By Tony Attwood
Being in Australia as I am now, and slowly feeling the benefits of being here (the jet lag is going, and what appeared on day one to be an 8 mile hike along the road to my breakfast bar of choice turns out in reality to be a pleasant 15 minute stroll) I find a certain level of perspective coming into my life.
And that leads on to a desire to find a perspective in the remorseless, ceaseless, endless calls for change in the club. They were there at the start of the season and they are there now. They are always there.
Indeed I can remember them in 2000/2001 when we had not won a trophy for 3 years running, and our points total had slipped three years running (78pts, 73pts, 70pts). We had lost nine and eight games in the last of those two seasons, and the moaners were calling for Wenger’s head on the grounds that Man U were just getting further and further away from us, and we needed a new team and fresh thinking. We’d even gone out of the Champs League at the group stages – that’s how bad we were.
“Is that what Arsenal is now?” I clearly remember one columnist writing in the fanzine I wrote for at the time. “Eternal second, slipping ever further behind Man U and going out of the Champions League earlier and earlier. Wenger was ok at first, but he hasn’t got the pedigree or knowledge of English football to sustain it.”
The worst of times?
And now… much the same, and so I started to think about Arsenal’s history and began by contemplating the worst ever Arsenal team. Possible contenders for that might be seasons like 1912/13 when we were relegated, 1925 when we came 20th, and changed the manager, or in more recent times 1974/5 and 1975/6 when we came 16th and 17th and were in danger of relegation both times and persuaded the manager his time was done.
Coming 12th in 1995 wasn’t the worst, but it felt fairly awful. Mind you winning the cup in 1993 didn’t feel that great for anyone who sat through the league matches. We scored 38 goals in 42 games that season.
But what of the good times?
We have had two FA Cup wins and a runners up in the league in the last three seasons. When did we do better across a three year period.
1933/6 was the best of all of course – three league wins and the FA Cup.
So how did we do that? Actually by changing the manager three times. Maybe that should be the blueprint after all! I thought I’d better check the rest of history.
1948 to 1950 gave us an FA Cup win and a League title although in between we came fifth in the league and were knocked out of the cup in round four.
1970/71 gave us the Fairs Cup and the Double followed by another cup final but then that horrible decline to 16th and 17th.
1989 to 1991 gave us two league titles, but then another steep decline.
And the Wenger years?
These included two league titles and three FA Cups in four years – the only real comparison in our entire history with the achievement of the 1930s era of the three managers.
Now clearly the present run of 2 cup wins and a runners’ up slot is below the four greatest eras in the club’s history (one of which was a Wenger run) but I think it is important to recognise these last three years have been one of the best three year runs in the club’s history. What those who want change want is something that has only happened four times in 130 years.
So why, when we are having one of our best runs should we change management?
One reason was given by a correspondent recently who said, “The reason I want him to go is quite rational and simple. I think Arsenal’s ambition should be to challenge for the title (my definition being that you are still in the title race in the last 2/3 weeks of the season).”
Is it rational to want the club to challenge for the title regularly?
I was fascinated by the “rational” part of that so started my quest to find how often Arsenal have done that. Arsenal have won the 13 league times and had three “challenge” seasons…
- 1932 (lost out to Everton by 2 points)
- 1973 (lost out to Liverpool by 3 points).
- 1999 (lost out to Man U by 1 point)
So by the definition given from our correspondent Arsenal have competed in 13 seasons (as winners) and three as runners’ up (the other six runners’ up seasons being excluded because we were not in with a challenge as defined).
That is 16 out of 102 league seasons. Just about 15.7%.
So in this definition in only 16% of our league seasons have we delivered what this correspondent wants. The managers who have delivered these 16 seasons are Chapman (3), Shaw (1), Allison (2), Whittaker (2), Mee (2), Graham (2), and Wenger (4).
Thus Mr Wenger is the most successful by this measure (3 titles and one acceptable near miss).
