By Tony Attwood
I was very pleased to receive Fishpie’s article “Arsenal 2015/16: A Faltering Season with a Flattering Finish,” and to have the chance to publish it on Untold. Not because I agree with what is said (I don’t in full, as I will explain below) but because it was a well argued piece that drew on evidence and which thus illuminated various issues.
That is what I have asking for, for years: that we draw on the evidence to consider what is going on. And the fact that I am going to argue against his conclusions is only possible because Fishpie took the first step with a clearly thought out, well illustrated argument.
This is exactly what we need if we are going to explore the ins and outs of what is going on at Arsenal. We not to put up ideas, with evidence, and see where they go.
Of course I recall that a lot of the time when we have put forward ideas which use a few statistics some have come back and said, “You can prove anything with stats,” while others have simply quoted Disraeli’s comment, “there are lies, damned lies and statistics,” as if somehow repeating an old phrase made it true, or even apposite.
The fact is that statistics are useful, as they help us explore the underlying assumption of the argument, and get closer to the truth. In the world of people who write in and say “it is obvious that…” there are only two sides to each argument – you either agree I am right, or you are a basketcase. But once we bring in the numbers we can explore the assumptions. Which is why I value all well argued cases with evidence no matter who makes the argument and whether I agree with it or not because each piece helps us edge closer to the truth.
To put it on a grander scale, we only know the universe is expanding at an ever faster rate because Einstein created a completely false formula involving the universal constant. He was quite wrong in doing that (he later called it, his greatest mistake), but because he put forward that view, others could take the numbers and the evidence, and work on them. We needed Einstein’s false assumption before we could make any progress.
I think the assumption here is that we can look back to previous years, see where we were in the table then, see how many goals our top scorer got, see where we are now, and then from that decide what we ought to do.
That notion is widespread, and indeed I have used it myself a number of times without examining the validity of it. But it gives us a start point for further investigation.
Of the four teams that were expected to make up the Champions League spot, one ended up 10th, 31 points behind the leaders, closer to relegation than to winning the league. This suggests to me that something very odd was going on which makes this past season which we need to look at.
Leicester won with 81 points. In 2011/12 Man U got 89 points and didn’t win the league. In 2004/5 Chelsea won the league with 95 point. On the other hand in 1996/97 Man U won the league with just 75 points. In other words how far Arsenal is behind a winner is a measurement of both Arsenal’s achievement and the unique properties of that season. One season is not like the next.
Here’s another approach: it is impossible for a team from outside the top four one season to win it the next. I wrote a whole article along those lines on Untold to prove that Leicester would not win the league. It was an argument that had held true for 27 seasons, when Arsenal won in 1989, our having come sixth in 1988. But it happened this year.
On 12 September this season with Chelsea 15th and Tottenham 16th, while Crystal Palace sat fourth and Norwich 8th, there were all sorts of funny thoughts going on about which club might achieve what, and it changed the way clubs played. Chelsea became desperate and Mourinho went bonkers, and the more desperate Chelsea got the worse they played and the more bonkers the manager got. Palace thought they had the magic formula and started to relax and played better – for a while, but a few poor results saw them tumble.
By 18 October West Ham were fourth and were being repeatedly tipped as a Champions League club. By mid-March Palace were talked about as being in a relegation dogfight.
My point is that seasons have dynamics, and those dynamics change from season to season depending on multiple factors, which affect every team in different ways.
When we look at the league table yes, we were three wins and a draw from winning the League. We scored three less than the champions but let in the same number of goals as Leicester. We let in one more than Tottenham. So we are right up there.
So looking at those figures, we see a defence that is pretty much among the best in the league. And yet Fishpie’s conclusion was
In defence, I see our full backs too often only half-heartedly closing down and blocking crosses. I see our central defenders losing their strikers in the box. I see fast attackers running at an exposed back four, hitting unchallenged shots, from the edge of the box, low and hard into the bottom corner of the net.
I see our midfield losing the physical battle. I also see our midfield players giving the ball away needlessly, as though they are not focussed,
We are under pressure from more committed teams.
Now I am not getting at Fishpie here, for he has put forward a position, which then allows the rest of us to start to question it – without him I wouldn’t have done my own analysis here. So I can now ask how can our defence be as bad as Fishpie says, when in fact we have the third best defence in the league? Fishpie is not alone; lots of people have a similar point of view. Hell, I’ve worried about the defence sometimes too.
Here is the league table written in defensive order… Leicester and Arsenal are equal.