Monday, 11 November 2013

We Are Top of the League

Now seems as good a time as any to mention the football. 11 games out of 38 isn't a obvious break-point, but the end of our latest "defining week", plus the impending interlull, makes this a good time to pull onto the hard shoulder, purchase a styrofoam of scalding tea, and chew the fat (there's a burger van there as well).

Let's start with the defining week. Two out of three is not bad, but while the victory over Liverpool was convincing, I'm of the view that they are being a little over-praised at the moment (while many question our lofty perch, curiously few suggest Liverpool are out of place in second). Winning in Dortmund was special, but if it had been a two-legged tie we'd be out on goal difference, so it was no better than the recent ties against Milan and Bayern. That said, we've shown we can, as the cliché has it, beat anyone on the day. Ironically, only losing one-nil at Old Trafford (and having 60% of the possession) might be a better result than we think. United were at their recent best, but that wasn't up to much. Absent van Persie and Rooney, they look pretty ordinary. We were clearly jaded (a combination of Germany and a mystery bug perhaps), but we were not outclassed. The 8-2 spanking seems a long time ago. The broad conclusion then is that we are credible contenders.

Yesterday's result will no doubt have some pundits saying "I told you so". When asked in recent weeks about Arsenal's title chances, the Brains Trust of MOTD have tended to hesitate, smirk and then dismiss them. This vignette implies that the ex-pro has tacit knowledge not available to the common fan who may be deluded by the Gunners sitting atop the table. However, this insider knowledge is never fully revealed beyond anodynes about inexperience and squad depth, which are no more insightful than the prejudice you get down the pub. Wayne Rooney gave an example of this when he spoke, ahead of the game, about Arsenal tending to fade in the New Year, pointing to 2008 and 2011. Aaron Ramsey pointed out that in 2012 and 2013 the team had got stronger from that point onwards. They're both factually correct, but Rooney is clearly ignoring recent form, both Arsenal's and Man United's. In terms of trend, Ramsey is making the more convincing argument, and that remains the case despite the weekend defeat.

Arsenal have gradually improved their total points haul over the last 3 seasons: 68, 70, and 73. With no damaging departures over the summer, and with the useful reacquisition of Mathieu Flamini, a further incremental improvement in a relatively immature squad is possible (and there is still a January transfer window to come). 76 points would be a reasonable target. The addition of Mesut Ozil has undoubtedly been a psychological fillip, but more importantly, I suspect the £42m we paid might actually translate into extra points over the course of the season (money does generally buy success). Allowing for some luck (or the absence of bad luck re injuries and squad-sapping viruses), a step-up means we could hit 78 to 80 points by season end.

Given that the other title contenders have not yet put together consistent runs, and there are grounds to believe that none of them will do enough to leave everyone else in their wake (e.g. Chelsea and Man City's own travails this weekend), then 80 points, which would normally get you to roughly 2nd place (the last 3 runners-up finished on 71, 89 and 78), may prove sufficient to win the title this season (the last 3 champions finished on 80, 89 and 89, with the overall EPL average being 86). The Bloomberg index of estimated points currently predicts a final four of: Chelsea on 77.8, Man City on 76.9, Arsenal on 76.8, and Manure on 75.2. If we can continue our 2013 calendar year form into 2014, we'll be in range of top spot.

Some statistical models (like Bloomberg's) suggest that Arsenal are currently "over-priced" in pole position, and specifically that they have been fortunate in scoring more than their attacking play would merit, with Aaron Ramsey's hot-streak fingered as exceptional (and therefore likely to end at some point). I think this may be an unconscious nod to the belief that we're light up-front and only an injury (to Giroud) away from firing blanks (our duck at Old Trafford was our first in 11 games). I think this discounts the goal-scoring value we have coming back from injury in Walcott (14 league goals last season), Podolski (11 ditto), as well as the recently restored Cazorla (12 ditto). Our ratio of 22 goals from 11 games to date (2.0) is slightly better than last season's 72 from 38 (1.9). Before yesterday we were on 2.2, which suggests we're capable of finishing the season around the level of United's ratio from last season of 2.26 (86 from 38), assuming we maintain form.

So far this season we've scored more than 3 goals in a game only once (4 against Norwich), whereas last season we did so in 7 games overall. These can be considered "wasted" goals (though fun) as you still only get 3 points. We've also only failed to score once this season, while keeping 3 clean sheets. Last season after 11 games we'd got 3 ducks and 4 clean-sheets. In other words, we've been more efficient at converting goals into points. Last season produced 73 points from 72 goals (1.01). So far, we've got 25 points from 22 (1.14). In comparison, United finished last season with 89 points from 86 goals, a ratio of 1.03 points per goal. Regression to that mean would put us on 23 points today, but still in first place, while a ratio of 1.01 would give us 22 and third place. While we may be slightly over-priced, this masks a genuine improvement on last season.

It is still too early to make any confident predictions about final positions, but we're operating within a fairly narrow range of likely outcomes. In recent seasons we've oscillated between third and fourth. If all the stars align, we could make first, but a safer bet would be second on 76 to 78 points. Of course, the key thing to remember, and the only concrete datum that actually means anything at this stage of the season, is that WE ... ARE ... TOP OF THE LEAGUE.

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