Arsenal 1 Manchester United 2
In his book about Pep Guardiola’s first season at Bayern Munich, Marti Perarnau recounts asking Guardiola what the best performance was from his Barcelona side in the time he managed them between 2008 and 2011. Guardiola ponders for a while before answering.
You might think he would choose one of his two Champions League final wins. Perhaps the 5-0 win against Real Madrid in the Clasico. But instead, Guardiola names the first half of Barcelona’s 2-2 draw at the Emirates in 2010 as the best he ever saw his team play, a half which finished 0-0.
Here we have the man acclaimed as perhaps modern football’s greatest coach, thinker and tactician naming a half which finished 0-0 as the best ever performance from a team which won everything and dominated European football for three seasons. If this isn’t evidence that sometimes performances don’t translate into results - but you can still appreciate it as a good performance - I’m not sure what is.
Which is why I find criticism of Arsene Wenger based on Saturday’s Arsenal-Manchester United match utterly misconceived. Honestly, it’s reached a point where people are so keen to draw an artificial binary distinction in the Arsenal fanbase between “AKBs” and “#Wengerout” that every single negative event has to be spun in such a way that if you want the manager to leave, that negative event must be his fault. Presumably people are worried that it’s intellectually incoherent to argue that you want the manager to leave and then acknowledge that some of the problems with this team are not his fault.
As it happens, I’m for Wenger staying but that doesn’t mean I defend everything he does. But to watch the United game and say defeat was the manager's fault just proves that confirmation bias is alive and well amongst many Arsenal fans. Given that the team was set up perfectly to take advantage of United’s weak defence, didn’t have its goal threatened until a highly unlucky own goal, and should have been out of sight before half-time, I find it hard to blame the manager. I do wonder whether people who are criticising the manager for this result, would do so if you conducted a thought experiment where one team played in blue, one in yellow, and they didn’t know the wider context of the two teams. I’d hazard a guess they wouldn’t.
Personally, I’d blame the loss on the poor conversion rates of the forward players. But note that while Santi Cazorla, Danny Welbeck and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain are going through barren patches in front of goal, only Chamberlain has a habit of pinging hopeful shots from distance and even his conversion rates are not that bad. In other words, in a normal season, you would write off Saturday’s match as a statistical anomaly and move on - even Arsenal don’t often lose games in which the opposition only had one shot on target.
Unfortunately, it’s not a normal season. I think most people acknowledge that a team can be unlucky in one game, but few would accept that as an excuse for prolonged poor form. Alas, they’re wrong.
I think that’s what happening to Arsenal at the moment, and the numbers bear it out. This Grantland piece details how Arsenal had the best underlying numbers in both defence and attack before this weekend’s match - a match in which Arsenal had nine shots on target to the opposition’s two.
This sort of thing has happened before. The reason Liverpool’s title run last season was actually reasonably predictable was that they were scoring far fewer goals than would be expected per match, based on the chances created in 2012-13. Over time, things regress to the mean.
A similar story is currently available at Newcastle, where a team which had been on an unlucky run starts to turn it around. And the ongoing bad run of form is similarly in evidence at Borussia Dortmund, who blew a two goal lead this weekend and continue to sit in the relegation zone of the Bundesliga, despite dominating match after match.
And this is the issue for me with claims of it’s “same old, same old” for Arsenal. Sure, Arsenal dominated the match against Manchester United and conceded a soft goal on the counter-attack. But claiming this was like the Arsenal of, say, 2009-10 is simply untrue. Then, Arsenal let teams counter-attack repeatedly, didn’t have significantly more shots on goal than the opposition against big teams, and had a defensive midfielder in Denilson who was dribbled past over and over again. When Arsenal lost 3-1 at home to Man United in January 2010, it was difficult to claim that was unrepresentative of the match.
More importantly, that was almost five years ago. In the meantime, Arsenal won a few games against big teams but never really dominated the game. That changed in an enormous way on Saturday. Last season, against a poor United team, there was very little pressure on them in either game. This time around, Arsenal created a hatful of chances and should killed the game by half-time. That it remained 0-0 was a result of extremely poor chance conversion but in the long-run, given these players aren’t shooting from sub-optimal positions, there’s little reason to expect Arsenal’s poor results to continue.
That shows that at least in terms of the tangible, Arsenal have improved and there’s a lot to be optimistic about. Ah, you might say, but the mentality of this team is one of underdogs against bigger teams, and Wenger spins a narrative of how Arsenal are fighting an uphill battle. In other words, there are intangible, statistically unmeasurable factors at work which are impacting on Arsenal’s form.
I don’t doubt it’s possible for statistically unmeasurable things to have an affect. Certainly, once Arsenal start to win a few games, confidence will rise and momentum will return. But I find it hard to believe that this manager is a block to that occurring. I appreciate this is more opinion than fact-based, but given the way Arsenal attacked United on Saturday in a manner which I hadn’t seen for years, I reject the contention that Wenger instills a negative mentality in the players. Quite the opposite in fact. Consistently, even when Arsenal were not very good, Wenger would be in the press bigging the players up and saying they could win the League. If anything, it’s the case that he goes too far the other way.
In terms of this season, winning the League title is almost certainly a write-off. But it was only a small chance at the beginning of the season - and that was without losing our best defender for a prolonged period, best striker for a prolonged period, and best player for several months.
For me, the manager is at fault for not bringing in another defender. But equally, Chelsea have exactly the same number of first-team defenders (six). Go and check their website if you do not believe me. Neither Koscielny or Debuchy’s injuries are the result of the dreaded ‘over-training’ but rather in one case, a trauma injury, and in the other, an ongoing medical condition, for which there is limited medical treatment.
What people fail to recognise is that the issue with the defence at the moment is less one of personnel, and more one of a lack of playing time together. That’s when players get the understanding necessary to defend effectively. In time - even were Debuchy and Koscielny to remain injured - I would expect the occasional defensive error which is drifting in (quite literally, sometimes) to Arsenal’s game to lessen in frequency.
Thus far this season, while missing a series of key players, Arsenal have still dominated almost every match they’ve played. In time, the goals will come, and Arsenal will move up the League table.
Keep the faith.