Thursday, 13 December 2012

Our Night of Shame

What do Man United, Man City, Spurs and Liverpool have in common? That's right, they all failed to make it to the last eight of the League Cup. Despite this, it is Arsenal's failure to beat Bradford City in Tuesday's quarter-final that has provoked contempt in the media and angst among fans. Bradford's captain, who I suspect isn't a secret Gooner, even went so far as to belittle his own team's performance by claiming that Torquay United were tougher opponents. The fact that Arsenal had 63% possession and managed 28 shots, 12 on target, would indicate that Torquay should be romping away as leaders of Division Two, though strangely they are currently languishing in 11th. The Gunners problem was, not for the first time, wayward finishing, capped by 3 penalty misses. There was no lack of bottle, as shown by the team's attacking intent at a packed away ground and their fighting back to secure an 88th minute equaliser. What was lacking was goals.

I have always kept an eye on goal difference, as this often indicates where a team's league position may be misleading, which is useful data if you're having a bet or just picking a fantasy team. The final positions do not strictly accord with the order of the GD column, but they do roughly correspond. Man City finished last season with a GD of 64 versus United's 56. This season, they are one behind, 16 versus 17, but that obscures a much better goals-against figure of 14 versus 23. United have the edge because they have scored 40 as opposed to City's 30, but for that reason I suspect the blue half of Manchester should be the better bet for the title, particularly if they now stick with Tevez and Aguero up front. United look the more vulnerable, given that Rooney has never been a consistent scorer and van Persie is overdue an injury, not to mention their generous defence (23 conceded puts them joint 10th with Newcastle and Villa). Goal difference at the end of the season will usually throw up the odd anomaly, which can be an indicator for the season to come. For example, Newcastle finished in fifth position last season but on only a GD of 5, which would normally place them about eighth or ninth. Their relatively poor start this season was predictable.

The current anomaly in the league is our very own Arsenal. A current GD of 10 would place them comfortably in fourth, which as I've pointed out before is where their means as a club would logically put them come season's end. The reason we're in seventh is because our goals scored, 26, is only joint sixth best. In the seven games since thumping Spurs 5-2, we have scored seven goals in total during normal time, and conceded six. The defence has frequently been criticised, but their tally of 16 goals against after 16 games is bettered only by Man City on 14. Taken together with qualification for the Champions' League knockout rounds, and even reaching the League Cup last eight, the hard data does not indicate a team in terminal decline, despite that having become the media's ruling narrative. Thus the Bradford "night of shame" has led to the usual nonsense that "the fans deserve better", "the club lacks ambition", and "Wenger's lost it". You can expect every setback from here till May to trigger exactly the same claims, along with shit-stirring about the relationship between Wenger and Bould and the bizarre claim that Sagna may leave because he doesn't think his game is being improved any longer. Bacary Sagna turns 30 in February. Hmmm. If he goes, I suspect it may have more to do with improving his pension fund.

Interestingly, our goals scored at home is a decent 18, which is third best after City on 21 and United on 19. The problem is that we've only scored 8 away from home, which is mid-table form. Even QPR have scored 8 on their travels, which highlights the entertainment value of a league where the average number of goals a game so far this season has been 2.8. This is consistent with the last three seasons, which marks an all-time high in the Premier League, and a significant increase on the historic average of 2.6 since 1992-3. Including the old First Division, the long-run historic average is fractionally under 3.0, though this is obviously boosted by high-scoring seasons in the early years before centre-backs and substitutes were invented. The lowest scoring season was 1970-1, with an average of 2.36 goals per game. Arsenal (them again) won the league with 71 goals in 42 matches, an average of only 1.69. It was the 25 clean sheets that ensured ultimate victory, with only 29 goals conceded in total. The average goals scored by Arsenal per game so far this season is 1.63, and we've kept 6 clean-sheets over 16 games (which is joint second best after Stoke on 8).

Of course, all of this hard data evaporates when you are confronted by another horrendous Gervinho miss, though to be fair to the loon, Podolski and Cazorla seem to be trying hard to top the Ivorian's efforts. There is nothing to be embarrassed about in this, let alone ashamed of. Every footballer occasionally slices the ball or kicks fresh air. Those who think that failure is shameful in all circumstances need to get a life. Arsenal's strikers just need to get some composure in front of goal.

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