What marks out a winning season? Revealing football’s complexity.

By Tony Attwood

I was interested in the headline “Arsenal’s sorry state reflected in recent global rankings” in Just Arsenal News.

The story included such statements as “Arsenal has been in a state of decline for a long time now and a new ranking has shown how bad it has gotten.”

And “Arsene Wenger oversaw some of the club’s best years, but before he left the club was in a sorry state.”

It got me wondering about how you can compare then and now.  The obvious way – the way most people use, is the position in the league.   But anyone who has bothered with this sort of analysis for more than a few seconds, will know that league position actually doesn’t tell you everything about how the club is doing.

To explore this, in the chart below I’ve taken all the Premier League seasons in which we have played 38 games and ranked them in order by the number of points gained, not the position in the league, in order to see what the great seasons all have in common.

2020 was, as we know, our worst season since the PL entered its current phase of a 38 game season.  We came eighth.   It was one of the worst (but by no means the worst) in terms of defence, but it was the second worst in terms of goal scoring (only 1995/6 was worse).

There was a sign of hope.  Aubameyang scored 29 goals – but as we will see, having even the top scorer in the league, doesn’t guarantee success.

This last season was thus our second worst ever PL performance in terms of goals scored and our third worst ever defensive performance.  Only 2018 and 2019 were worse.  It was our worst ever in terms of points total in the 38 game Premier League series.  It was our worst ever for games won in the modern PL era.

Here is the table sorted by points gained, starting with the lowest.

P W D L F A Pts Pos Top scorer Goals
2019–20 38 14 14 10 56 48 56 8th PE Aubameyang 29
1995–96 38 17 12 9 49 32 63 5th Ian Wright 22
2017–18 38 19 6 13 74 51 63 6th Alexandre Lacazette 17
2005–06 38 20 7 11 68 31 67 4th Thierry Henry 33
1996–97 38 19 11 8 62 32 68 3rd Ian Wright 30
2006–07 38 19 11 8 63 35 68 4th Robin van Persie 13
2010–11 38 19 11 8 72 43 68 4th Robin van Persie 22
2000–01 38 20 10 8 63 38 70 2nd Thierry Henry 22
2011–12 38 21 7 10 74 49 70 3rd Robin van Persie 37
2018–19 38 21 7 10 73 51 70 5th PA Aubameyang 31
2015–16 38 20 11 7 65 36 71 2nd Olivier Giroud 24
2008–09 38 20 12 6 68 37 72 4th Robin van Persie 20
1999–00 38 22 7 9 73 43 73 2nd Thierry Henry 26
2012–13 38 21 10 7 72 37 73 4th Theo Walcott 21
2009–10 38 23 6 9 83 41 75 3rd Cesc Fàbregas 19
2014–15 38 22 9 7 71 36 75 3rd Alexis Sánchez 25
2016–17 38 23 6 9 77 44 75 5th Alexis Sánchez 30
1997–98 38 23 9 6 68 33 78 1st Dennis Bergkamp 22
1998–99 38 22 12 4 59 17 78 2nd Nicolas Anelka 19
2002–03 38 23 9 6 85 42 78 2nd Thierry Henry 32
2013–14 38 24 7 7 68 41 79 4th Olivier Giroud 22
2004–05 38 25 8 5 87 36 83 2nd Thierry Henry 30
2007–08 38 24 11 3 74 31 83 3rd Emmanuel Adebayor 30
2001–02 38 26 9 3 79 36 87 1st Thierry Henry 32
2003–04 38 26 12 0 73 26 90 1st Thierry Henry 39

Yes, two of the great seasons (2002 and 2004) we not only won the league, we also got our highest number of points (87 and 90) for an Arsenal team in the PL era.   So the obvious is true – get the most points, win the league.  Nothing new there.

Except… here are a few oddities.

In 1997/8 we won the league with 78 points.   In 2013/14 we got one more point and came fourth.

In 2000 we came 2nd with 73 points.  In 2014 we got six points more and came fourth.

This past season, with all the media and some fans united against the club, with its two managers and multiple changes, that saw us get not just our lowest position but also our lowest number of points – seven fewer than any other season in the chart.   So of course points and position are related – but not exactly.

What about goals scored?    In 1998 we won the league with 68 goals scored.  In 2018 we scored six more and came sixth.  So that’s not a key indicator on its own.

Having a top goalscorer is no sign of success however – although it helps.  In our top four years in terms of points we have always had a 30+ goalscorer.  But in 2005/6 Henry was the league’s top scorer with 33, and we came 4th.

The fact is that all these different factors help: good defence, top scorer, more points, but they are not of themselves guarantees of success, nor is the opposite a sign of decline.

Taking a further look at goals scored,  I have highlighted in bold the eight top goal scoring seasons – those in which we knocked up over 73 league goals.  Our league position ranged from first to sixth.  The range of goal scorers was varied as well.  Consider this:

In 2018, we got 74 league goals.  Top scorer was Lacazette with 17.  We came sixth.  In 2012 we came third with the same number of goals.  This time the top scorer was the league’s top scorer – Van Persie with 37.  Having a single player who knocks in lots of goals is not necessarily a help.

