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No room for error: Arsenal and European qualification

Champions League — extremely unlikely. Europa League — maybe.


Hard as it may be to believe, Arsenal still have a shot at making the Champions League this season. To follow up on yesterday’s refresher post, I took a closer look at the table and did some napkin math to get a better idea of what the Gunners needed to do in their remaining 10 matches.

With my Arsenal-colored glasses on, the likely outcome seems to be finishing in a Europa League place. Right now, the 5th and 6th place finishers are guaranteed a spot in the EL. The FA Cup winner will likely already be qualified for European football next season, which means the 7th place finisher will head to the Europa League. For the purposes of this piece, I’m assuming that Manchester City’s European ban appeal is unsuccessful, which puts the 5th place finisher in the Champions League and the 8th place finisher in the Europa.

Of course, things don’t have to go that far wrong for Arsenal to miss out on Europe completely. 12th-place Everton are eight points off Manchester United in 5th. The mid-table is incredibly congested, and one bad result could be the difference.

For reference, FiveThirtyEight has Arsenal at 5% to make the Champions League and 43% to make the Europa League. Their model assumes that Manchester City’s ban appeal will not be successful. It also reduces the home-field advantage factor in simulating match outcomes by 10% because of the empty stadiums.

Below is what the table would look like if every team collected points from their remaining matches at the same rate as they have been all season. There would be two changes from the current table: Sheffield United would overtake Wolves for 6th, and more importantly, Arsenal would overtake Tottenham for 8th.

Premier League Table

1. Liverpool 9 1 82 2.83 107.47
2. Manchester City 10 2 57 2.04 77.4
3. Leicester City 9 3 53 1.83 69.47
4. Chelsea 9 4 48 1.66 62.94
5. Manchester United 9 5 45 1.55 58.95
6. Sheffield United 10 7 43 1.48 57.8
7. Wolverhampton Wanderers 9 6 43 1.54 56.86
8. Arsenal 10 9 40 1.41 54.1
9. Tottenham Hotspur 9 8 41 1.43 53.87
10. Burnley 9 10 39 1.34 51.06
11. Crystal Palace 9 11 39 1.34 51.06
12. Everton 9 12 37 1.28 48.52
13. Newcastle United 9 13 35 1.21 45.89
14. Southampton 9 14 34 1.17 44.53
15. Brighton & Hove Albion 9 15 29 1 38
16. West Ham United 9 16 27 0.93 35.37
17. Watford 9 17 27 0.93 35.37
18. AFC Bournemouth 9 18 27 0.93 35.37
19. Aston Villa 10 19 25 0.89 33.9
20. Norwich City 9 20 21 0.72 27.48
Key: MR (matches remaining), CP (current table position), PTS (points), PPG (pre-shutdown points per game rate), xP (expected points based on PPG)

Predicting the table using pre-shutdown points per game is a rudimentary way to model, but we’re just doing napkin math here. It does not capture strength of run-in schedule (more on that in a bit). Thinking about models generally, I don’t think there is any way to really capture all the changes that the layoff, empty stadiums, five substitutions, etc. will have on the game because even with data from Germany, they are nigh impossible to predict.

Since the Bundesliga returned to play, home teams have won approximately 22% of their matches compared to 43% pre-shutdown, and they are scoring almost half a goal less per game. The commentators have also consistently suggested that “better” and “deeper” teams should benefit more from having 5 substitutions per match and playing without the crowd influence — the thought being that underlying quality will carry the day.

Injuries are another complicating factor. Gauging the effect players returning from injury will have on team performance is tough. It’s impossible to predict who will get hurt, but there definitely will be injuries when play resumes, likely more than usual because of the long layoff and condensed schedule.

