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Does one player make all the difference?

By Tony Attwood

There was a really interesting piece in the Guardian recently which claimed that “the power of one is overhyped.”   The theme is that we all too easily think that one man makes a team – but as we try to investigate the statistics surrounding the issue, we don’t find this to be the case.

If we look at where we are today and compare with the same moment last season we see this …

Last season:

POS LP CLUB P W D L GF GA GD PTS
1 (1) Manchester United 29 22 4 3 73 27 46 70
2 (2) Manchester City 29 22 3 4 71 21 50 69
3 (4) Arsenal 29 17 4 8 58 39 19 55
4 (3) Tottenham Hotspur 29 16 6 7 53 35 18 54
5 (5) Chelsea 29 14 7 8 49 34 15 49

This season

POS LP CLUB P W D L GF GA GD PTS
1 (1) Manchester United 29 24 2 3 69 31 38 74
2 (2) Manchester City 29 17 8 4 51 26 25 59
3 (4) Chelsea 29 16 7 6 58 30 28 55
4 (3) Tottenham Hotspur 30 16 6 8 51 37 14 54
5 (5) Arsenal 29 14 8 7 55 32 23 50

Last season we were in third place, this year it is fifth, and clearly we are five points behind where we were last season.

But let’s take a look at goals scored.  Last season we had scored 58 goals after 29 games, and this season it is only 55.

But, according to some, writing at the start of the season, we would score far far fewer goals, because last season we were being carried by Robin van Persie.

And yet without him we are just three goals worse off.  Maybe he wasn’t quite as important as we thought.

A similar sort of “crisis” has hit Arsenal over a number of seasons – when we sold Henry, Vieira, Fabregas, Nasri.  In each case we made a significant profit, but the particular speciality of the player didn’t seem to be a failing point in the following season.

One point that always struck me as people have (quite reasonably) raved over the ability of Henry, was that as I saw the games, it wasn’t actually a case of Henry, Henry and Henry, although of course he got some wonderful goals.  It was more a case of Henry and Pires.

Time and again I watched Henry meander out to the left wing, and as he did so two things happened.  First, two players went to try and stop Henry moving towards goal.  Second, Pires took over Henry’s position as a centre forward.  If Henry could manage to get the ball past the two defenders and launch it towards Pires, Pires would stand a chance of scoring, simply because he was as likely as not, without a marker.

Now that of course is one simple analysis of one ploy.  But it came to mind on reading the Guardian piece, because for once I agree with their view.  Football, might be portrayed by the simplistic media as a one-man game, because that  makes it  all the more simplistic to write the sort of headlines that the media love.  But it is not like that.

Which is why we didn’t collapse when Flamini was sold despite the fuss that was made.  Nor when Henry or any of the others went.

Of course this is not just an Arsenal issue.  There is some talk that Tottenham will lose Bale this summer.  Will that cause the collapse of the current team?

According to the Guardian with Bale, Tottenham “have won 44 of 92 Premier League games – a 48% win percentage – and averaged 1.74 points. In 14 games without him they have won 57% of matches and averaged 1.79 points.”

Of course this is not a complete analysis in way, but it is a starting point.  Another review the Guardian has done is for Gerrard at Liverpool.  It seems to make very little difference if he plays or not.  In fact “his impact in Liverpool’s 140 matches against others in the Big Six – Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham and Manchester City – is interesting too. Liverpool have won more matches (37% to 35%), scored more goals (1.30 to 1.21) and conceded less (1.19 to 1.30) when Gerrard hasn’t played.”

But the Guardian then goes on to disprove my initial theory about Henry.  “Arsenal scored significantly more goals (2.03 v 1.50) when Thierry Henry played, won 61% of matches compared with 52%, and had a higher points per game (2.07 v 1.80).”

Ah well, so much for being there.

But maybe Henry was an exception.  There’s not enough data around, but even though I failed in my Henry/Pires theory, the fact is that we have not totally collapsed each time a major player has gone.  But what is true is that at the moment we are not the Invincibles – because that group was a complete unit.

However harking back to that wonderful team doesn’t do much good either.  They were unique.  No one believed (apart from Mr Wenger) that an unbeaten season was possible.  It was – but the chance of seeing it happen again seems small because even the clubs with 100 times the amount of money that Arsenal had to build the Invincibles have failed to do so.

Here is Arsenal after 29 games that season

POS LP CLUB P W D L GF GA GD PTS
1 (1) Arsenal 29 22 7 0 57 19 38 73
2 (2) Chelsea 29 20 4 5 52 22 30 64
3 (3) Manchester United 29 19 4 6 55 29 26 61
4 (5) Liverpool 29 12 9 8 42 31 11 45

and compare once more with the figures today:

POS LP CLUB P W D L GF GA GD PTS
1 (1) Manchester United 29 24 2 3 69 31 38 74
2 (2) Manchester City 29 17 8 4 51 26 25 59
3 (4) Chelsea 29 16 7 6 58 30 28 55
4 (3) Tottenham Hotspur 30 16 6 8 51 37 14 54
5 (5) Arsenal 29 14 8 7 55 32 23 50

There are a lot of similarities – but the difference is not that we had Henry, but rather that we had the meanest defence.  The goal difference as you will see is identical.  Yes, so even with that wonderful attacking style and Henry at the heart of everything in the unbeaten season we had scored 57 by this stage.  This season it is 55.

