a way, I understand the coverage by Sky, because they stand to gain a lot from promoting these games as critical. But they really aren’t.

  4. I like your theory but last season we were 16 points behind utd and only took 7 points from a possible 36 points against the top six sides a loss of 29 points over season. Going on last few seasons we need 3 wins or more to hit 40 points out of our next five games. We were consistent last season 36 points in first half of season and 37 points in second half of season if we match that this season we can win the league. Another one to highlight is the team with the best defensive record or concedes fewest goals has not necessarily won the the league .

    • We do need to do better in those games, certainly, but if you consider the top six to include Liverpool and Spurs then we’ve already got six points, and are therefore only a single point off last season’s tally. Surely we’ll do better this time.

      However, the other thing is that so far this season, all the rivals are dropping points all over the place, particularly away from home. As a result, we can make massive gains simply by winning the games they aren’t, and so far we’re doing exactly that.

  5. I do not give any much weight to these pundits. most of them are either ex Liverpool players or Spurs simpathisers – possibly bought off by daniel levy in his PR games. Claims by the likes of Michale Owen, stan collymore, jaime carragher among others against arsenal sound so ludicrous with each passing day yet they carry on lambasting and belittling the teams achievements. Ironically they turn a blind eye when crisis appear – as they often do at liverpool. On spurs, with a manager who splashed the cash like there was no tomorrow and is now under such obvious pressure – but you listen to the pundits whenever they have a reasonably positive result – ” they are genuine title contenders spurs – wow!”

    • It’s all a bit too much of a love in for me. You can be sure that if Redknapp were presiding over this Spurs run, they press would be a lot more sympathetic of the number of players they are trying to bed it. I just wish they’d try harder. I never thought I’d say this, but at least we have Gary Neville to provide some enlightenment.

  6. CLAP!CLAP!CLAP!…Nice analysis bro…
    At last someone who does a bit of intelligent writing for us fans to drool in this season…: )

    GoGunners4Eva

  7. I’ve always maintained that we draw too many but this season we have turned that around. We lost to Villa while playing to win and it was the right sacrifice where subsequent results have proven to have been driven by the right philosophy. We lost our home CL game to Dortmund because we played it like a Premier League game!

    Here’s one for you: I have never seen us lose a home league game (and before this season I went to many)…I am now a season ticket holder and have missed only the first match this year (because the seat was only acquired that week). I feel like a lucky mascot!

    • Lucky charm – excellent! The Champions League one is an interesting case – if any of the three contenders had drawn a couple of game, they’d be out now. That win in Dortmund was so important.

      • We don’t lose many at home Pete but it’s a great record to keep up. Hopefully I will still have it intact at the end of the season and we can have a party in Row 20 of Block 109!

  8. Best analysis I’ve read in a very long time. The truth is we’ll never win over those pundits…so why try? I remember Fabregas saying some years ago that he has never seen a team so hated. AVB can go on about a media agenda against him; but if there’s an agenda against anyone, it’s Arsenal. Those hating pundits just give their personal opinions which lack any sound basis.

    The fact that an Arsenal fan can make an unbiased argument strictly based on facts, and not blind loyalty, is dope in itself. We need people like you on TV!

    • Thanks!

      I don’t so much mind that the pundits give their own opinions – what frustrates me so much is their unwillingness to change them in the face of huge evidence. That doesn’t just go for Arsenal – they do it to others too. Hull are tenth but still written off, just like we are at the top of the league.

      They take so long to get with the present – almost to a man (Gary Neville being, once again, the exception), they insist that Ramsey, for example, has only been good this season, but he has been terrific since January – it has only been his scoring exploits that have made them notice.

  9. Best stat
    Good stuf

  10. I am a Chelsea fan. So I understand how I may be an unwanted company here but looking at the analysis I couldn’t refrain from commenting. We have December ahead of us and nevermind what the pundits have to say, by the time 19 games are done, we’d have a pretty clear picture of the title contenders like most seasons. The sifting has taken its time this season, for obvious reasons that have been ranted about by the pundits on how this will be the most unpredictable season of all in the EPL era. But it has come around now. Arsenal, with a 4 pt lead, is about as much any team could have hoped for at the beginning of the season come this stage. City has to play Arsenal and Liverpool. Arsenal also has Chelsea coming up and we ourselves have Liverpool to contend with. That’s your top 4 in the mix.

    My prediction: Arsenal to maintain at least a three point lead come New Years. And if history is anything to go by with, you guys should go on to win. The four fixtures above could also either set Arsenal through and make a real mess of chase for places two to four or make the top three clear with a big fight among at least 3 teams for the number four spot. As a Chelsea fan, I see Liverpool as the dark horses. They do not have CL to fight for and if they continue to be in the mix, come Feb-March, they could make a real dash for the title despite a relatively thin squad compared to the current top 3.

    • You’re very welcome here, especially making as much sense as you do.

      The Christmas period will be very interesting this season, and I suspect more of what you are suggesting will happen – Arsenal, Chelsea and City will come out of it looking like the only three that can make it. I agree that Liverpool’s lack of European distraction helps them, but I think that’ll only get them into the top four, I feel they are still too reliant on 2-3 players, and fail to win matches when those players dip in form. I know that feeling all too well – it has been exactly Arsenal’s problem for the last five years.

