09 April 2013

Cardiac and Comeback Kids

Score first, and we win almost 80% of our games. Take three points from four out five games, and we collect 74 points. Simple. As good as we've been in recent weeks, the one trend we haven't given ourselves enough credit for is a  simple one: scoring first. In each of our last five matches, we've scored first and done so early, which is as big a factor in winning as our improved commitment to defense has been. Since losing to Bayern at home, the only game in which we failed to score first was away at Tottenham. Aside from that we went ahead against each opponent, sometimes inside of ten minutes, and in a sport in which one goal is frequently all that's needed to earn a victory, it's hard to overstate the importance of that first goal. The chart you're seeing comes courtesy of Eurosport and shows the timing of all of our Prem goals for the year. It's remarkable to see just how many of our goals have come in the second half, and how many of those have come in the last 15 minutes. Sure, some have been insurance goals, but a good number of the rest have seen us come away with a draw or win instead of a loss or draw, earning valuable points along the way.

We've reversed that trend recently, and it's no coincidence that our current run has come because we've shed the slow starts that undermined us so dramatically in the past. Against Aston Villa, we scored six minutes in, against Bayern three minutes in, against Reading eleven minutes in, and against West Brom, twenty minutes in. True, we were fairly sluggish against Swansea, waiting until the 74th minute. Our one loss came unsurprisingly when we conceded the first goal to Spurs. Take a gander at that little chart. As mentioned before, we win 78% of the games in which we score first. Throw in draws, and we will come away with at least a point 89% of the time. It's hard to put it in terms starker than that.

By contrast, when we've conceded first, we struggle to work our way back to level terms and rarely overtake our opponent.  The good news is that we do pull back from time to time; this chart is not a mirror image of the first, which does show that we possess some resilience. If you had told me that we'd find a way to get points back after conceding first almost half the time, I'd've thought you loony. Despite our reputation for fragility, we're actually not all that bad at overcoming deficits. Indeed, out of 15 games in which we've conceded first, we've clawed our way back seven times. This doesn't cure us of those defensive mishaps, but it does prove that we can occasionally absolve ourselves of them.

We've cut down on the individual mistakes that have led to goals, such as Vermaelen's "assist" to Van Persie, and this has allowed us to focus more properly on starting games right, with measurable results as shown on the tables above. I didn't see any clear pattern in how often we concede first when I compared the early season to more recent games; in other words, we haven't gotten remarkably better at recovering from early deficits as the season progresses, but we have gotten better at avoiding those early deficits in the first place. Baby steps, baby; baby steps.

When it comes to finding late winners or salvaging a draw, we've pulled it off seven times, four of these in Prem matches. Four times, then, we've found a way to earn points in the last ten minutes of a game.
Our efforts there have seen us salvage six points on the season, not all that bad. Of course, avoiding the early deficit in the first place is key, but our ability to pull one back on the final moments is worthy and again suggests that we possess more resilience than we're given credit for. To go behind fifteen times is a problem for another day. To come back enough as often as we have to achieve a positive result is something we should not overlook.

If we can continue our recent form of scoring first (and responding when scored upon), we'll have sewn up a top-four position regardless of what Spurs do, and we may even take the further step of bounding past Chelsea to claim the 3rd place finish. All in all, not bad for a team so thoroughly outspent by the likes of Man U, Man City, and Chelsea. Not bad at all.