Players returning from and picking up new injuries is balanced out to an extent by the fact that all the teams are in the same boat, but not all players are equal. For example, I think the return of Kieran Tierney for Arsenal will be big not only because he is a quality player and a true left back, but also because it frees Bukayo Saka to move up in the formation. The Gunners should be helped by improved play from a presumably healthier Hector Bellerin, who needed painkillers to play through injuries before the shutdown. Lucas Torreira won’t be back when play resumes, but he is expected to be available at some point during the run-in. Those changes will all have an influence likely not captured by modeling.

By that same token, Manchester United are getting Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford back. They will be a better team with those two in the fold. United also have the easiest run-in based on opponent’s current table position. The simple PPG model above gets them to 59 points. 538’s model, which does account for strength of schedule, has them at 63. Arsenal have the 8th most difficult run-in, which sees them picking up one point less (53) in 538’s model than above.

Combining my schedule-gazing, “eye test” / gut feeling, and 538’s modeling, I think Arsenal need to win, at a bare minimum, 60 points to have a shot at making the Champions League. That’s 20 points from the run-in. They will probably need more. Looking at their remaining matches, Arsenal need to win all of the games against “lesser” opponents — @ Brighton, @ Southampton, Norwich, @ Aston Villa, and Watford. That’s 15 points. To get to 20, they’ll need to find 5 points more from @ Manchester City, @ Wolves, Leicester City, @ Tottenham, and Liverpool.

@ Manchester City
@ Brighton
@ Southampton
vs. Norwich
@ Wolves
vs. Leicester City
@ Tottenham
vs. Liverpool
@ Aston Villa -
vs. Watford

Those Tottenham and Wolves games are critical for getting into the Europa League places. They’re proverbial “6 point” matches. My guess is that a loss means finishing below that team. The matches against the “lesser” opponents aren’t gimmes either. Brighton, Watford, and Villa will all be fighting to avoid relegation. Even though Norwich are a near-lock to be relegated, they managed a draw against Arsenal in December.

Speaking of December, man, what could have been for Arsenal this season. Liverpool and Manchester City clearly separated themselves at the top. Leicester City, who had fallen off their torrid pace, nonetheless did enough to distance from the pack. But fourth place on down was up for the taking. Chelsea and United have been streaky at best. Tottenham has been poor. Wolves and Sheffield are punching above their weight but are eminently beatable. Arsenal missed a big opportunity to accelerate / ease their much-needed rebuild by being mediocre to poor this season.

From a numbers perspective, over the last 10 seasons, the 4th place finisher has averaged almost 72 points. This year, 538 has Chelsea finishing 4th on 64 points. The same goes for 5th place — a 10-year average of slightly more than 68 points, this year, Manchester United are projected to come 5th on 63 points. That last Champions League place (last two if City stays banned) was there for the taking.

The dropped points around the time of the coaching change are what will do Arsenal in. I don’t want to re-litigate the Unai Emery debate, but there were some poor results — drawing Southampton at home, drawing Norwich away, losing to Brighton away — that might have been avoided had the club done things differently. For example, sacking Emery before the fall break to give a new coach time to implement his system ahead of “easy” games. Or giving Freddie Ljungberg more than a barebones staff to coach five league matches. Or committing more firmly to Emery to refocus both the manager and the team.

Take a handful of those “shouldn’t have been dropped” points and add the two points Arsenal didn’t win against Crystal Palace due to an admitted VAR mistake, and things look quite different. Arsenal start the run-in defending a Europa League place with a legitimate shot at reeling in United and possibly even Chelsea for a CL spot. Instead, they are starting on the outside of everything, looking in with a snowball’s chance in a certain warm place of making the CL. Those VAR-mistake missed points really sting. Every season, you’re going to have bad results and dropped points. There will always be grey-area calls that don’t go your way. But losing points to an admitted mistake, especially in the VAR era, just hits differently.

Oh well. There’s no use crying over spilled milk. Two points aside, Arsenal have only themselves to blame.

The bottom line is that Arsenal have no room for error during the run-in. If they take care of business, they probably make the Europa League. If they do that and get lucky, they’ve got a small shot at the Champions League. If they stumble, they could miss Europe entirely.