By Tony Attwood
There has been some commentary recently about why Arsenal had their worst season in 20+ years in the League and FA Cup last season. A few people argue it was down to an individual player or two, some cite the entire defence and some cite the management.
I personally find all such arguments rather simplistic, not least because they don’t take into account the fact that at the Emirates, even when faced with some disenchanted supporters with their banners, the club did rather well last season. And if that is the case, that the club did particularly well at home, then the issue is why was there this home and away difference?
That is the problem to be solved. And it is an important one, because if one takes the utterly simplistic view that the defence is rubbish, we would risk getting rid of a stunningly good home defence just because the away defence was poor. Better surely to get that defence to play well in all games, home and away.
In the following league tables only matches played at home are counted. Here is last season with a very good home record.
To see just how good that home record was we can go back to the first of the Wenger league winning seasons where at once we can see something strange – that in terms of win, draw and lose at home, this season’s team was equal to the 1997 title winning team. But in terms of goals scored this current team was way ahead. The goal difference was roughly the same so we can say the attack made up for the slips in defence.
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2001, like this past season and the 1997 season saw us win 15 games at home but this time with only one defeat. And the goal difference was again very similar, with fewer goals scored.
2004 – the unbeaten season – obviously had the best home record although it is interesting that it was still 15 games won. So in each of these seasons – the season just gone and the three title winning seasons, we won 15. But here again our goal scoring last season at home outshone even this amazing unbeaten team.
So in many regards the home form of Arsenal last season was up there with the best. Of course not as good as the unbeaten season, because nothing is as good as that, but still alongside the home form in the other two seasons.
Thus my question is, how could we have title winning form at home, and such poor form away?
The first argument that we can get rid of is one that might suggest that Mr Wenger’s teams only perform well at home. If one takes 2011 for example we had the best away form in the league but were only 5th in the league if we just count home games. But by and large home and away form runs together. For some reason this last season it did not.
One could argue that somehow the club had put together a group of players who simply could not win away, but I really can’t see how that argument works, unless one brings in a psychological element. That is to say, once the run started the players became more nervous and more tense playing away, and so were less and less able to play their normal game.
Now of course I know that many people distrust anything said by psychologists, often because they confuse psychology, which is a science, with psychiatry – especially Freudian psychiatry – which most certainly is not.
I can’t really do anything to overcome such prejudice other than to say the study of behaviour (which is what psychology is) is a profound scientific study which does help explain why people behave as they do. Of course if we are talking of the whole defence we are talking about social psychology, with perhaps one or two players under performing and then the problem spreading.
But does it really work like this? Do players become nervous after a run of results?
I believe they do, and let me give an example. On 22 January 1977 Arsenal, then under Terry Neill, were 5th in the league, just six points off the top team with two games in hand. Maybe not favourites to win the league, but still a solid position. Even with just two points for a win, we were in a strong position.
But then, in the next ten league games Arsenal won nil, drew two and lost eight, including having their all time worst run in the league of seven successive defeats.
Look at the team sheets and there is no obvious explanation there. The key players were consistently present, Rice, O’Leary, Macdonald, Brady, Stapleton, and yet the club just kept on losing.
Then after that successive run of defeats, having drawn away to Stoke City Arsenal went on a ten game run in which they lost only once (to Liverpool, who won the league), winning six of those games. Only one player of significance was added towards the end of the defeats, who then played on through the victories, and that was Willie Young.
How does one explain that if not by the team becoming increasingly worried about the run (for the defeats) and then once the victory had been achieved, starting to be more relaxed. Yes, Young helped, but he didn’t turn the team round on his own.
My point is that negative runs like this happen, and they can be very difficult to bring to an end. Worry and tension builds up and players get more and more cautious, with the natural flair going.
Of course it is the job of the manager to rectify this, and in this regard Mr Wenger and his team failed this last season. It was a bad failure, but one such failure in 20 or so years overall ain’t too bad. Plus if (as some people seem to want to) we talk of the worst season in 20 years for the club, it is interesting to compare this season of 6th with all the other teams in the Premier League. Our worst was quite a bit better than other teams’ worst – which simply tells us that all teams slump sometimes, but we have slumped less than others.
However the main point is that to interpret that finishing position of 6th as (by way of example) showing that we had a rubbish defence would be a serious mistake and lead to some good players being thrown out. We had a bad run away from home in the league not a rubbish defence.
Quite why newspaper journalists and TV commentators can’t get this, I don’t know, but that just seems to be how it goes. Hopefully our new manager and his advisers will realise that the away form of last season is what needs to be fixed, not the entire defence.
PS: I used to put a note at the end of articles pointing out that we have rules of commentary on this site set out in the page called “Comments”. After a few years of this I thought that was a bit obvious and stopped mentioning it, but the page is still there, and I still think the rules are reasonable. Sorry if you don’t, but there are plenty of other Arsenal sites that have different rules, and you can always express your opinion there. One thing we never do however (and which is done elsewhere) is we don’t change any comment. We either publish it as is, or we don’t.
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