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Arsenal haven’t stood still, but they haven’t improved either

fivethirtyeight dot com used math to fit a narrative, not find a reality.

Liverpool v Sevilla - UEFA Europa League Final
This is Arsenal’s target next season
Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images

Arsenal are the odds-on favorites to just barely miss out on Champions League qualification this season. Liverpool and Manchester City have the upper hand, with the Gunners and Manchester United keeping dim and dimmer, respectively, hopes alive that they can sneak into Champions League qualification.

This season has been the most competitive top 4 battle in recent memory, and Arsenal, for the first time in Arsene Wenger’s reign, are on the outside looking in. A lot of digital ink has been spilled over why this is the case, from Arsenal fans and neutral observers alike. In a recent piece for ESPN’s data-driven site FiveThirtyEight, Michael Caley took a stab at explaining the end of Arsenal’s streak and the results were underwhelming.

To preface all this, even though he’s a Spurs fan, I think Caley is really good. He’s a smart guy, a good writer, and is the co-host of one of the more enjoyable soccer podcasts out there. He’s certainly among the best soccer analytics writers. That said, I don’t think this piece was his best effort.

In it, Caley shuffles between criticism of Arsenal’s overall results this season and minimizing Arsenal’s recent run of form, all while taking a cursory look at the underlying advanced statistics. For post on a site that is built on using statistics to dig into complicated issues, it is remarkably devoid of any analytical insight.

First, Caley states why it would be a bad thing if Arsenal missed the Champions League. I agree that the loss of near-guaranteed Champions League revenue, where getting knocked out in the Round of 16 provides as much cash as winning the Europa League, the potential loss of current stars like Alexis Sanchez, and a probable inability (or at least a lessened ability) to attract top talent without massively overpaying are all bad things Arsenal should hope to avoid.

From there, Caley’s argument goes downhill. His thesis is simple, and it makes a bit of sense at first blush: Arsenal are the same team they’ve always been, but over the past several seasons, their competition has gotten better. The main piece of evidence he uses for his proof of this theory, though, is Arsenal’s points per match, which seems like an oddly blunt statistic to be the focal point of an analytical argument. It is not until later in the piece that he mentions the underlying numbers and even then, it’s used to highlight the recent formation shift’s questionable efficacy as opposed to digging into this season’s malaise.

It’s hard to accept that “Arsenal are the same, everyone else just got better” when focusing on the overall underlying numbers. The Gunners had the best underlying statistics in the league last season, but underperformed xG and whiffed on their best chance to win a title in recent memory. This season, the club has outperformed xG but ended up with roughly the same points per match total.

The title and one of the chart titles, likely not written by Caley, make the point more bluntly with “Arsenal stood still...” and “Arsenal held steady....” With the argument Caley makes afterwards, I don’t think it’s unfair to ascribe that position to him as well. The relevant excerpt:

The strategy of Wenger’s Arsenal has been to build a team good enough to reach the top four, usually with 70-75 points and a goal difference between plus-20 and plus-30. The strategy has worked in part because the other clubs with the resources to match these results failed to achieve Arsenal’s consistency. This year they have improved and Arsenal has not.

I do agree this was Arsenal’s strategy in the early Emirates era. To say that has been the strategy in recent years is wrong. Coming off of two straight seasons of improvement in underlying numbers and the addition of big-time talents in Granit Xhaka and Shkodran Mustafi, it was reasonable to think the Gunners would step forward. Coming off a season where the club finished 2nd with 71 points with a clear attempt to improve the squad significantly, the club was not aiming for a 70-75 point haul. To parrot a position on Arsenal’s team-building strategy you might hear on Arsenal FanTV is odd, to say the least.

It is inarguable that the most disappointing aspect of this season for the Gunners is that they finally broke the bank by spending more than they ever have, and yet they ended up demonstrably worse than the season before, even if they have the slight chance of equaling or slightly surpassing last season’s point total. Arsenal did not stand still; they tried to run up the Premier League hill, only to slip and fall back to below this season’s square one.

Caley then transitions into the conclusion of his piece, how Arsenal have and might close the season out. He highlights Arsenal’s poor record from March 1, the irregular formation change, and how the formation change hasn’t been as seamless as the points accrued suggest. His blurring of the March 1st date with the admittedly well-performing formation change, from a points standpoint, makes it difficult for the reader to demarcate which good results from the bad results. This makes a difference, when the crux of the article’s argument is based on points won.

The article, written before the back 3’s first very good underlying performance against Stoke City, also neglects to mention the free fall Arsenal were experiencing from March 1st until the formation shift, in which the results were as poor as the underlying performances. Massive defeats to Liverpool, West Bromwich Albion, and Crystal Palace, with a fortunate draw with Manchester City sandwiched in between, had put Arsenal in a precarious position where the blue club on Merseyside was as much their competition as the red one.

The back 3 hasn’t led to massively convincing performances, but it certainly has plugged the hole in Arsenal’s season admirably. Also, the non-shot xG figures from those matches (via FiveThirtyEight’s database), show significantly better performances from the club during that stretch. That would tend to support the idea that once the Gunners become more accustomed with the formation, cutting out defensive errors from unfamiliar positioning and figuring out where each other are in attack, the underlying performances might tick up as well.

Barring a couple of upsets, Arsenal will finish the season with more points this season than last, but three positions lower down the table. This is not because they stood still, despite Caley’s attempt to prove otherwise. They attempted to press forward off the pitch, and ended up regressing on it. That is why Arsenal have fallen behind the top 4 pack, and that is why Arsenal fans will be forced to cheer on their team on Thursday nights next season.