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We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.
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Finality sells, but only that day’s papers. A week ago at this time we were asking whether the press was right to declare an end to Arsenal’s title hopes after their embarrassing home loss to Stoke. Today, the same papers and pundits who definitively wrote them off last week are proclaiming, just as definitively, that their win over Manchester United has hurtled them right back into contention. Are Arsenal really back in the Premier League title race?
Maybe, but I seriously doubt it. They’re obviously not mathematically out of the chase, and a strong run of results combined with major slip-ups by Liverpool and Chelsea and a minor slip-up by Manchester United could see them finish on top. But that scenario is only marginally more likely this week than it was last week, despite their encouraging win over Man Utd.
The problem for Arsenal isn’t the points deficit, it’s the schedule. Six points isn’t all that meaningful at this early stage of the season. But Arsenal’s first twelve games made for their easiest stretch of the year, with matches against Newcastle, Sunderland, Tottenham, Bolton and all the promoted teams. After their win on Saturday, Arsenal are running seven points behind their tally from the same cluster of matches last season, when they earned 30 points from the equivalent matches (i.e., against the same teams in the same venues). Last season, these games were a vital source of points in the club’s third-place finish—they accounted for 30% of Arsenal’s schedule but 36% of their 83 points. If the same ratio holds this year, Arsenal will finish with around 64 points, which will not be enough even for fourth place.
I don’t expect them to do that badly. But to win the league this year, Arsenal will almost certainly need to improve on their 83-point total from last season. Running a seven-point deficit against that total on the easiest stretch of their schedule means that they will have to take that many more points against teams that are notably harder to beat.
And their rivals will have the buffer of more games against weaker opposition. If Arsenal can beat both Liverpool and Chelsea at home and draw with them away, Arsenal’s four-point gain would still leave them two points adrift of the league leaders. But in that scenario Arsenal have played four times and Liverpool and Chelsea have only played twice. If we fill in the missing games by giving Liverpool and Chelsea each wins against a promoted team, then Arsenal’s hypothetical run will only have netted them a point against both league leaders. And if they were to slip in any one of these four games, as they are very likely to do, they could find themselves having an outstanding overall record against the big four but falling even further off the pace of the team in the lead.
It’s important to note that this is just one way of assessing probability and that these conclusions aren’t written in stone: it’s entirely possible that Liverpool and Chelsea will both unravel and that Arsenal will find a way to improve dramatically. But based on the early indications relative to last season’s results—Liverpool are currently running well ahead of their prior-year totals and are on an equivalent-games pace to finish with more points than Man Utd had last season—the odds are stacked against each one of those outcomes, and Arsenal will need all three to happen before they have any chance of winning the league.
League tables are always deceptive, because while teams may have played over the same time span they haven’t necessarily played comparable schedules. It doesn’t matter when you get points in the Premier League, it matters where you get them and how many you get. And Arsenal have left too many easy points on the table to be talked about as serious title contenders after one (admittedly impressive) win against Man Utd.
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by Brian Phillips · November 10, 2008[contact-form 5 'Email form']