By Tony Attwood
From 1997 when we came third in the league, to 2016 when we were runners’ up, Arsenal always finished in the top four and gained admission to the Champions League. It was the longest run of any club ever from England in the Champions League, and second only across the continent to Real Madrid.
But at the time, to some people it didn’t seem anything like enough, and they started using the sneering comment “Fourth is not a trophy” any time someone mentioned the run as a positive achievement.
Indeed during that spell of years of coming in the top four, we also won the FA Cup six times (as well as winning it in the same year that we slipped to fifth in the league for the first time under Mr Wenger). Fourth may not have been a trophy, but there were trophies to be had, and Arsenal are now the all-time record winners of the FA Cup.
Now of course we want to get back into the top four, and if we do I feel it will seem as if it is a trophy (as long as we don’t get knocked out in the preliminary round).
And because I share this aspiration with a number of friends, we have been keeping tabs on just how this season compares with the past ten seasons, five of which saw us finish in the top four, and five of which saw us finish somewhere between fifth and eighth.
This table below takes each of those seasons and records where Arsenal were in terms of league position, after 20 games. As noted, in the first five seasons on the list we finished fifth or below, the previous five we finished between second and fourth.
So the question is, was 35 points after 20 games enough to get us to finish in the top four? And the rather pleasing answer is yes. Although not always.
In 2014/15 we had 33 points after 20 games and finished 3rd. In 2012/13 we had 34 points after 20 games and finished fourth. And indeed just to stretch the point a little in 2011/12 we had 36 points after 20 games and finished third.
But there is a contrary side to this. In 2017/18 we had 37 points after 20 games and we finished… 6th. And to show that was no fluke, in 2018/19 after 20 games we were fifth with 38 points and finished… 5th. So positions can go up and down, as if we didn’t know.
However, let’s push a little further by looking at some other features.
In goalscoring terms, we are better off than we have been for the past two seasons but we’ve not managed to get to the top four at the end of the season while only scoring 33 goals after 20 games. We need more goals.
Defensively it is easier to see some hope. In 2014/15 and 2011/12 we did get a top four finish with 25 and 28 goals conceded respectively. And yes in 2011/12 we had a goal difference of +8 and finished up in 3rd.
And here’s another point. Last summer we utterly reconstructed our defence, and they obviously took a while to get to know each other. After three games we were bottom of the league, you may recall, and we are still carrying that deficit into our league table.
But if you are a regular reader you may recall that I’ve got quite fascinated with the notion that the best predictor of how well we will do in forthcoming games is not the actual league table but two shorter tables. Tables of the last six and last ten matches, because they tell you about our current form in relation to the rest of the league.
First, the league table according to the last six games, and we are decently placed in fourth.
Anything lower than fourth would of course mean we are slipping in relation to our aspirations. Our goalscoring (second highest in the league in fact, across the six games) has only been beaten by Manchester City who won all their games. Our defensive record has only been bettered by Manchester City and Tottenham. We have the second-best goal difference as well. We are, in the last six games, performing like a top-four club.
Unlike the last six games table, the last ten table has no interlopers in the top six positions but I have included Wolverhampton (in 7th) to show what a team can do when it doesn’t score and doesn’t concede.
Our defence has slipped to fourth but our goalscoring is third best and our goal difference is only beaten by Manchester City.
So are we in line for a top-four finish? I would say yes, I rather think we are.
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