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October 2016
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Are Arsenal making sustainable progress or are we standing still, or drifting back?

By Tony Attwood

How do you know if a club is making progress or not?

Well, in one sense the answer is probably totally obvious.  If the team came 14th one season and then third the next, we might see this as progress.  But was it real progress?  And is it sustainable?

These are tough questions to answer because that leap from 14th to third might, to a large degree have been due to chance and good fortune.  It might have been down to the fact of getting fewer injuries to key players in the second season.  It might have been down to the fact that the very strong top teams were all played at moments when they were having a wobble, or a time when they had three games in 12 days due to Cup commitments.

Or indeed it could have been that by good luck the club got three wins in a row, and then the psychological well-being factor came to the fore and the players had a greater sense of belief.  Such psychological factors are real (although in English society we tend to consider psychologists to be weird nutcases talking gibberish – after all a “real man” rolls up his sleeves and “gets on with it.”)

But although psychological factors are real, they are harder to manipulate than physical factors.  We know much more about how to sort out a bruised toe than we do a bruised mind.

So measuring progress is difficult, because improvements in results can come from all sorts of reasons.  And there on top of it there are other problems and issues to consider.  Here’s a small selection…

Progress Factor 1: Over how much time?

However long we measure progress over, it is going to be arbitrary.  We can choose to measure one season against the previous season, one month against the previous month, or against the same month the year before.

We can say (as many did – although wrongly as it turned out) “this is the worst start to a season since 1997” and use that as proof that the club is “going backwards”.

Sometimes yes, all the factors can be taken into account, and we can compare one period with another and say this is better or this is worse.  Here’s a longer term example from Arsenal’s history.

Season Pos FA Cup League
Euro Competition Result
1964–65 13th R4
1965–66 14th R3
1966–67 7th R5 R3
1967–68 9th R5 RU
1968–69 4th R5 RU
1969–70 12th R3 R3 Inter-Cities Fairs Cup W
1970–71 1st W R4 Inter-Cities Fairs Cup QF
1971–72 5th RU R4 European Cup QF
1972–73 2nd SF QF
1973–74 10th R4 R2
1974–75 16th QF R2
1975–76 17th R3 R2
1976–77 8th R5 QF
1977–78 5th RU SF
1978–79 7th W R2 UEFA Cup R3

Look at that chart and 1964 to 1966 was fairly awful (the end of the Billy Wright era).  The from 1966 to 1973 was a massive improvement, two league cup runners’ up positions, the Fairs Cup, the League and Cup Double, an FA Cup runners’ up spot and then the same in the league.

But then… collapse, down to nearly being relegated by 1976, then another rise up.

Now this raises the view that to see improvement we need to look over a number of years, for what the table above shows is a real ebb and flow. Down under Wright, up and then down under Mee, up under Neil, but not up that much before another slip.

Progress Factor 2: No club ever stands still

If clubs stood still the league would be boring, and it doesn’t happen because other challengers arise, and of course no squad can keep going forever.   The famous Forest team of Brian Clough just about got promotion one year, won the League the next year, and the European Cup the following two years.  15 years after that league title they were back in the second division.

Even Manchester United, the most successful club in terms of League wins with 20 titles, have just gone three years without getting anywhere near it and are now playing another season without being in the Champions League and spent time in the second division in the 1970s.  Liverpool with 18 wins have not won it for 26 years.   No club has ever managed to find a way of staying at the top for ever thank goodness.  If they did it would be like the Spanish League or German League.

Progress Factor 3:  Remaining near the top in England is very much an achievement.

It is not right to say that clubs need to take a little dip from success in order to build and get back up there again.   Nottingham Forest has never recovered from their run of League Cups, European Cups, Super Cups and the League title.   Liverpool are no closer now to winning the League now than they were 10 or 15 years ago.

Arsenal’s much derided record of being in the Champions League group stages year after year is itself a very clear example of progress, simply because it is a case of maintaining the club and not letting it slip backwards.  Only one other club has ever managed to do it – Real Madrid.   They have 19 consecutive participation, Arsenal are on 18.

Of course we don’t call maintaining a position “progress”, but it is a precursor to progress.  Without it clubs do what Chelsea did this season, what Man U has done for a couple of seasons, and what many teams have done over much longer periods.

Progress Factor 4: Keeping up with the improvements of others.

Football doesn’t stand still of course.  For a while the battle was Man U against Arsenal.  Then along came first Chelsea and next Man City.  Meanwhile Arsenal were building a new stadium.  Chelsea has not done it yet, and Man City had theirs given to them by the state.   What Chelsea and Man City did therefore was use their money to improve their squad.  So in effect staying at the previous level is never an option – unless one wants to slip down the league.

