By Tony Attwood
Last season after three matches Arsenal were unbeaten but were 7th in the league. After four matches the situation was the same – unbeaten but 7th – due to the fact that three of those games were draws. We’d beaten Palace 2-1 and then drawn with Everton, Leicester and Man City.
It was at this point that the “worst start in 30 years” mantra started. It was of course nonsense as a factual claim, but worse than that, it was meaningless. Those opening games didn’t determine where we ended up in the slightest. Teams can shoot out of the blocks and falter in January. Teams can start slowly and win the double.
Of course you can look at any games and say “if only we’d won those then this…” and I have done it myself, changing the two results against Chelsea, and then converting a draw into a win, and we take the league.
It’s an interesting view, but quite different from the “worst start” because that seems to suggest that something terrible has already happened or been decided. It hadn’t last season and it never has. After that poor-ish start we became only the second club in the last 100 years to retain the FA Cup twice, and we came third in the league becoming the only British team to enter the Champions league for 18 times in a row. The only team in Europe to better that is Real Madrid. So not too bad.
But to some people it felt very bad. On 5 October 2014 Arsenal lost their first game of the season – a 2-0 away defeat to Chelsea, and at that time the knives were certainly out as the club dropped to 8th. And they stayed out, even though we clawed our way back a bit – but then two consecutive defeats in November sent us back to 8th.
It was a particularly bad time to be 8th, because there was an international break between those consecutive defeats which left a lot of time for the negativists to get their teeth into the situation. This most certainly was going to be the year we dropped out of the top four – at least according to the media.
Between 29 November and 7 February Arsenal spent their time moving between 6th and 5th, and it was only after defeating Leicester at home on 10 February 2-1, that we moved into the slightly more comfortable fourth spot.
So what happened?
Over time during the season several changes were made to the team. Francis Coquelin, Héctor Bellerín and David Ospina came to the fore. But more than this, during the first part of the season key players were injured.
To see how dramatic this level of injuries was consider the numbers of league games played by key players. Koscielny who was clearly a centrepiece of the defence only managed 26. Wilshere, who may not always be first choice could certainly have helped if he had been able to contribute during his long injury lay off. He started nine league games.
Mesut Özil started just 21 games, Walcott 4, the Ox 17, Ramsey 23, Monreal 26, Giroud 21.
Now of course clubs always get injuries, but when we think that out of the 38 league games only three players managed over 26 starts (Mert, Santi Caz and Alexis) it shows the level of chopping and changing that was required was enormous. To give an alternative perspective only three players managed to start over 68% of the league games.
Of course there was a benefit, because these injuries allowed Bellerin and Coquelin to enter the fray big time, and that was to the good, but the sheer volume of the injuries made the disrupting effect staggering.
Now we have often debated why Arsenal get so many injuries – and as I have mentioned before there has been much talk about Wenger’s over training, the wrong training, the wrong type of pitch, the wrong physio, the wrong everything else.
We’ve suggested as an alternative that referees use different criteria for different clubs – Stoke has been a notable example, and this works to Arsenal’s disadvantage.
If we look at the seven most fouled players across the Premier League from last season Arsenal is the only club to have two players in the list (Alexis and Santi Caz) and obviously most clubs have no one in the list of the top seven.
If we look at the clubs with the most yellow cards from fouls Arsenal are 3rd for last season but are way down the list for the number of fouls committed being 10th – half way down the league. That is interesting – we get a high number of yellow cards, but commit only an average number of fouls.
If we look for individual players getting yellows, our worst offender was Callum Chambers, who came 29th in the list of all players getting yellow cards, our second worst was Aaron Ramsey who came 45th. So we don’t have the worst offenders, but we do pick up yellows, and we have two of the seven most fouled players. A pattern emerges.
Now consider this
- Arsenal 2 Crystal Palace 4
- Arsenal 3 Tottenham 6
- Chelsea 4 Arsenal 3
- Arsenal 3 QPR 4
- WHU 3 Arsenal 3
Those are the number of yellow cards in London derbies in the first half of the season. Notice what happened? Despite all the stats above showing that we don’t have dirty players, we were still picking up yellows in derby games (you might say that given the nature of derbies that is inevitable) but never once did we pick up more than the opposition, and in every case but one we picked up less. In derby matches home or away the figures back up what we were observing – the other London teams came out to get us. We got 14 cards, they got 21.
So, what do we make of all this?
I know I don’t have all the stats to hand to prove the point but I think the implication is fairly clear. We were kicked about a lot and we lost players to injury because of that. None of the numbers is utterly overwhelming on its own (although the lack of players getting over 26 games is staggering.
Put it all together and a pattern does begin to emerge. Which is why it is so important that we keep on pointing this out to referees. They may be the masters of the pitch, but we are watching, and noting, the uneven impact of what they do.