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Arsenal aren’t underachieving; they never underachieve

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Who are Arsenal, anyway?

Aerial Views Of London Football Stadiums
different eras
Photo by Tom Shaw/Getty Images

One of the things I love to do most is to debunk narratives, and to challenge accepted wisdom. Okay, that’s two things. But they’re often entwined! Anyway, I love digging into data and trying to see whether what people say is true is actually true. Even if I find out it is, and thus my natural skepticism about the wisdom of crowds is not valid in any particular instance, it’s a worthwhile exercise if for no other reason than to see the math underlying any one assumption or set of assumptions.

One of the more popular assumptions about the current iteration of Arsenal is that they should win the league more than they do. That’s generally based on a few things:

- A run of success in the 1970’s and again in the late 1990’s
- The fact that they’re based in London, and thus subject to/beneficiaries of outsized London economics
- They’re Arsenal

But here’s the thing: Arsenal haven’t been all-conquering dominators of the league since before World War II. Here’s a breakdown of the number of Arsenal First Division/Premier League titles by decade:

1930’s: 5
1940’s: 0 (this is not really a realistic number, as there was no football from the 1939/40 season, abandoned after three matches, until the 1946/47 season.)
1950’s: 1 (1949/50)
1960’s: 0
1970’s: 2
1980’s: 1
1990’s: 2
2000’s: 3 2
2010’s: 0

So it doesn’t look like Arsenal should be expected to win the league more often than not, really, from a historical perspective.

There’s another layer to that, though, and it’s research I’ve been meaning to do for a while that the excellent Arseblog beat me to today. That layer is determining whether the narrative of “Arsenal are competitive until January or so then fall apart” is actually real, or whether they do actually contend deeper into seasons than we all remember.

Arseblog went back to the season following the club’s last championship, 2004/05, and charted the points by which Arsenal were behind the league leaders on the first of every month from February to May, and the total points Arsenal finished behind the champions.

And guess what? in those 12 seasons, only twice did Arsenal finish single-digit points behind the league champions. And not a single season in those 12 saw Arsenal atop the table in either April or May.

What does that tell us? Well, it tells us a few things. First, and most obviously, it tells us that Arsenal can’t sustain a title challenge; this isn’t a surprise. But one of the other things it tells us is that Arsenal may actually be overachieving by mounting an early-season title challenge in the first place.

I mean, just focusing on the Premier League era, 12 seasons is a reasonable sample, given that the Premier League is only 25 seasons old. In those 25 seasons, Arsenal have won the league twice three times and been serious contenders (if by “serious” you mean finish single-digit points away from the leaders) twice, and the rest of the time, they haven’t.

So where does that leave Arsenal, and more importantly, what does that mean for our perception of Arsenal? Is Arsenal a sleeping giant, just waiting to be prodded awake to run rampant over all in its path? Or, is Arsenal basically what we’re seeing now - a team in a big city who is underachieving relative to expectation, but is performing at or where it should be historically speaking?

If it’s the former, I guess people are right to get ragey when Arsenal conclude yet another season more than 10 points behind the league leaders. But if, as I suspect is more the case, Arsenal are the latter, then I’m not sure what kind of change will awaken the sleeping giant.

Whether that change be managerial, financial, or whatever change is being demanded, Arsenal have been what they are for a long time now. It remains to be seen whether the wholesale change that fans are currently clamoring for will produce results that are radically different to Arsenal's record of success, be it in the Premier League, with three title wins in over twenty years, or the history of a club as a whole.