This is quick piece I felt I had to get out following a debate I’ve been having on Twitter this morning about Arsenal’s recent past. Quite simply, many fans were claiming that Arsenal had been on the decline for years and I contended otherwise.
I have been roundly criticised for suggesting that last year’s team was full of potential – more potential than previous Arsenal teams – and especially for suggesting that the Barcelona game was an indication of that. “It was just one game,” they said, and surely the Birmingham loss was an example of how poor we could be in the same way that the Champion’s League victory was an example of the opposite.
Fair enough. Perhaps we were lucky in the Barcelona game. Perhaps last year’s team didn’t have the potential I believed they did. We collapsed after all, and that seems like a pretty big indication of how weak we were, and this year is just a further illustration of how we’ve been falling further and further since we last won a trophy.
That’s one theory at least. But not mine.
The most complete representation of how successful a team has been comes from the league. A 38 game season gives a far better indication of sustained performance over the course of the year than a cup competition. Which is why Birmingham can win the Carling Cup and still be relegated.
Final league position is one measure of how successful we’ve been, but as we have come either 4th or 3rd for the past six years running coming 4th again this year could hardly be said to make us worse. If anything our finishing positions suggest our level has been pretty consistent for years, as opposed to declining continuously, and in any case I would argue that final league positions only tell part of the story.
Another measure of performance in the league is final points totals, and if Arsenal have been declining for years then you might expect our points totals during those years to look something like this.
But below is the actual graph showing our final points totals, starting with 04/05 – when we last won a trophy – to now.
Now to me that doesn’t look like a continuous decline at all. That looks like a period of semi-random peaks and troughs where the previous season says little or nothing about the following one.
In 04/05 we ended up with 83pts, but just the following season we ended up with only 67pts. That’s a 16pt drop in consecutive seasons, which is huge. But in 06/07 we ended with 68pts and then in 07/08 we jumped right back up to 83pts. This time it wasn’t a decline but a massive improvement of 15pts.
And if we have been continuously declining, how did we end up with 75pts in 09/10 or even 68pts last year when we only had 67pts in 05/06? In fact in every single year since 05/06 we have finished with a higher points total, so how can we possibly be said to have decline since then?
You might, however, think that points totals are misleading. If the teams around us are changing also then they might have declined themselves and it might have been easier to accumulate points. And that’s a fair point.
Essentially it’s not just how many points you accumulated, but how far you were away from winning. If 4th isn’t a trophy then 3rd isn’t a trophy and 2nd isn’t a trophy. Only 1st is a trophy.
So instead of just look at our own points totals let’s look at how far we ended up from winning the league – how many points we finished with in relation to the league winners.
The following graph plots the difference in points between our final points totals and those of the team who won the league.
But this doesn’t seem to show any continuous decline either. In fact it shows that we have actually have been closer to winning the league on two occasions, in 07/08 and in 09/10, than we were the last time we won a trophy, in 04/05.
Even more crazily, despite our massive collapse last year we still ended up exactly the same number of points away from winning the league as we did in 04/05, and the distance between us and the title was half what it was in 05/06. We may not have won the league since 03/04 but it’s fair to say that we have been much closer to it in recent years than we were only two or three years afterwards.
What this all says to me is that, just as every year the seasons change, every season teams change. And teams can change for better or worse in the blink of an eye. We lost Vieira one year and the next year we crumbled. We lost Henry one year and the next year we came back a hell of a lot stronger.
One year everything can click, and yet the next, with just a few things changed, it might all fall apart. And vice versa.
People often talk about building a team in terms of being a puzzle, which it certainly is. But not a jigsaw puzzle. With a jigsaw puzzle once you have a piece in the right place you can forget about it, and just add the next piece and the next piece and so on until you have the final, complete image you were looking for.
Building a team is more like trying to solve Rubik's Cube - you might have one section of the puzzle complete, but if you try and address another section you can easily upset the balance in an area you thought was sorted. And while it is entirely possible to get everything looking exactly how you want there’s not always an obvious route to take you there.
We are not in continuous decline, but rather we have changed our core players too often and this has had a massive disruptive effect on the team. In rare cases (Henry) losing a key member of the squad can even have a positive effect, provided the rest of the squad falls into place, but on a general level it sets us back and we then have to use the summer to both redress the balance AND seek to improve the squad on top of that. It’s not easy.
I am not here today to debate the issue of departures, which is one of the primary reasons why we have been unsuccessful, but just to point out that this has had a massive impact on our fortunes. In fact, given our departures, we have done pretty damn well in rebuilding our team, season upon season, and maintaining a decent, if not always satisfactory, level throughout.
We shouldn’t be content with our recent history – far from it - but neither should we paint it as continuous decline. We should view it for exactly what it is: a period of massive change and inconsistency which we are having incredible trouble escaping from.
In truth, it’s understandable why people are saying what they are. If we extrapolate from the current league standings we are likely to both end up with our lowest points total (65pts) and the biggest distance between us and top spot (26pts) that we have seen in this period. This year we have definitely declined, but while we are worse than we were six years ago we are much worse than we were two years ago, and that’s the main point.
If the decline isn’t continuous then what’s to say it can’t be reversed again? Given our history, what’s to say that with some clever changes in the summer we won’t be able to jump up the table next term?
Whether or not you trust Wenger to make those changes is a different matter, but to say this squad has no hope is to miss the bigger picture. This summer will be massive, no doubt about it, but with a few clever twists of Rubik’s Cube we may just be surprised to find that a large section of the puzzle clicks into place.