Arsenal's See-Saw Season: An Analysis

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How can we explain Arsenal's rocky season form? Today on the blog Abhisar Gupta takes a look at the numbers and assesses the Gunners' chances of qualifying for the Champions League next season.

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Arsenal have scored 40 goals in 20 games. That's second best in the League when we consider the normalised goals per game ratio (City have 41 but have played a game extra). The Gunners have conceded just 22 goals, which gives them the fourth best defensive record this season. That's not too bad, is it? Scoring a fair number of goals while conceding a limited amount should put a team close to the top. That's how the game works, right?

Well, it just isn't the case for the Gunners this season. At the time of writing, Arsenal's points tally (34) put them closer to Wigan (18) in 18th than Manchester United (52) in 1st! Yes, there's a game in hand and Arsenal's League position is much better than Wigan's, but you can see the point. With the number of goals these teams have scored and conceded a gap of 8-10 points at the top would seem more logical.

That's not it either. If you were to plot the prevailing perceptions regarding the Gunners on a periodic basis this season, the chart would have a sinusoidal look. The signings of Podolski, Giroud, and Cazorla brought a very strong wave of optimism in the summer. Late departures of Van Persie and Song took the graph straight back down.

Defensive stability in early games and a couple of big results prompted chatter about a title challenge - clearly premature it can be said with the benefit of hindsight - only for a string of disappointing defeats and draws to bring Arsene Wenger's future back into question as this became their worst start to a season under the Frenchman. After 15 games they were 10th with a win ratio of just 33.33 percent. Four straight wins after that pushed them all the way up to third.

Arsenal's Curious Form

The puzzling nature of Arsenal's season even has Wenger flummoxed:

“I find it difficult to analyse the players and to know what they are capable of. When you score seven goals in one game and only an own goal in the next one, of course it is hard. We have good offensive potential and that shows in some games. We are not consistent enough, though.”

My theory is that throughout the season certain big results - big in terms of score and not the nature of scalps - have obfuscated an inordinate number of problems at the club. Having said that, it's important to remain aware of the fact that no squad is ever going to be perfect. Even the likes of Manchester City, PSG, and Chelsea don't have 25 world class players in their ranks. There will be some average ones in every squad, more if the resources are limited.

Similarly, finding the right tactical balance is probably the toughest ask in the game. Despite years of success, often based on defensive solidity, Ferguson is finding it hard to keep things tight at the back this season. It can happen to anyone.

As long as a team is able to get the majority of results going the way they want, any or all weaknesses are acceptable. But in Arsenal's case this season, it's impossible for even the staunchest of fans to claim the season is shaping up as they want it to.

You might point to the goals scored and conceded by the Gunners as an argument that things are mostly right. It may be so but I have my doubts. Think of it this way - 57.5 percent of Arsenal's goals (23) have come in 20 percent of their games (4) at 5.75 goals per game. That means, in the other 80 percent of their games (16), the Gunners have only scored 42.5 percent of their goals (17). The average comes to 1.06 goals per game, almost half of the figure (2.0) when the big wins are included.

Take a look at the following table.

ArsenalPlayedWonDrawLostGoals ForGoals AgnstGoal DiffPtsPts/Game
All League 20 9 7 4 40 22 18 34 1.70
w/o 4 Best Results 16 5 7 4 17 13 4 22 1.38

If we take Arsenal's 4 best games out of the equation, their goal difference drops to 4 and points per game drops to 1.38. '0.32' seems like an insignificant number but not to those who understand the significance of the PPG stat. For the uninitiated, the simplest way to understand it is by looking at the impact such a drop would have on the League table. The Gunners would be 11th if their PPG had been 1.38 at the end of 20 games. On the other hand, if Wenger's side had accumulated 0.32 points per game more than they've done thus far, they'd be comfortably 3rd in the League.

It's safe to say 80 percent of Arsenal's League performances have been very average, to borrow a euphemism from their manager. Essentially, for four-fifths of their season, the Gunners have displayed the form of a team in the bottom half of the table.

Of course, taking out the best performances will always diminish the gloss off any team's efforts. But the extent of that drop is telling. We do the same here with both Manchester United and Bayern Munich, to take two examples.

Manchester UtdPlayedWonDrawLostGoals ForGoals AgnstGoal DiffPtsPts/Game
All League 21 17 1 3 54 28 26 52 2.48
w/o 4 Best Results 17 13 1 3 39 26 13 40 2.35
Bayern MunichPlayedWonDrawLostGoals ForGoals AgnstGoal DiffPtsPts/Game
All League 17 13 3 1 44 7 37 42 2.47
w/o 3 Best Results 14 10 3 1 29 6 23 33 2.36

I have only taken 3 games out for the Germans as they've played fewer games. It's slightly less than 20 percent but seems enough to make the point. Naturally, when we take the big wins out, both teams lose a lot in the Goal Difference column. Nevertheless, they still have healthy goals per game ratios (not included in the table). United only drop to 2.3 from 2.6 while the Germans come down to 2.1 from 2.6. Their points per game figure also comes down predictably but not starkly. Barcelona and other top teams around Europe will likely exhibit similar variations.

