We all know what's going on. Arsenal have, after three games, one of each - a win, a loss, and a draw. Four points after three games. And the win wasn't...convincing? Emphatic? Whatever it was, it wasn't the Arsenal of last spring, nor are the other two games representative of the Arsenal we all watched destroy the league from January on last season. What I am trying to figure out, and what I'm sure a lot of you are wondering, is twofold:
1. How damaging is the digging of said hole to a league title run?
2. Why, exactly, do Arsenal dig themselves into a hole early?
Let's look at the first one first. I went back as far as the 2010/11 season and looked at the first three games of the "big five" (MUFC, MCFC, CFC, AFC, LIV), as well as two perennial mid-table teams (STK, NUFC). While I haven't done a lot of deep analysis of this data yet, a few things jumped out at me:
- Title winning teams since 2010 have dropped a maximum of three points from their first three games
- Second place teams, oddly, dropped a maximum of two points from their first three
- One season (and not a season in the 1990's!) Newcastle finished ahead of Chelsea
- This is Arsenal's worst start to a season since 2011-12, when they had one point from three and finished third
I am hesitant to draw any grand conclusions from three games' worth of data, but if you want to, here's that data. It is fairly obvious that winning teams win and earn points consistently, but this 90 seconds of research showed me that it's fairly important to win consistently from day one in order to sustain a title challenge through game 38. I told you that it was obvious!
Now, for the bigger question. Why does Arsenal get off to slow starts?
Well, let's first try to define our terms a little bit. This season, as mentioned, is the second-slowest start they've undertaken in five years; last year, they had five points from three games, and only Chelsea had more than six. In previous seasons, Arsenal have had the second- or third-most points every season except 2011-12. So, while four points from nine is definitely a slow start, I don't think it's fatal; form is fluid, and Arsenal's will get better and other teams' will fluctuate as well. I can't say right now that Arsenal's title quest is doomed, and you shouldn't either - they're lagging behind, absolutely, but it's not the end of the season, in any sense of the phrase.
But but but...that wasn't the question!
The question is, why do Arsenal get off to starts that, relative to other teams they're contending with, are slower? That is the million dollar/pound/euro question, isn't it? SPOILER ALERT: I have no answer.
I do have some conjecture, though, and it takes the form of wondering about Arsene Wenger. If you look at Arsenal and Chelsea this season, so far, they're equal on points, and yet no one is writing 800 word pieces about how Chelsea is doomed to finish fourth, and how Chelsea's title race is over before it began. And yet, here we are, hearing people say basically those same things about Arsenal; why?
Well, for one, Chelsea get the benefit of the doubt thanks to the whole "being champions" thing. For two, Chelsea are fairly ruthless about correcting squad deficiencies, while Arsenal are...let's call it "surgical" in addressing theirs. The reasons for this have been discussed ad nauseum, and I'm not really interested in rehashing them here - but they also may form a bit of an explanation.
Arsene Wenger has in his head an idea of how he wants his team to play. He has assembled a team that he believes can play that way. And to be fair, they can - look at the last five months of last season for the most recent evidence of that. Wenger's issue, to me, lies in his stubbornness - his idea of how Arsenal should play is the way they play, and if for some reason they can't play that way, it is a fault of the opponent, or of a lack of sharpness, or of any number of things that aren't bent to the will of Wenger's single-mindedness.
Don't worry - this isn't an anti-Wenger screed, I'm not going to go jump in a car with Piers Morgan and drive off a cliff like Thelma & Louise. I do wonder, though, why Arsene Wenger feels the need to stick so dogmatically to an approach that works 85% of the time. Let's look (anecdotally and briefly) at the two most successful recent Premier League managers who aren't Wenger - Sir Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho. What did both of them have in common, and what contrasts them from Wenger?
Ferguson, throughout his tenure, was ruthless about changing his team. If you weren't good enough, you were gone - and to be deemed "good enough" was to be measured against the likes of Giggs, Beckham, Neville, Scholes, etc. Ferguson tinkered with lineups a lot, he tinkered with squads, and his sole focus was winning the next game, however that had to happen given the situation.
Mourinho's a very similar manager to Ferguson in that regard - he has no patience for things and people that don't work. He brings in a lot of players, sure, but to an even greater degree than Ferguson, he is also willing to completely change his team's tactics in order to win a game. His teams can play pretty, they can play ugly, they can play boring; they're pragmatic.
And to a large degree, that pragmatism - that willingness to do whatever it takes to win - is what differentiates Ferguson and Mourinho from Wenger. I am not making a value judgment about either side here - I love Wenger, and love watching his teams play, but I also admire what Mourinho's teams can accomplish (to be clear, Mourinho is a dickbag - but he's a great manager).
I just wish occasionally that Wenger would let a little of that pragmatism into Arsenal's game - I'm not 100% sure it would lock down nine points from the first three games of the season, but it might help Arsenal avoid these slow starts and dips in form that recently have put paid to their title challenges before they've had a chance to start.