As I said, all the factors noted here help – and that includes a club which is itself united at board and executive level and which takes the fans with it.  Once the fans get going with the cardboard waving and plane banner flying, there is no chance of improvement.

Clearly as these figures show, Arsenal need to improve all round.  And the basic facts are we need to win at least 20 games, and keep defeats down to under 10.

It is not about goals scored or goals conceded.  If we want to be back in the top four we need

  • A united fan base
  • 20+ victories
  • Under 10 defeats

Beyond that there is no simple solution.  It is not a case of having a top scorer or any other simple solution.  Football is much more complex than that.




One Reply to “What marks out a winning season? Revealing football’s complexity.”

  1. What is it with these people?

    As you say Tony, exactly what do they mean by decline? League position? Points? Trophies? And what do they mean by “for a long time”?

    At the very most it’s been a five year decline and as you say even then it depends on what statistics you’re using. The following is the 5 year ‘decline’ of which I assume they are talking, running from season 15-16 when we finished runners up to the last season.

    Season – Position – Trophies.

    15-16 2nd – 71pts – None

    16-17 5th – 73pts – FAC

    So was that a decline. Okay quite a dramatic fall from 2nd to 5th in the league but an increase in points and a trophy to boot. So given how we were constantly told how rubbish a top 4 finish was and it was all about trophies I contest season 16-17 was actually an improvement.

    So maybe this ‘long’ decline is just the 4 years? Lets see.

    17-18 6th – 63pts – None

    So a drop of 1 place, a significant drop in points and no trophy. Yep definitely a decline, a decline that saw the end of Wenger.

    But for pities sake it was ONE SEASON. As I showed the season before was actually pretty good, consisting of a decent points tally that saw us just pipped for a CL spot, and yet another FA Cup. For 99.9% of clubs that would constitute a successful season. As I said in an article a few weeks back, at the time both Spurs and Liverpool would of bit our hands of for a season like that, Spurs still would!!

    Anyway to continue.

    18-19 5th – 70 pts – None

    So we actually improved in 2 of the 3 categories with a higher league finish and more points. so no decline there then either. In fact a slight improvement. This ‘Long’ decline is proving to be not actually very long at all.

    19-20 8th – 56pts – FAC

    So a decline in league position and points tally but yet another trophy, and again, we were told for years that it’s all about trophies were we not?? So even with our poorest league performance for many a day, with YET ANOTHER FA CUP was 19-20 worse or better that 18-19 ? I contest better. So no decline there then either.

    To summarise, I’m not saying we are where I want us to be. Of course I want to be challenging for the title, but that isn’t to say we are that bad, or that we are in some kind of endless terminal decline, as it appears Arsenal News are trying to make out.

    So just to put our last few ‘declining years’ in to some sort of context, lets take a look at how wonderfully well Spurs have been doing over the last 4 years:

    16-17 2nd – 86pts – None

    17-18 3rd – 77pts – None

    18-19 4th – 71pts – None

    19-20 6th – 59pts – None ((Wengers last season 17-18 6th – 63pts – None)

    A worse league place EVERY season.
    Less points EVERY season.
    Not a single Trophy.

    Now that’s what I call a decline.

    Again for a bit of perspective, I’ve put Wengers last seasons statistics next to Spurs’ this season, and as you can see this season Spurs have actually done worse than Wenger did in his worst, and final Arsenal season, so if we were in a ‘sorry old state’ back then, what of Spurs now?

    And talking of ‘Sorry old states’ look at these for a bit more perspective:


    12-13 7th – 61pts – None
    14-15 6th – 62pts – None


    13-14 7th – 64pts – None
    18-19 6th – 66pts – None


    11-12 6th – 64pts – None
    15-16 10th – 50pts – None

    17-18 6th – 63 – Wengers last season again just for ease of comparison

    All of them are darn near identical to Wengers last season and one is much worse. My point is it happens, and it happens to the biggest and the best. As I said, when Wenger had that poor final season it wasn’t the culmination of some calamitous terminal decline, it was a bad season, that’s all. As I showed most teams, big and small have them. Wenger may or may not of recovered from it. We will never know.

    But the decision was made to move Wenger out and what has inevitably followed is a period of reassessment, change and uncertainty, which I feel after such a long period with one manager was inevitable. But we seem to have an extremely competent manager at the helm now who has steadied the ship and whom I hope is looking to build his own long term dynasty.

    I am perfectly happy with the direction we are going and how we are looking, but only time will tell if my confidence is justified.

    But whatever we are doing and however we look, that doesn’t mean I will sit here and let people rewrite our history in such a disengenuous way, with lack of context and exaggeration, simply in order to discrediting our Club and undermine the achievements of our past manager.

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