Progress Factor 5:  Trophies.

If we look at the last three years we can see the trophy level looks like this

  • Manchester City 3 (two League cups, one League)
  • Chelsea 2 (one League, one league cup)
  • Arsenal 2 (two FA Cups)
  • Man U 1 (one FA Cup)
  • Leicester 1 (one League)

One can then compare this with, say, the previous three years and measure this.  That analysis on its own doesn’t measure (for example) where the club finished in the league each season – which surely has something to do with a measure of success.  You can measure shorter periods, but the shorter the period measured the less accurate it turns out to be.

Progress Factor 5: Better players

This is where it starts getting tough because it is always a subjective matter to consider individual players, and to say if x is better than y.  Everyone hopes the new signings will work, but you can’t always tell.

Progress Factor 6: Number of points

Although points are measurable, the fact is that the top team each year can have a very different number of points from one year to the next.

In the past six seasons the number of points gained by the winner of the League has varied between 80 and 89.  Indeed the League has been won with as few as 75 points.

So simply measuring points doesn’t really help, unless you truly believe this is the prime measure of success, rather than position in the league.

Progress Factor 7: Finance and long term stability 

In the first three years of the Premier League Aston Villa, Norwich, Blackburn, Nottingham Forest and Newcastle all finished in the top three.  Indeed Blackburn won the league and came second in that three year spell.  In the coming season all of those five teams will play outside the Premier League.  The only club to escape this drop is Manchester United.

Simply staying in the Premier League is a challenge in itself, as staying in the top division always has been.  Only six teams (Arsenal, Chelsea, Everton, Liverpool, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur) have played in every Premier League season, and that represents stability.

Stability is not progress, of course, but it is a pre-requisite of progress.

To my mind, in all those seven factors Arsenal score.  Under different management we could easily not have been in the elite group of six ever presents.  We could so easily have been like Everton and Liverpool – clubs stuck in mid-table.  We could have been like Tottenham, who have won the League twice and the FA Cup eight times, as opposed to the 13 league wins and 12 FA Cups.

Stability at the top is, for me, not something to be dismissed.  Progress without stability results in Nottingham Forest and Norwich, Blackburn and Aston Villa.

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27 comments to Are Arsenal making sustainable progress or are we standing still, or drifting back?

  • Kenneth Widmerpool

    As always an interesting article Tony.
    OT–I havent been on UA for a week or so and wondered if you had covered what Blatter was saying about the corruption and the balls in the bag?(ie the ball that represented x y z teams were frozen or had been in the freezer so the picker would know whence the hand went inside the bag…
    Looks like more and more will start to come out…
    Soz if this was last weeks news etc.

  • Gord

    My feeling is that the EPL has perhaps 4 positions. People have talked about a Top-4 clubs (originally did not include ManC, but they bought their way in). Those are typically the ones which have a chance at the title. They seem to partition as 2 positions. We often have a couple or three clubs following, which add another position (3), and then there is everyone else (4). Or, positions 8-20 (or 8-last) are nominally all the same. To rise from 17 to 9 or fall from 9 to 20 requires no change in the quality of a team, it can be seen entirely by chance. Seventh to 6th or 5th probably is random chance. Sometimes the top is 2 teams very close, sometimes the leader has a gap.

  • Brickfields Gunners

    A. Progress .

  • Brickfields Gunners

    Thank God for AW , the board and the owner for this progress . Onward and forwards !

    And balls to those ungrateful ‘them’ who just complain and bitch and basically are a real pain in the arse !

    A devoted wife had spent her lifetime taking care of her husband. Lately, he had been slipping in and out of a coma for several months, yet she stayed by his bedside every single day.

    When he came to senses, he motioned for her to come near him.

    As she sat by him, he said: “You have been with me all through the bad times. When I got fired, you were there to support me. When my business failed, you were there. When I got shot, you were by my side. When we lost the house, you gave me support. When my health started failing, you were still by my side. You know what?”

    “What dear?” she asks gently.

    “I think you bring me bad luck.”

  • Brickfields Gunners

    Is this guy an AKB or what ?

    A 72 year old man had one hobby – he loved to fish.

    He was sitting in his boat the other day when he heard a voice say, ‘Pick me up.’ he looked around and couldn’t see anyone.

    He thought he was dreaming when he heard the voice say
    again, ‘Pick me up.’

    He looked in the water and there, floating on the top, was a frog.

    The man said, ‘Are you talking to me?’

    The frog said, ‘Yes, I’m talking to you. Pick me up, then kiss me; and I’ll turn into the most beautiful woman you have ever seen. I’ll make sure that all your friends are envious and jealous, because I will be your bride!’