One other thing is that the clubs at that moment in the unbeaten season, places 6th, 7th, 13th, 15th, 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th are not in the Premier League this season.

So maybe it is not only about winning – it is also about sustaining your position over time.  It was after all only nine years ago and 40% of the Premier League at that time have now gone their own way.  Some of them have not just gone down to the Championship – some have gone very much further.

Remember Charlton – they were very much a top 10 team in our unbeaten season.  Then the fans started crying out for a change of manager, to “take us up to the next level”.    And that’s what they got – except that the next level was a lot further down than they could have imagined.

So any conclusions?  First, it is harder than some people think to stay at the very top for a very long time.  Second, vast amounts of money do not guarantee league success.  Third, an individual player might become a talisman, as Henry seemed to be, but that does not mean that losing such a player always spells disaster.

Next, our defence is tighter than it was last season, and (and this is the most unexpected one for me)…

No team this season is anywhere near the sort of defence we had in the unbeaten season.  By this stage in that year we had let in 19.   Man City has let in 26, then Chelsea, Man U and ourselves on 30, 31, 32.

The books…

The sites from the same team…

 

 

5 comments to Does one player make all the difference?

  • Ed

    You are missing the point of the goals scored.
    A fair percentage of those goals came in one match against much lower opposition, scoring 5 or 6 in a match is great for goal difference but NOT scoring against the top teams in the way that RVP could is the difference this season.
    Walcott is petty useless against top class opposition and Giroud has not done well against the top boys either.

    So although one man does not make a team losing a proven goal scorer can harm one.

  • Mandy Dodd

    I do not think any one can claim losing RVP and especially the way he went has done any favours (not that the article is claiming this BTW) – but I do think teams can become psycholigically dependant on these special players, and when they go, others can step up from their shadow. Our new forwards have done ok for first seasons, I think even different positions, referring to the likes of Ramsey will eventually thrive, compared to last year when at times, VP seemed the only outlet. Think Spurs could also suffer at least for a while if they lost Bale this week to some unfortunate culinary ailment, doing no long term harm but lasting lasting several weeks! Wenger said he sold RVP for football reasons, of course we know there was a lot of other things going on, but we will eventually become more of a team. It is of course as you say, about the team, and partnerships. Not sure Paul Mcartney would have been allowed to put out “Frog Chorus” if Lennon was still around, can say the same for a few of the latters recordings post Beatles as well. Back to the thread, as talented and vital to the team as Jack is, does anyone else notice we seem to lose a little solidity in the formations we use when he plays…or is that just me?

  • Mark

    It is often said that offense wins games, defense wins championships. I think this is true in many sports. I think if we look back at the last 6 or 7 seasons the Gunners have been weak in defense. The weakness at the back has meant that we often tie a game we should have won, or lose a game that we should have won or tied. This season we lost games more because of defensive mistakes. If we could improve at the back by allowing in a third less goals then we would be competing for the title.

    While Manu’s goals allowed is similar to the Gunners, they gain a few points every year from biased refs. This is something that the gunners do not get and that makes defense even more important. We have to not lose games in order to be Champions!

  • Rufusstan

    I was going to go the whole flat track bully route, with the 5-1 VS the Hammers, 6-1 VS Southampton and the 7-3 VS Newcastle packing out our goal difference and skewing the argument.

    Looking at last season, we put 7 past Blackburn and had 3-0 (Bolton, West Brom and Villa) and 4-0 (Wigan) wins against weaker teams, so it probably evens out.

  • Brickfields Gunners

    Although as the saying goes ,” No man is an island onto himself …” ,there have been instances where one man stood out
    (or up ) and made a difference .
    To my mind comes the following – Pele for Brazil in the 1970 WC; Cruyff for Holland in the 1974 WC ;Maradona in WC 1986 & more especially in 1990 .Messi has that same effect for Barca.
    As for Arsenal , Ian Wright ,Tony Adams ,TH14 and to a lesser extent, RVP, have shone above the rest .
    But for me personally , I would have to say that the arrival of Eric Cantona had the most profound effect at Man.Ure (not SAF). While they had some experienced international players then ,Cantona’s almost arrogant and swashbuckling style inspired the then youngsters – Giggs, Butt , Beckham , Sharpe ,Scholes and the Nevile brothers .
    For me the change in their confidence and demeanor was almost immediate and they went on to play some fantastic football to win their first title since 1968.