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Arsenal And The Race For 4th Place in 2012/13

This is a very long article. So long it is almost unreadable. This article may not please everyone and I expect to take some shit for it. If there are any issues please let me know in the comments section.

It took me almost as long to create a suitable title for this article as it did to organize the data . Arsenal, in the 2012/13 edition of the Premier league, were a team that sent out a huge amount of mixed signals: Poor early doors, strong late on in the season. Heavily injured whilst in Europe, virtually injury free in their last 10 PL fixtures. Unable to beat the top 5 teams, crushing the rest of the league.

Arsenal in the last three seasons or so had a fairly clear plan for the Premier League. Qualification for the CL was the priority despite the claims of Arsene Wenger that a Title challenge was within their power. A challenge wasn't within their power, at least not during the time of the 'high end talent bleed', but qualification for the CL with a weakening squad was.

Credit where credit is due, Wenger managed to pull this weakened Arsenal team over the line every season. But my, was it close in 2012/13. Just a solitary point split the North London teams and Arsenal had to go on a frightening tear in order to squeak past a Tottenham side struggling with injuries, but powered by the Premier league's brightest star in Gareth Bale.

In this article I want to take a look at how Arsenal clinched 4th place, why Arsenal struggled early in the season but excelled in the run-in. I also want to take a look at Arsenal's injury troubles and their levels of success against different strengths of opposition.

There will be a few graphs and a few ramblings. If anything doesn't quite make sense, forgive me. I am warming back up after a short break where I realized I enjoy life a lot more away from the research and numbers.


Fixture List

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In the chart above we see Arsenal's result with the Shots On Target Ratio of their opponent at the time of fixture.

A couple of thing leap out of the chart above: Arsenal's form in the second half of the season - which I will get to later - and also we see the extent to which Arsenal creamed the weaker opponents. Arsenal had a record of 20-2-2 against teams with a SoTR(%) of less than 50%. That is simply an incredible record and works out to 2.58 points per game against sub-par SoTR teams.

Now, the sharp reader among you may have guessed that if Arsenal were so dominant against sub par teams then they must have struggled against teams who registered SoT ratios of over 50%. And how they struggled: Arsenal's record was won 1 drawn 8 lost 5. It is clear that to earn a top 4 place it is not required to have a positive record against teams classed as equals, but to gain that top 4 place you need to go on a streak similar to the one Arsenal had in winning 20 games out of 24

Arsenal played the bully against the weaker teams and were, apart from a solitary victory against a Tottenham side who were a goal ahead when reduced to 10 men on 17 minutes, quite unable to beat teams with an above SoTR. Why Arsenal were unable to win fixtures against strong sides I do not know.

For Arsenal's sake you hope that the transfer spending this Summer will allow them to compete in fixtures against strong teams, for I am not entirely convinced that Wenger can forge a repeat of that win record against sub-par SoTR teams. But then again, maybe a stronger record against the peers should be expected.

Points Per Game & Injuries

Although it is interesting to view Arsenal's points per game record alongside their man games lost to injury per game record, I am in no way inferring that there is a direct link. As seen in chart 1 the quality of opposition mattered for Arsenal, and there fixture list in the last 10 games was favourable.

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I have touched on Arsenal's injury list in many a place over at SBnation, and it is truly the most curious injury list I saw last year. A huge amount of injuries early season gave way to virtual clean bills of health in the last dozen games or so. there is no proven link between injury and PPG, but we have to admit that having a lengthy injury list, especially if it contains important players, will have an impact on the options a manager has, and may ultimately affect a teams ability to collect points.

What I am really interested in here is Arsenal's PPG line: Why did Arsenal trend so well as the season wore on? We know Arsenal had a relatively easy run of fixtures in the last 10 games or so, but there must be a more tangible explanation for that late season spike in Points Per game.

Underlying Numbers

Aside from the fixture list and the easing injury list there are some underlying reasons why Arsenal powered over the finishing line and pipped Tottenham to 4th place. Most of those underlying reasons only really become apparent in the second half of the season, but really, it's all about the last 10 games.

Close Goal Difference

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Close goal Difference (goal difference at -1, Tied and +1 game states) has an incredibly strong correlation to points. the r2 floats around 0.98 to 0.99 making the correlation almost perfect.