      But the three I mention seem a level above. Arsenal have an extraordinary array of talent in midfield and a much improved defence, City have a deep squad and matchwinners at the sharp end (their defence is their potential achilles heel, much like our lack of backup up front is), and Chelsea also have valuable depth, experience (and experience of winning) and a tactically astute manager.

      It seems crazy to think that United may go from champions to being outside the top four, but, as you say, thanks to Liverpool’s spaced out fixture list, that may well be exactly what happens.

  11. What a masterpiece of analysis you have there Pete! It is totally unsentimental & based on realistic instances. I dove my hat for you; Pete. Even a Chelsea supporter in Shashank agrees with you. Manuel Pellegrini; the Man City boss recently said, ‘If Arsenal keep on winning games, there is problem.’ I care no dine if Man City and/or Chelsea beat Arsenal so far Arsenal keep on winning; and that’s what they will continue to do. AVB said in October that Arsenal would start falling thenforth but now, Arsenal have increased the gap between them & Spurs to ten. If by January 1, Arsenal are still on top by any magin at all, biased pundits (e.g. Michael Owen, Rooney & AVB-if not sacked by then) will eat their words against Arsenal. Real. Arsenal is simply the best team in EPL this season considering the brand of football they display. In October, seven key players were on injury list yet they were still topping. Only RVP humm. Did i hear someone say ‘this is Arsenal year of glory?’ Yeah , you are perfectly correct.

    • It could be. I remember thinking after the Liverpool victory that our lead had stretched to the point that the United game that followed was a ‘bonus game’, in that a loss still kept us in a good position overall. Occasional losses don’t hurt, it is strings of draws and losses that do.

      I think a lot of the key is the depth of our midfield. A loss of form for one or two players would make us impotent in recent seasons, but it is fair to say that Cazorla (who we relied on last season), hasn’t really done much yet, but we haven’t needed him too. If and when Ramsey dips, we know that Ozil, Wilshere, Cazorla and even the likes of Rosicky can step in and make a difference. That is how we differ from previous years.

      Don’t get me wrong – Chelsea and City also have that midfield depth, but United very definitely do not anymore.

  12. This is a really fantastic article. And the truth in the article is borne out by how the best managers chase the win. The excting thing about the league this year is that there are three managers whose teams are chasing wins at the risk of the occasional loss to teams further down the table: Arsenal, City and Chelsea.

  13. Pete, isn’t it real that Arsenal has the best midfield in the EPL & followed by Chelsea; in dept in this department too?

  14. Brilliant and thoughtful analysis.

  15. Hi Pete

    I just wanted to say this is the best blog article I’ve read. It is everything that newspaper articles ought to be but so rarely are: interesting, well-thought out and backed by some great research. Well done.

    Paul French

  16. Cracking stuff Pete – this is where insightful analysis trumps over-reliance on pure stats!

  17. I love numbers. Brilliant article.

  18. Hi — great article.

    As an American, I’m curious to why you Brits get so upset about what “pundits” say about the team? Over here, we put up with these guys just to see the highlights, and don’t put much thought into it more than that.

    I watch MOTD every week, and those guys gush over Arsenal, but are hesitant to predict they’ll win the league. Which in my opinion is valid, since the season is only a third of the way through, and MC and Chelsea have a better track record recently.

    Anyhow, thanks again from a first-time reader.

    • It’s probably because American commentary you have the “announcer” or “host” and the “color” commentator. Even the “experts”, their job is to entertain. They make jokes, and give opinions.

      In British football, the “pundits” are expected to give unbiased analysis of the game rather than to give their (sometimes obviously) biased opinions. The people watching don’t necessarily want to be entertained, they want to know what team X did wrong and what team Y did right.

  19. The mini league becomes less relevant (it’s never irrelevant) only if one team is a much better flat-track bully than their rivals. Man Utd in 2008-09 is a convenient example you have chosen to make your point. But what about seasons like 2011-12 and 2009-10 when two teams pulled away and were very close to each other thoughout? Their results against each other become very important.

    Chelsea, for all their 103 goals in the league, would not have won 2009-10 if they hadn’t beaten all of Man Utd, Arsenal and Liverpool home and away. Man Utd finished a point behind Chelsea, they were winning some games that Chelsea weren’t but their inability to take a single point off Chelsea ultimately cost them. They were leading the table before Chelsea won at Old Trafford.

    In 2011-12, United lost home and away to City, and that did them in. Again, they were league leaders before they lost at the Etihad. After the loss they were level on points but the 1-6 had dented their goal difference too much (what if it had been just 1-2?) for City to worry about anything more than just winning the next two games.

    I agree that all that matters is consistency, wins, points. But when you have two (or more) equally efficient flat-track bullies fighting for the title, the results of the games between them becomes very important.

  20. […] Like I said in a previous post, winning the big games means little if you follow up those wins by dropping points against the lesser lights. After beating us, United picked up two points from their next four games and disappeared off the radar. Of course it helps to win these big ones, but consistency is more important. So far, City have lacked that. […]

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