Is it slow progress or no progress for Arsenal?
It’s over. Arsenal‘s worst season ever is finally done. What has been a fairly awful season that showed a few signs of promise and yet flattered to deceive is now firmly finished and can be consigned to the bin.
The big question after the immediate aftermath of the season’s end is this: are we at least headed in the right direction? The feeling after the Villareal tie was low across a lot, if not all of the fan base regarding Arteta, however, the “since Christmas we’re 3rd” argument also felt like a valid one. So I thought I’d look into the data behind it, to see if we were at least looking like the underlying numbers suggested progress. I wanted to be sure that this wasn’t simply another 22-game unbeaten run wherein we were far outperforming our xG and xPts and something that was impossible to maintain.
Essentially the argument suggests, would we be so disappointed being 3rd since a new man had replaced Arteta prior to the Chelsea game? Probably not. That sure looks and sounds like progress on the face of it, but there was something that gnawed away at me about how close some of those games were. For every game that we “should” have won, there were plenty of games that we “should” have lost and that’s what really got me thinking about the numbers.
To do this I wanted to look at the games since Christmas (specifically since the home game vs Chelsea). In that entire period (24 games) we produced 14 wins, 5 draws, 5 defeats, scoring 43 goals and conceding 21, amassing 43 points in the process. This puts us 3rd in the table behind only Man City and Man Utd having played a game less. Finishing 3rd this season would have been considered an incredible success given the resources available and spent by the likes of City, Chelsea, Liverpool and United so the drastically better half of the season definitely needs to be taken into account.
Though on the other side of the argument, the underlying numbers don’t quite support this progress as deserved. The expected goals in this period were 36.75, the expected goals against were 26.66 and the expected points were 39.88. Not quite Emery levels of imbalance in the stats but still cause for concern. I then wanted to see where we would have finished based on expected points and with the levelling out of the numbers, we end up 6th behind West Ham and the rest of the top four – Man City, Chelsea, Utd and Liverpool.
That’s progress in comparison to last season for sure in terms of position, however my concern with this is that in any of the games we win or lose the margins appear to be too fine. It’s too close to say for certain whether we deserved to be where we are or not, whether we deserved to win or not. And that to me is what feels distinctly mid-table.
The big question then remains, should we stick or twist? Stick and we should be bearing top 4 fruit next season so far as the “project” goes, of that there’s no question. Twist and we start from scratch again, but what better time to start from scratch than when we’re not in Europe? There aren’t any short-term needs (well there are but every team has immediate wants) that require a sticky plaster. It’s an opportunity to build structure whether it is with or without Arteta. That’s the key as far as I’m concerned, structure. If the manager is backed financially and loosens some of his stubborn misgivings for better man management we may well begin to see the shoots of progress blossom into something bigger. I think one of the largest errors on the awful run of around 3 months or so consisted of Willian taking centre stage and being given chance after chance at the expense of Pepe.
It seemed to be a hill that Arteta was willing to die on. Add to that the faux headmaster approach with Aubameyang, who clearly needs more man management and nous to deal with, and you’ve got a couple of big decisions that he got wrong. Putting his ego aside is going to be needed. Almost every manager needs to do this, else they end up walking sooner rather than later. Can he do this? Will the higher-ups hold him accountable for this? Will he be backed?
Huge questions remain and we all know that, but the next few weeks need swift decision making and a concrete plan. Not something Vinai and Edu (or the Kroenkes) are renowned for on a sporting level. Tick tock guys, tick tock.
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