The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.
We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.
Now we walk the forgotten byways of football with a lonely tread, searching for the beautiful, the bewildering, the haunting, and the absurd.
Normally I wouldn’t pay a lot of attention to claims made a quarter of the way through the season that a big-four team only two games behind the leaders was out of the race for the Premier League championship. I’d think it was media hysteria and expect it to be forgotten as soon as the team won a couple of games and one of their rivals dropped some points at Bolton.
With Arsenal, however, things are a little more complicated. After looking at their possible routes to the title after their loss to Stoke City last weekend, I’m inclined to agree with the consensus in the press that their odds of ending their championship drought this year are extremely slim, even though they’re only six points behind Chelsea and Liverpool at the moment.
The trouble for the Gunners is that they’ve played arguably the easiest portion of their schedule, and are dramatically underperforming their results against the same teams last season. This season, they’ve accumulated 20 points in matches against West Brom, Fulham, Newcastle, Blackburn, Bolton, Hull, Sunderland, Everton, West Ham, Tottenham, and Stoke City, which means they’ve dropped 13 points in 11 matches, all of which they might have been expected to win. In the equivalent games from last season (i.e., matching home games to home games, away games to away games, and substituting last year’s promoted teams for this year’s), Arsenal scored 29 points, dropping only four from the same 11 games.
Now, that’s not an entirely fair comparison, because this year’s promoted teams (Stoke, Hull, and West Brom, all of whom Arsenal have played) are generally stronger than last year’s promoted teams (Sunderland, Birmingham, and Derby) and because the big four in general have been slightly worse than their equivalent records last season. Last year Manchester United took 23 points from matches they’ve taken just 21 points from this year, and Chelsea, somewhat surprisingly, took 29 points from matches that have brought them only 26 points this year. Only Liverpool, currently running four points ahead of their expected results based on last season, beat the trend.
The bad news in these numbers for Arsenal is that the point drops for Chelsea and Manchester United can almost entirely be explained by the resurgence of Liverpool, whom Arsenal haven’t played, rather than by the improvement in the promoted teams, whom they have. Man Utd lost to Liverpool at Anfield this year, where they beat them last year, and Chelsea lost to Liverpool at Stamford Bridge, where they managed a draw last year. But against the three promoted teams, the rest of the big four have four wins and one draw, where Arsenal could only manage a win, a draw, and a loss.
What this means is that if Arsenal are even going to equal their point total from last season—and to win the championship, they’ll probably need to surpass it—they’re going to have to do significantly better in a significantly more difficult part of their schedule. They’ll more than likely have to have a better record against the rest of the big four (including Liverpool, who, again, have improved where Arsenal have declined) than any of the other big four teams will. And they’re behind in getting there: all three of the other big four teams have already played two matches against their big-four rivals; Arsenal’s first doesn’t come until this weekend, against Man Utd at the Emirates.
Arsenal are currently running nine points behind their own record last season, when they finished third in the league. Two be competitive in this year’s title race, they’re probably going to need to run 12 to 15 points better than their record from this point on, and, again, they’re going to need to do it against teams that are harder to beat. (In addition to the big four, note the absence of teams like Manchester City and Aston Villa from their schedule so far this year.)
Since they’re unchronological, these kind of equivalent-match comparisons leave out a lot, like injuries and runs of form, but they provide a clarifying context in which to understand a team’s relative performance, since at any given point in the season, especially this early, rival teams have played schedules of varying difficulty. (Chelsea fans, for instance, might want to be cautious about celebrating their league position.) Even if you dismiss these numbers, though, the fact remains that Arsenal have played the easiest schedule and produced the worst performance of the big four, that they will only catch their rivals by winning more from a relatively harder series of games, and that each one their rivals can stay ahead of them simply by turning in the same sorts of performances against a weaker set of teams.
I really hate to say this, but look for the questions about Arsène Wenger’s job security to get louder between now and the end of the season.
by Brian Phillips · November 3, 2008