It is true that Mr “Wenger has not fulfilled this criteria for over ten years now” but then for 84% of our league history managers have not fulfilled this criteria.
But what of the chance of a new manager succeeding in this way for the 2/3 years a correspondent has given?
That of course takes us into the future and the realm of guess work, but let’s try it. Clearly Man U, Man C, Tottenham H, Liverpool! and Chelsea, all expect the same sort of success. Add Arsenal to the list and we have six clubs for whom the criteria of acceptable performance is probably seen as winning or coming a close second.
Now let’s see how often the second club comes close and to try and be fair and relevant I’m going to run this only over the Premier League era (what with most other clubs not being in the top league all the time before that).
We have had 24 PL seasons in which only the seasons 1995, 1998, 1999, 2008, 2010, 2012, 2014, could be considered close by the definition our correspondent gives.
That gives 31 chances of being a “success” in 24 years, spread across six teams who all expect success. (Remember, we might not expect Liverpool! to win anything, but their supporters! most certainly do which is why they are demanding that Klopp should be sacked now!)(!)
If all the six teams performed as well as each other on average across the years then each of them would get four seasons in which they would get a first or close second (remembering this is our correspondent’s choosing of the definition of success). And yes of course some of these teams have not been challenging each year – but they have been replaced by others (Blackburn and Newcastle for example).
So with six teams capable of challenging for these two selected positions, how well have the various “top” teams done. Remember to qualify they have to win the league or come a close second.
- Man U 13 wins plus 4 close runners’ up: total 17 acceptable seasons.
- Arsenal 3 plus 1 close runners’ up, total: four acceptable seasons
- Chelsea 4 plus 3 close runners’ up, total: seven acceptable seasons
- Man City 2 plus no close runners’ up: two acceptable seasons.
Thus of the six challenging teams, Man U is of course way ahead of everyone during the PL era. Chelsea have achieved an above average seven acceptable seasons, Arsenal have an average four. Man City, Tottenham H and Liverpool! are below the “acceptable average”.
Now the correspondent generously gives the club two or three years. But the figures above show that leaving aside Man U this would mean performing way above average for every team in the PL era from the off. If the six big teams were all performing equally, then in 24 seasons they can expect to come first or a close second four times – once every six years. So on this basis we are likely to go through two or three managers before we get to an “acceptable” season – and that doesn’t mean winning the league it means challenging up to the last few games.
The changing managers syndrome
But changing managers means changing the team, and that is not as easy as it sounds. You have to wait for the right players to become available and for them to want to come to Arsenal. There are many reasons why they might not come, and I’ll deal with those in another post.
And there is another problem, because the vast majority of new managers, like the vast majority of new players, fail, at least at first. The obvious example of Sir Alex Ferguson who had six years without an acceptable season. But our correspondent is clear on this. “Any new manager is given 2/3 years to achieve this and is moved on/has his contract extended depending on performances. No bed wetting hysteria just a thanks for you time/it didn’t work out/we’re going in a different direction respectful parting of the ways.”
On the basis of this view, the most successful club in the history of the PL would not have kept its manager and achieved its success.
The problem with these approaches is thus easy to see. In a league in which you have six clubs challenging for top or a close second, two or three years is nowhere near enough time. In fact the two or three years approach before you change managers has a name. It is named after a club that has specialised in it. It is called the Tiny Totts Approach to Success. And how many league titles has it brought them? But even this “rule” breaks down when we look at Chelsea. The answer in reality is, it can work, it might not.
Let us look at the number of managers clubs have had in the PL era (excluding temporary managers):
The teams with the lowest number of managers are first and third in the success list by the criteria chosen by the correspondent. Not changing managers seems to be the best option.
Changing can work, but it can do harm – it is one huge big gamble, not least because the manager you might want might not be available or might not want to come.
In short, reasonable though the idea that one gives a manager 2/3 years and if he is not succeeding you dump him, is far from guaranteed to bring success by the criteria chosen by our correspondent and the figures show that as a route to success it is the least likely to succeed.