Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Is This Arsenal's Year?

This international break is even less exciting than most, what with just four competitive ties in Europe among pedestrian national sides, World Cup qualifiers far in advance of the actual competition, and a host of friendlies. The main benefit of the current hiatus is the opportunity to assess Arsenal’s start to the season and the club’s prospects.

Arsenal have played 12 matches in the Premier League and return to action on Saturday with 26 points, the same as league leaders Manchester City. Will the Gunners be there in May?

A more favorable feeling

Because the dynamics of each campaign are different, obsessing over parallels with seasons past isn’t especially productive. Still, there might be lessons supporters and the players can draw from the 2013-14 league season, for example, when Arsenal topped the table after 12 matches.

“The second half [of that season], we dropped,” left back Nacho Monreal told Arsenal Player. “So we need to learn about that. The team is different now. We have different players—more competitive. I think the level of the team is better now.”

It’s hard to argue that point. The additions of Alexis Sanchez and Petr Cech and the acclimatization of Mesut Özil brought three game changers to the side; recruitment in the summer of 2014 gave the squad needed depth; and the emergence of Francis Coquelin and Hector Bellerin added to the dynamism in the playing style.

Much has also been made of the team’s camaraderie and mindset. As Cech observed from his many successful seasons with Chelsea,
You never win things without being focused, without being right in the training ground. So far, I have to say that the team are focused on what we are doing every day, and I have to say, this is the key.

The results, at least in the League, provide the evidence. Arsenal have what it takes to compete with the top sides. The 3-0 demolition of Manchester United, still the team with the league’s best defensive record, is a clear sign of the Gunners’ ability to dominate a match at the summit.

They’ve also summoned the quality of winning when they’re not at their best, such as the 2-1 victory over an energetic Everton side, and have been able to grind out draws that in years past may have turned into losses.

The sample size is small, but two performances after taxing Champions League ties illustrate a possible difference between the seasons. In 2013, Arsenal traveled to Germany, endured the indefatigable pressing of Jürgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund side, and escaped with a 1-0 win. Four days later, a drained Arsenal team lost 1-0 to Manchester United at Old Trafford. This season, the Arsenal team, exhausted by a 5-1 battering in Munich and seemingly overwhelmed by illness, injury, and Mauricio Pochettino’s midfield press, rallied to secure a 1-1 draw with Tottenham and finished that match its more likely winners.

A comparison of results

Beyond such anecdotes, do the numbers indicate that this team has reached a higher level of competitiveness?

In total, the 26 points from the first 12 matches (W8 D2 L2) is two fewer than the Arsenal of 2013-14 compiled over the similar opening period. The difference, really, is that of one draw in 2015 that was a win in 2013.

Given the strength of the two schedules, though, that’s a good outcome. At this point in the 2013 campaign, the median position of the Gunners’ first 12 league opponents was 11.5; this season, it’s 9.5.

Indeed, in 2013, nine of Arsenal’s first 12 opponents found themselves in the 11th to 20th league positions after 12 matches. Arsenal won seven of those nine matches, drew one (at West Bromwich Albion), and lost one, the opener against Aston Villa. That’s a total of 22 of 28 points, or 79 percent, from matches against the league’s poorer sides.

Among the first 12 opponents this season, by contrast, only five occupied a bottom-half spot after 12 matches. Arsenal won four of those matches and lost one (at Chelsea), amassing 12 of 26 points, or 46 percent, against teams below the current league midpoint.

The majority of Arsenal’s points, then, have come against teams in the top half of the league. There have been two decisive victories against teams in the top four, two wins and two draws against teams in positions five through 10, and the opening day loss to West Ham, currently sixth in the table.

In short, although the points total is slightly lower this season, the results are more encouraging, considering the competition.

Relative performance to date

How do these early results look in comparison to those of the other main title contenders?

The degree of difficulty in Manchester City’s schedule has been much lower than Arsenal’s, yet City haven’t accumulated any more points. The median league position of its opponents after 12 matches is 12.0.

They’ve played every team in the bottom six except 19th-ranked Sunderland and built their goal differential advantage with a five-goal win over Newcastle (#17) and a four-goal win over Bournemouth (#18).

At this point, the other main challenger for the title appears to be Manchester United. They’ve amassed 24 points from their first 12 matches, against opponents with a median position of 9.5. That’s identical to Arsenal’s strength of schedule.

The breakdown of matches against top-four opponents, those in positions five through 10, and those in the bottom half of the table is identical for Arsenal and Manchester United. The performance gap between the two is small, but so far Arsenal have fared better against the top four, winning two and losing none to Manchester United’s one draw and one loss.

Other statistics, such as expected goals (xG) and the difference between expected goals for and against, put Arsenal squarely in contention for the Premier League title.

The preliminary conclusion

More than two thirds of the season remains, and developments both foreseeable and unforeseeable will influence the final outcome. Health, particularly of Özil, Alexis, Coquelin, and Santi Cazorla, is probably the most important factor.

Injuries and other factors may favor the Gunners in ways they haven't in years past, or they may not. It’s that unpredictability that drives interest in sporting endeavors.

The most we can therefore do is give a “qualified yes” answer to the question “Is this Arsenal’s year?” Anything more definitive would just ruin the fun anyway.

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