We see that Arsenal only broke through the CL qualification barrier with a handful of games remaining. That Spike in PPG was powered by Arsenal's Close GD. Arsenal's Close GD was +10 after 28 games. Arsenal then increased their Close GD to +22 in their remaining 10 fixtures.

It really was an incredible ten game run at the seasons end. We know that the PPG spike was powered by the rapid improvement of the Close GD, but what was powering that Close GD?

Close PDO And Close TSR

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So what was powering Arsenal's Close goal difference? We have talked about the relatively easy fixture list but the chart above gives us the real clues. Arsenal Close Total Shot Ratio was very strong to start the season, it then dipped before rising and stabilizing in the last dozen games or so.

TSR doesn't give us many clues as to why Arsenal began outscoring the opposition (Close GD) at a far better rate. In fact, Close TSR is stable, it doesn't give any hint of Arsenal's Close GD spike. But Close PDO does give us some clues.

Arsenal's Close PDO was at 99.5 after 28 games, in the remaining 10 fixtures that Close PDO rose to 101.69. A rise of just 2 PDO points may not sound all that much but it's a pretty significant rise over such a short span of games. If we are consistent and break Arsenal's season into two sections - first 28 games and the last 10 games - we can clearly see that PDO spike in the last ten games:

Conversion % Save% PDO
First 28 Games 9.91 89.88 99.79
Last 10 Games 11.34 96.66 108

Yes, we are dealing with a smaller sample in the last ten games, but those last ten games needed analyzing so we could answer the initial question which was: What was powering Arsenal's final 10 game spike in Close GD and thus points earned? An easier fixture list certainly helped, but Arsenal's Close TSR wasn't the answer, instead it was Close PDO that spiked sharply.

This PDO spike powered Arsenal's final 10 game surge and likely enabled the club to get to the points total required to beat out Tottenham to 4th place. I'm actually a little shocked at how high Arsenal's 10 game Close PDO is. PDO is a massively unstable stat, it varies from season to season and varies massively within a season to boot. The final 10 game save% is almost unbreachable and the increase in Conversion% certainly helped.


Final Thoughts

I started this article with a couple of loose questions:

In this article I want to take a look at how Arsenal clinched 4th place, why Arsenal struggled early in the season but excelled in the run-in. I also want to take a look at Arsenal's injury troubles and their levels of success against different strengths of opposition.

In answer to that initial paragraph we discovered that Arsenal clinched 4th place with a strong second half to the season which featured a golden last 10 games which saw Arsenal win 8 and draw 2 . We discovered how Arsenal struggled early with injuries, how they struggled against teams who exhibited strong SoT ratios. We also discovered that Arsenal have an outstanding record against sub-par SoT ratio teams.

This information only took us so far. We needed to dig a little deeper and this took us to Arsenal's Close Goal Difference which spiked sharply in the crucial last 10 games. That spike was powered not by an improved SoTR but by Arsenal's Close PDO which is almost unrecognizably good when viewed next to the previous 28 games. As stated, PDO enjoys spikes and suffers through falls but the takeaway from PDO in general is best summarized here. PDO is strongly affected by luck and is liable to pretty heavy regression toward the mean given enough time.

In short: Arsenal clinching 4th place was dependent on a few factors, some more important than others. The fixture list mattered, injuries mattered to some unquantifiable extent and Arsenal in those crucial last 10 games went on a terrific run of form. A run of form powered not by improvement in out-shooting the opposition to a greater extent, but by a crazy, but very timely, spike in Close PDO.

PDO is not something that is overly skill driven, nor is it particularly repeatable. There may be certain tactical changes that Wenger employed in those final 10 games that my numbers do not capture and I have to admit that. But until somebody proves that Wenger's personnel or tactical changes were responsible for a massive upswing in form in those last 10 games I feel comfortable in saying that Arsenal's Champions League qualification charge was powered by a massive chunk of luck.

Luckily for Arsenal fans this Summer should, if money is spent and spent wisely, see Arsenal strengthen to the point where late season hot streaks indebted to the fixture list and powered by PDO will not be required to finish 4th. Finishing in a league position higher than 4th may well be the new reality for Wenger and his team.

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