“Imagine the worst situation – we lose Fabregas and Nasri – you cannot convince people you are ambitious after that.” - Arsène Wenger, 11th July, 2011
The summer of 2011 was a tough one for Arsenal Football Club and its fans. Cesc Fàbregas dominated the back pages for months, before his boyhood club finally put together a bid that was acceptable to the Gunners. Samir Nasri (or $amir Na$ri as he came to be known) flirted with Manchester United, PSG, and probably many other clubs before completing a big-money move to Manchester City a week later. Arsène Wenger’s now infamous words were quoted back to him time and again, as Arsenal struggled through the early games of the season.
Arsenal drew 0-0 with Newcastle on the opening day, with Gervinho getting sent off and Alex Song collecting a retrospective three-match ban for a stamp on the cheating Joey Barton. A 0-2 home defeat to Liverpool followed, with an unfortunate own goal (the first of many this season) and a red card for Emmanuel Frimpong, before the nadir that was the 8-2 defeat to Manchester United, in which once again, an Arsenal player got sent off, this time the rookie Carl Jenkinson.
A 1-0 win over Swansea briefly raised hopes, before a 4-3 defeat away to Blackburn, courtesy of own goals from Song and Laurent Koscielny raised the noise of calls for Wenger to leave the club. For the first time, the level of anti-Wenger sentiment was reaching dangerous levels.
The up and down nature of the season continued with a 3-0 win over Bolton, before a 2-1 defeat away to the Spuds. Arsenal then strung together a strong sequence of 9 wins and two draws in the next 12 Premier League games, inspired largely by Robin van Persie’s 14 goals in this run.
Then came four Premier League games without a win, causing a small section of the Gunners ‘support’ to talk about placing black bin bags over empty seats at The Grove. The rollercoaster season was on the lowest part of its journey again.
Many people have said that this is Wenger’s worst team in his time at Arsenal, in terms of the quality of players available to him. No Adams, Campbell, Henry, Vieira, Bergkamp, etc. This may be true, but is this really Wenger’s worst season at the club? One way to look at this is the numbers available to us. Arsenal have now played 32 games this season, so let’s see how this season’s figures compare with other full seasons of Wenger’s at the club.
Although Arsenal sat just above the relegation zone in the early parts of the season, they worked hard to climb the table, and after 32 games, they now sit in 3rd place. In previous seasons, after 32 games, Arsenal have occupied a lower position than this on three occasions, 4th in 2006/07 and 2008/09, and 6th in 2005/06, the lowest recorded point at this stage under Le Professeur. But this is all relative anyway, what matters really is points totals. Three points for a win and one for a draw is the same now as it was when Wenger took over.
It is not surprising to see the highest recorded points total after 32 games came in the unbeaten season of 2003/04, when Arsenal had claimed 78 points at this stage. On four occasions, Arsenal have had fewer points than this season’s 61, 60 points in 1999/00 and 2000/01, 53 in 2005/06, and 56 in 2006/07. Indeed, Arsenal had exactly 61 points at this same stage three years ago. Nevertheless, it is still slightly below Wenger’s average points total at this point, which is 64.
Arsenal have scored 63 goals this season, better or equal to ten previous full seasons under Wenger. Scoring goals has not been the problem; it is at the other end that things have not been great. A start that saw Arsenal concede 14 goals in 4 games prompted calls for people such as Martin Keown or Tony Adams to be brought into the club to act as defensive coaches. Never before at this stage of the season have Arsenal conceded so many goals (41), which has contributed to the lowest goal difference at this point too (22).
It might be surprising to some that Arsenal have won 19 games as of today, better than or equal to eight of the previous fourteen seasons. This is probably the case though because Arsenal have needed to gamble on wins, rather than settling for draws, as Wenger explains, “maybe we were always in a position from the start onwards where a draw was a bad result because we were very deep in the table. From there on we were only in a position where winning was good enough for us and that might be a subconscious explanation.” A record low of 4 draws after 32 games backs it up, but merely exposes how many times the Gunners have lost games (9); only 2005/06 is worse (11).
As we all know, the Premier League is 38 games long, and the remaining six games may well affect how people look back on the season as a whole. So, how have Arsenal previously performed in the final 6 games of the season under Wenger? The Gunners have only taken maximum points once under his stewardship, back in the Double-winning season of 2001/02. The only two seasons to buck the trend of achieving double figures in this time period are the untimely collapses of 2010 and 2011. The run-in of 2010 saw Arsenal gain just 7 points, while 2011 was worse, as the red and whites picked up just 5 points, slipping from 2nd to 4th place.
So, is this Arsène Wenger’s worst season at the club? There are various stats that might point you to that conclusion, but there are arguably more stats that would indicate that this isn’t. Ultimately, a lack of Champions League football would be the clearest indicator, as this is one constant that Wenger has batted back as a key success of his time at the club. Arsenal are currently only 6 points away from their lowest points total of the previous fourteen seasons, 67 in 2005/06, which was enough to secure 4th place on the final day, at the expense of the lasagne-eating Spuds. I’m sure a gambling man would bet on the Gunners to exceed that particular total, buoyed by a run of eight wins in nine games. The calls for Wenger’s head have been at their loudest since he came to the club, but it is worth keeping some perspective. Wenger may not have as many ‘super quality’ players to call on these days, but what he does have is experienced players who will fight until the end. A season that started so badly has turned itself around thanks to their combined efforts. What happens in the final six games is anybody’s guess, but whatever does happen, just remember, a bad season for us has always been better than a good season for the Spuds.