    The man looked at the frog for a short time, reached over, picked it up carefully and placed it in his shirt pocket.

    The frog said, ‘What, are you nuts? Didn’t you hear what I said?’
    I said, ‘Kiss me, and I will be your beautiful bride.’

    He opened his pocket, looked at the frog and said,

    ‘Nah. At my age, I’d rather have a talking frog.’

    With age – comes wisdom!

  • tunnygriffboy

    Off the field the progress has been excellent. We are now one of the biggest clubs in the world.

    On the field we are moving forward at a snails pace. We have started to buy WC players. While we still can’t buy 2 or 3 £40 million players each year we have been able to bring big players in. We definitely missed a trick last summer in not buying an outfield player

    I like the fact we continue to give young players a chance and that we bring in good bargains but with themoney we now have available we should be adding a marquee signing every summer so our squad gets progressively stronger

    We have already spent £30 million this summer but find ourselves needing upgrades or competition for certain positions. It could mean further big spending.

    The league will be stronger than ever next season, really exciting. To keep ahead of the curve we certainly need competition for Giroud as Welbeck is injured, and another option on the right side of our attack to score and create more goals. The squad needs freshening upand one or twoo of our players need a kick up the backside.

    Our progress has continually been hampered by or chronic injury record. I’m praying that we just get a normal amount of injuries next season with players notbeing sidelined for months at a time.

    Ps. If Stan really wanted to we could bring in the players at the top of their game at irrespective of their ridiculous fees.

  • Notoverthehill

    Tony, you missed out Aston Villa.

    If, you had written next season only …..

  • Tommy

    You can judge progress on many things but certain points stand out to me.
    The main one is what we see with our own eyes and not what any stats can tell us.If we are really making progress why are we seeing the same mistakes that have been made for over a decade??Why are we not able to cope with the pressure when it really counts??And the main one is why are our fans so divided on the way arsenal is run/managed.
    I think next season will be a defining season for Arsenal.

  • Gord

    The Daily Mail is good for something.

    In looking at science news, the Daily Mail had a blurb.

    It seems that as the temperature of the beans decreases before grinding, the ability of the coffee making process to produce better coffee increases. What happens, is that the difference between the largest particle and the smallest particle decreases, so that all of the ground coffee has a more uniform size, and the brew can be tailored to produce better coffee.

    Apparently the lowest temperature used in the experiment was -320F, which is still quite a ways above absolute 0.

    I wonder if our ability to better extract news from the medja can be increased, if we freeze the medja “beans” before we process their dribble?

  • Tommy where is the evidence for any of this?

  • Tommy

    My eyes are my evidence tony..

  • And that I think says it all. There are of course many sites – indeed I would imagine the majority of football sites – where that would be a perfectly ok reply, but not here. This site is based among other things on the notion that it is helpful to have evidence of a more scientific nature, or based on logical deduction. The benefit of our approach is that we can then have a proper debate, whereas there can be no debating of your evidence. Your eyes give you one set of evidence, another person’s gives evidence of a different nature, and that’s it. No meaningful discussion.

  • porter

    Quite right Gord , the daily mail along with the rest of the written media has it’s uses.
    “” You have to light the fire with something.””

  • nicky

    Stability alone is not progress but stability at the top is not something to be easily dismissed.
    How true are those words, Tony.
    To qualify for the UEFA Champions League every year for the last 19 years is an English club record and only bettered by Real Madrid in continental Europe.
    It’s already a record which is the envy of all our rivals and one which should be borne in mind by those supporters of our great club who, from time to time, appear to lose faith.

  • Tommy

    Ok Tony if you want evidence that our fan base is more divided now than it ever has bee in the past then i will show it you.This is the only site i know on the internet (and is 100% behind the manager(well 80% anyway the other 20% have either been banned or are in moderation).There are many sites where the majority of posters are ready for change both in the manager and the way the club is run.These are 1 Goonersweb,2 Goonersworld 3.Le- grove 4.Arsenal fans tv 5.Even arseblog has changed.
    Also this is the first season where mass protests have been staged in the ground with many protesters using banners to show their dissatisfaction.The home game against norwich was particularly telling.The facts say that the attendance was 59000 at the ground but we all know that season tickets count even if the fan doesnt go .That day there were less than 50k in the ground.
    My other point about making the same mistakes year after year and not being able to handle the pressure can also be backed up with facts.On the 13th jan we were top of the league playing well and looking like potential champions .Six weeks later we had dropped to 4th in the league and knocked out of the FA cup and champions league.Our record over that period when there was most pressure was W-3 D-5 L-5.If you would like me to trawl back previous seasons to see when the regular collapses took place i will but you will find most of them take place between jan and feb..
    I have no doubt you will go off at a tangent to look at it differently to try and discredit the facts but they were for all to see last season .