The vital observation here is that both these teams would still be top of their respective Leagues even with the lower PPG figures. Their lead would be cut but they won't face a drop like Arsenal would from 6th to 11th. Manchester City's points per game figure would drop to 1.95 if we take out their four best wins but that would still be enough to keep them in second place.

For Wenger's side, the big wins seem like an aberration to their overall form, but for the likes of United and Bayern they're like a more comfortable and enjoyable variant of their already winning performances.

Do not forget we are comparing these teams to themselves to gauge the difference in their general form and big wins. In the real world, if they did not win the four games in the manner that they did, the entire League table could be different as other teams would gain points and there could be a knock on effect. But the idea here is not to speculate on how the table would look, that'd be pointless. With the ceteris paribus assumption we get a fair idea of how a team's form in select games compares with its overall output.

There are fewer games in various Cup competitions but Arsenal's form has been similar. Big wins against small sides in the League Cup have, to an extent, deflected attention away from genuine issues. It created false hopes for a League Cup triumph but Arsenal were knocked out by a fourth division side in the quarter-finals. This was the first such occurrence during Wenger's reign. The Gunners also lost a home Champions League game in the group phase for the first time since their defeat against Inter in 2003. Swansea could still make it Arsenal's first exit at the third round stage of the FA Cup under Arsene Wenger.

Points Expectation

Once we start looking through the big wins for what they are - remarkable aberrations - Arsenal's performances this season don't impress and the problems cannot be rationalised away.

Arsenal's lowest total under the Frenchman is 67 points from the 05-06 season. The Gunners just about hung on to 4th place that time. Curiously enough, they had the same 34 points from 20 games in that season as well. 68 points in 06-07 and 10-11 is their next lowest tally. Again it was enough to secure 4th.

Extrapolating Arsenal's current 1.7 points per game to the 38 game season, the Gunners will only reach 65 points. I doubt anyone will say that'd be enough to reach Champions League qualification. What would be a safe number or just how many points do Arsenal need? That's a vital question.

The following table represents a few scenarios.

Pts/GamePredicted Points
1.7 65
1.8 66
1.9 68
2.0 70
2.1 72
2.2 74
2.37 77

The column on the right depicts the predicted points for the Gunners based on the points per game ratio that they achieve in the remaining 18 games. 1.7 is the current ratio and 2.37 is the best they've done under Wenger (in the invincibles season). The actual result could be higher or lower, and the chances of it being lower are higher!

An interesting aside here is that the Gunners did manage 2.44 points per game in the 97-98 season in the final 18 games to win the title after having just 34 points from the first 20 games. Somehow, I doubt 78 points will be enough to win the title this season but such a run of form will surely be appreciated by all Gooners!

As things stand, the Gunners have achieved 1.33 PPG in the 9 games against teams from the top half of the table. They've managed 2.0 PPG in the 11 games against teams from the lower half. Arsenal now have more games remaining against the better sides in the League than they have against the so-called weaker ones. Although the difference in the number of games is not that big in itself, it could be significant when we are considering the chances of Arsenal improving their form.

Unless two of the teams above them show a significant drop in form and no one below them catches up, Wenger's task is unenviable. It's made harder by the fact that there isn't a single dominant issue to solve. At the very core though, their issues are linked with the problem of balance between attack and defence.

The following table shows the win percentages of Arsenal and the top two Manchester sides when they've kept a clean sheet or just conceded one goal this season.

 Clean SheetsWin 100%1 Goal ConcededWin %
Arsenal 7 57% 6 33%
Manchester Utd 5 100% 7 57%
Manchester City 8 75% 9 56%

Normally, when the big teams keep a clean sheet you'd expect them to win the game. United have won all their games when they've not conceded. City also have a respectable record. Arsenal are winning just over half their games. On its own this might not have been a big deal because the numbers are small and percentages can quickly change but similar trends are repeated when the teams conceded 1 goal. These numbers provide reasonable support to the argument that Wenger's team lose attacking potency when they improve their defending.

The problem of balance is such that it cannot be solved with one or two changes in personnel or a simple switch of formations. Wenger started with Podolski as the central striker in the first game. Since then he's given a chance to Gervinho, Giroud, and Walcott. All of them have brought some qualities to the team but also their own set of limitations. Arsenal have also made certain subtle tactical adjustments over the course of the season. For instance, they started with a 4-4-1-1 shape while defending in the initial games but have since abandoned that. There have been times when one of the wide players has been given extra freedom to stay up the pitch. Pressing higher up the pitch hasn't worked for them even when there's been a conscious effort from the players. Defending deep has often left the team without meaningful options on transitions.

Final Thoughts

All things considered, finishing in the top four this season, if he can achieve it, is arguably going to be Wenger's biggest Houdini act yet. There are those who might say that just like the escape artist, the Frenchman is responsible for the bind he finds himself in.

That though, is a topic for another day.

 

 

Follow Abhisar on Twitter: @goonerdesi

And read more of his work on his blog Desigunner.wordpress

Keen student of the game, or so I like to think!