25 December 2006

News Flash: Arsenal are Inconsistent

Merry Christmas, everybody!

I haven't written anything about Arsenal's 2-2 draw with Pompey or their more satisfying 6-2 dismantling of Blackburn, mostly because I wasn't able to see either game. And what can you say? When the Gunners were down 0-2 in the Pompey game, I was convinced we would see their first loss in Ashburton Grove. And yet they were able to fight back for the win, nearly finding a winner in the dying minutes. One point is better than none, and it's good to see that the boys can fight with their backs against the wall. Still, Portsmouth is the kind of team they should handle easily at home, so it's not helpful to see another 2 points left on the floor.

Then, the Blackburn game. Once again, the Gunners gave up that silly early goal -- this time handing a penalty to David Bentley before two minutes were gone. Yet this time Arsenal fought their way back into it, led once again by Messers. Silva and Adebayor. Those two are leading the team in Thierry Henry's absence, and doing a good bit of work with it. 3-1 at the half felt safe, but another preventable Rovers goal made for an uncomfortable 3-2 before the wheels came off and Arsenal ran off three more in quick succession. It looks like a spectacular win, but at times it felt like a nail-biter.

That match is a perfect illustration of the Gunners this season. This Arsenal team is frustrating precisely because they're so inconsistent. It's great to see them dismantle Liverpool, or to get the win at Old Trafford. And the draw at Stamford Bridge was well-earned too. Yet they've been crap against the more mediocre teams. I've gone on before about my thoughts on what's wrong with Arsenal at the moment. Suffice to say that the Portsmouth and Blackburn games didn't change my mind. But then I started to wonder, are Arsenal really that inconsistent?

Well, yes.

Let's compare to the other Big Four teams: Chelsea, Liverpool, and Manchester United. Including Arsenal, these are clearly the top teams in the Prem. In the past five years, none of them have finished below fifth, and only twice has another team cracked the top four. The Gunners fully expect to stay among that elite group.

So then we need to define consistency. I'd say that you're always going to have a difficult game against the other Big Four teams; consistency is how well you do against the rest of the league. That's 16 teams, so in a season you could take a max of 96 points against the 'other guys'.

So I took a look at that, back over the last 4.5 years, counting up how many points the Big Four took against the other teams, and marking that as a percent of possible points. So, for instance, this year Arsenal have taken 21 points from a possible 45 against the non-Big Four teams, giving them 51%. I compared those to the team's finishing position. How does that stack up?
    Team    Year            Pos     % points vs 'others'
Man Utd 2006/2007* 1 89%
Chelsea 2004/2005 1 84
Lvrpool 2005/2006 3 81
Arsenal 2004/2005 2 81
Chelsea 2006/2007* 2 81
Arsenal 2003/2004 1 79
Chelsea 2005/2006 1 79
Chelsea 2003/2004 2 75
Man Utd 2005/2006 2 75
Arsenal 2002/2003 2 74
Man Utd 2002/2003 1 72
Man Utd 2003/2004 3 72
Lvrpool 2006/2007* 3 70
Man Utd 2004/2005 3 68
Arsenal 2005/2006 4 66
Chelsea 2002/2003 4 65
Lvrpool 2002/2003 5 61
Lvrpool 2004/2005 5 57
Lvrpool 2003/2004 4 56
Arsenal 2006/2007* 4 54
*Current on 25 Dec 2006.
So. There are a couple interesting things about this list. First, teams that take care of business against the non-Top Four tend to win the league. No surprise there. And this year's Arsenal, so far, are absolutely the worst of all these teams at taking points from lower-placed sides. Thankfully there's still half a season to cover.

But this can't tell the whole story. Teams that do poorly against both good and bad teams will be at the bottom of the list. But that's just consistent, isn't it? Arsenal this year are so maddening because of their inconsistency.

So let's look at it this way. Arsenal have taken 54% of possible points against the non-Big Four teams. But they've taken 7 of 9 against the Big Four; that's 78% of possible points. From 54% to 78% — that's a swing of +24%. How do other teams stack up?
    Team    Year            Pos   %-oth   %-big4    diff
Arsenal 2006/2007* 4 54 78 +24
Man Utd 2002/2003 1 72 78 +06
Chelsea 2005/2006 1 79 83 +04
Man Utd 2004/2005 3 68 67 -01
Arsenal 2003/2004 1 79 78 -01
Chelsea 2004/2005 1 84 78 -06
Man Utd 2005/2006 2 75 61 -14
Chelsea 2006/2007* 2 81 66 -15
Lvrpool 2003/2004 4 56 33 -23
Lvrpool 2002/2003 5 61 28 -33
Arsenal 2002/2003 2 74 39 -35
Chelsea 2003/2004 2 75 39 -36
Chelsea 2002/2003 4 65 28 -37
Man Utd 2003/2004 3 72 33 -39
Lvrpool 2004/2005 5 57 17 -40
Arsenal 2005/2006 4 66 22 -44
Man Utd 2006/2007* 1 89 45 -44
Arsenal 2004/2005 2 81 28 -53
Lvrpool 2005/2006 3 81 22 -59
Lvrpool 2006/2007* 3 70 0 -70
*Current on 25 Dec 2006.
Yes: This year's Arsenal are so far the most inconsistent team. Now, that doesn't mean much in itself. Several other top inconsistent teams won the league. But that's because they just didn't drop many points overall. For instance, the Man Utd of 02/03 took 78% against the Big Four, but they also took 72% against everybody else. They were just a solid team overall. Last year's Chelsea were much the same, and many of the points they did drop came at the end of the year when their title was virtually certain.

And those are the only other teams who did better against the Big Four than everyone else. Which makes sense: you don't expect a team to play better against the league elite than they do against the rabble. I looked at 20 teams, and that was true for 17 of them — and nearly true for two more. What makes Arsenal so unusual?

I've a few thoughts on that, but this post is too long as it is. I will say this, though. It's tempting to blame it on the coaching, and many signs point in that direction. Arsène may have to rethink some things... but in the end, the players have more to answer for.

I'll write on that later. But for now, I'm looking forward to watching Arsenal take on Watford tomorrow. Let's get the second half kicked off right. COME ON YOU GUNNERS!

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