  • Pat

    Wise words, Tony. The small number of clubs that have always been in the Premier League, and the number of clubs that have had a short success and a long slump, should make us appreciate what Arsenal has achieved.

  • Tommy

    Tony how do you a proper sensible debate when the only people that you want posting on untold have to share the same opinions and beliefs as you.

  • Tommy, by publishing all commentaries that have proper evidence supplied with them, rather than the ones that are personal views without evidence that can be checked. Where the “debate” is totally based on personal views there is no debate, because there is no verifiable evidence or logic that can be used.

  • Tommy

    I understand that tony but evidence isnt always sought from posters that hold the same beliefs as you.It is usually an excuse not to publish certain posts from the ones who want change and dont always agree with the way the club is run.Sometimes its good to keep an open mind when looking at Arsenal rather than being blinkered and being biassed.And that counts both ways!!

  • Georgaki-pyrovolitis

    Tommy just doesn’t get it…

    Ok, I’ll use Tommy’s approach.

    I “see” Arsenal finished 2nd this past season, and 3rd the previous and 4th previous to that. Well, Tommy you are correct, seeing and feeling works….

  • markyb

    Has this Tommy Character deliberately used all of the clichés in his posts as a wind up?

  • Tommy this is the whole problem. You say

    It is usually an excuse not to publish certain posts from the ones who want change and dont always agree with the way the club is run.

    I say, “no it isn’t”. So what then? We get nowhere, but there are thousands of other sites that will allow such discussions. So why bring them here as well?

  • Georgaki-pyrovolitis


    The point of insisting on evidence in support of an opinion is that it tends toward objectivity and limits subjectivity. Having an “open” mind is one that allows for correction of one’s beliefs on the basis good evidence. Even the main stream media which is not sympathetic to all thing Arsenal reported that the fan “protests” you mention were in fact better described as damp squibbs.

  • Pat

    Anyway, there are plenty of debates and differences of opinion on Untold. These posts that go unpublished obviously go somewhat further.

  • Simple, you either support Arsenal all the way or you do not. Have you any idea how bloody lucky you are to follow a club with our history and how when the money was not there we still managed against the odds to qualify for the Champion’s leauge bringing much needed revenue to the club following our move to the Emirates. Players who could not even spell loyalty left us high and dry and only for the loyalty of one man who know’s were we would have ended up. We end up like spoiled children when things do not go our way. No team has a God given right to win this league no matter who they are. Last season proved that point to us all and now is the time to look forward and not back and get behind the team going into a new season. This is an Arsenal site so don’t come on here expecting anything other that the support of the club, board and the Greatest manager in Arsenal’s history. Together, Stronger, Better.

  • Jambug


    Another great post.

    “This is an Arsenal site so don’t come on here expecting anything other that the support of the club, board and the Greatest manager in Arsenal’s history.”

    This is something I have said many many times.

    The mantra at the top of the page spells out exactly the mind set of the founders, and therefore the type of supporter they mean to attract.

    Then posters come here with the complete and utter opposite mind set and wonder why they get a hostile reception.

    I’ve likened it to a Socialist going to a Tory conference and expecting his views to be accepted with open arms or visa versa. It isn’t going to happen.

    And that’s not, as these guys often claim, that they are not entitled to there point of view, of course they are. It’s not even that they are not right, they may well be. I just question, is this really the right place to express it, especially when there are plenty of other blogs that would gleefully accept there point of view.

    I’ve concluded they’re here for one reason, a fight. Again, okay, I can live with that, but the problem is when they get one they start crying about being ‘picked on’.

    For pities sake, if they poke the tiger surely they expect him to bite, or are they that stupid.

  • Andy Mack

    Tommy, the number of supporters that come onto forums/web-sites/blogs to comment about AFC are a tiny portion of the fan base. The noise on the Internet wasn’t reflected in the demonstrations at the ground (which came across and a few toddles having a scream in the middle of ASDA on a Saturday morning).
    I’ve supported this club for over 40 years (near 45) and of my gooner mates (about 25 of them) only 4 of us ever come onto these sites, and 2 of the guys that do so most regularly are ‘sons of mates’ so out of 20 older supporters, only 2 of us use the internet in this way.
    There’s an awful lot of non ‘IT’ supporters in the world.

    I would add that many of the site you mentioned seem to be filled with trolls who are only there to watch the kids arguing about issues they themselves have stirred up.
    And As for Le Groan, they’ve got the most selective comments policy on the internet.
    If it doesn’t agree with their thoughts they’ll quite happily change someones comment to make sure it doesn’t make sense and then block them so they aren’t challenged on it.