Sunday, 3 January 2016


It's just past the halfway point of the season and we sit top, which is nice. 39 points from 19 games means, if we accept the conventional wisdom that we'll improve over the second half, that we should creep beyond the 80-point line by the end of the campaign. I was sceptical at the quarter mark that this would be enough to clinch the title, but the continuing inconsistency of others, notably Man City, suggests that perhaps it might. The further 3 points gained in yesterday's victory over Newcastle United is being cited as evidence that Arsenal can win when they're not at their best (the "mark of champions", don'tcha know), but I think it is more a reflection on the Magpies' striking inadequacies. With only 19 goals after 20 games, they have scored only 3 more than Aston Villa.

If we break the season into thirds (12, 13 and 13 games), Arsenal managed 26 points over the first period, which was the same as Citeh. So far, we've secured 16 points from a further 8 games, despite a "dodgy patch" in November, which would extrapolate to a middle third of 26 points as well. I'm hopeful we can improve that to 28, and achieve a similar number in the final stretch (last season we managed 28 and 30 points respectively), which would land us a final tally of 82. This is slightly below the usual optimum to challenge for the title (an average of 29 points per third), but the greater "equality" of the league this season means that it's likely to be enough to keep us interested until the final weekend.

Though Mesut Ozil is a worthy contender for Premier League player of the season, I suspect the club accolade may go to Petr Cech. I wouldn't normally consider anything that came out of John Terry's mouth to be worth listening to (apart from "guilty, m'lud"), but his estimate that the big stopper would guarantee Arsenal an extra 12-15 points looks remarkably prescient for a dimwit. 12 points on top of last season's 75 would produce a total of 87, usually the form of champions, though I think the eventual winner this season will do well to get over 85. You could suggest that Cech's eye-catching displays are due to a leakier defence in front of him, but the average number of goals conceded per game at 0.9 (18 in 20) compares well with last season's average of 0.947 (36 in 38), so this is a net improvement (pun intended) not just a compensation.

At the other end we're scoring 1.7 per game (34 in 20), which is down on last season's 1.92 (73 in 38), suggesting that our need for another striker remains more pressing than the need for another centre-back (though I suspect we'll be after a replacement for Mertesacker come the summer, and I wouldn't be surprised if both Debuchy and Monreal move on). We've only managed to score more than 3 goals in a game once, in the 5-2 away victory at Leicester, a match that now looks pivotal. Citeh, with 39 goals, are the only team with a better average than 1.9 (38), which is why I wouldn't write them off for the title. They've recently started to score late on in games, which is often a sign of a decent run brewing. Leicester seem likely to unconsciously ease up now they've achieved their relegation-proof target of 40 points, while the Spuds look a good bet for a top-four finish. So long as we finish higher, I'll live with that.

Though they're out of the title race, Chelski may well prove to be king-makers this season. We face them at home on the 24th of January, while they host Citeh on the 16th of April and Spurs on the 30th of the same month. On balance, I reckon we have the advantage in playing them earlier, as well as being at home, meaning the "derailment" potential is greater for the other two challengers. West London's newest club also host Leicester on the final weekend in mid-May, but I suspect that might be of interest only to those chasing a Europa Cup slot. Manure have been poor all season and appear to have lost the knack for nicking undeserved victories, the win over Swansea yesterday notwithstanding, so I doubt they'll be significant, even if they continue to hog the headlines.

Villa look doomed and Fat Sam, the great specialist in arresting failure, will do well to get Sunderland out of the mire. Newcastle United, to judge from yesterday, have enough in the squad to escape relegation, but it will probably require Mike Ashley to buy a striker in the January sales who can deliver 8-10 goals against lower-half teams over the remainder of the season (so he'll try to get Patrick Bamford on loan from Chelski instead). Swansea need a new manager (he won't be interested, but they'd benefit from being terrified into shape by Mourinho), while Bournemouth need a bit of luck. It being an unforgiving business, I suspect the Cherries will slip down with either Swansea or Sunderland in Villa's wake.

Despite sitting pretty, Arsenal still look a little fragile at times (e.g. Southampton away), though their flexibility in the face of the injuries to Cazorla, Coquelin and Sanchez does suggest growing resilience as a squad. Giroud, Walcott and Sanchez are a complementary package: each extremely good at a limited number of things but dependent on Ozil (and to a lesser extent Cazorla and Ramsay) to orchestrate their combinations. This means that there is a lot of responsibility on the German's shoulders, though it is a pleasure to see his insouciance in accepting the burden. However, as in season's past, that means we're only one nasty "reducer" away from being knocked off course, particularly if Flamini picks up a straight red for retaliation. That said, Ozil has a peculiar "antifragile" quality which means that while your mum could knock him off the ball, he could probably also cause Ryan Shawcross to herniate himself.

Sadly, were the worst to happen, I doubt Tomas Rosicky would be able to step into the creative breach and Wilshere will be lucky to return before Easter. Oxlade-Chamberlain continues to look like a player furiously seeking a role, though an interruption to Ozil's fine run in the team might paradoxically be the making of him. At the back, Bellerin is looking mentally shattered even if his legs are willing. If Mertesacker gets injured, the young Spaniard might struggle without his on-field mentor, despite Gabriel's technical competence. More positively, the return of Sanchez and Coquelin should provide a psychological boost as much as shoring up the team in the period leading to Easter. If we can get Cazorla back for the last 8 games, that could make a big difference.

On balance, it's been a frustrating season so far. Despite the results, we've rarely played as well as we can, though when we have it has come against the "bigger" teams in key games: Leicester, Manure and Citeh. Recent matches have seen too many unforced errors, though that is likely to be down to fatigue as much as personnel changes, which should now ease. I suspect Wenger will gamble with more young players in the FA Cup (I also hope he recalls Serge Gnabry from his loan-hell with Tony Pulis), and will probably not be too bothered if we succumb again to Barcelona in the Champions League, which is one reason why I perversely think we'll squeak through. We still look like a very good cup team, but also have the proven ability to put together the sort of winning run over the second half of the season worthy of league champions.

The dominant media narrative has evolved from "no trophies" into "Arsenal's best chance in a decade", which is just a variant on the same theme that gets around those pesky FA Cup victories in recent years. I suppose it beats being patronised like plucky Leicester. We've definitely got a good chance of clinching the league title, but I suspect we'll need some luck on the injury (or avoiding injuries) front, not to mention needing Chelski to do us a favour or two against other top-four teams in the run-in. Typically, the bastards will probably let us down, much as Spurs always used to do against Manure. You can take the bastard out of the club (ta-ra, José), but not the club out of the realm of bastardy. Or something. Here's hoping for an antifragile 2016.

1 comment:

  1. Herbie Kills Children5 January 2016 at 18:26

    I think Arsenals **current** success comes down to a couple of things:

    Petr Cech is undoubtedly a presence that Arsenal were in desperate need of. Great calmness, great reading of the game.

    The other teams have gone backwards, thus allowing Arsenal to move forward.

    Simple statistics, a club like Arsenal have to be in with a chance every now and again.

    The point is none of the above include Wenger, they are **currently** triumphing in spite of him not because of him.

    Don't get me wrong, he has had some great moments but I always felt he was over-rated. It would always amuse me how the Arsenal of recent years would panic every time they went one nil up! Wenger is seen as a purist but I can't thunk of too many defences that panic in the way the Arsenal team has done. You would never get that sort of thing from Barcelona, well any team with Mascherano and Alves at the back will struggle up to point but this was more about their defensive inadequacies than panicking.

    And I put that sort of thing down to the manager. He really doesn't deserve his reputation, despite the great and joyous football we sometimes see from his teams.