23 May 2013

Arsenal's less than a point behind Man U...

...and we're about to kick that blasted door right off its hinges.

That's right. According to whoscored.com, Arsenal rates just barely below Man U and comes in ahead of Chelsea and Man City. If we were to use those ratings to determine Prem League standings, Arsenal would finish in second place just behind Man U with a margin so narrow that it would be like losing on goal-differential (Man City, version 2012, you may take your bow). Man U comes in at 7.01; Arsenal comes in at 6.99. An imprecise gauge, to be sure, but it does suggest that we do not lack for quality, and we do measure up quite well with the Prem's best while also keeping pace with the best in Europe. This does not mean that we can afford to rest easy and assume that we'll continue to keep pace. If we expect to contend in the Prem and make progress in the Champions League, we'll have to do more than rely on break-out seasons from Walcott, Ramsey, Koscielny, Gibbs, or SczcÄ™sny, among others. As much as I believe that two or more of them will in fact break through in 2013-14, we'll still need to introduce one, if not two, new members to the squad. I'm not sold on Jovetic. I would much prefer we pursue Higuain, Benzema, or Lewandowski. However, that's not what I'm here to discuss today.

Today is all about acknowledging quality, and despite ups and downs that lasted until somewhere around March 3rd, we do seem to have quite a bit of it--maybe not quite as much as we would like or had grown accustomed to, but quality all the same. I contacted the good people at whoscored.com to discuss what these numbers mean and how much particular categories count for and so on. Despite my persistence, I'm sad to say that I couldn't unearth any deeper insights into their formulas and calculations. I did get a nifty restraining order out of it, though, so I'll always have that to remember.

I've dived into the statistics to see what more I can ascertain, but there's just not a lot more to unearth. What is striking is to see how well we match up with Man U across the board. Again, not knowing the impact that goals have on a team's rating, it's worth noting that Man U scored 24 more goals than we did but are still just barely rated ahead of us on overall quality. Shots per game? We had 597 to Man U's 562, besting them at 15.7 to 14.8 per game. Possession? Again we win out, 58.2% to 56.2%. Shots conceded? Yes. 10.6 to 12.9. We out-tackle, 19.7 to 19.2. We intercept more, 16.7 to 13.6. We're better dribblers, 10.7 to 6.4. Everything else is essentially equal, a tenth of a point here, three tenths of a point there.

Of course, the only statistic that truly matters is the number of goals a team scored against the number conceded, and that's clearly why Man U nudges us out, whatever whoscored.com's formulas. We can find comfort in seeing that we play football better than Man City or Chelsea or Man U, but if we don't outscore our opponents more often than they do, style doesn't really matter. We can point to passing accuracy or possession, but those in and of themselves do not win silverware.

That's part and parcel of what makes the last three months of football so rewarding. Yes, we won a few games thanks to that Arsenal style, but we've won just as many, if not more, by simply outworking our opponents, churning out win after win after win (and, um, a draw here and there). Among the top five finishers, we alone can claim to have gone undefeated over our last ten matches. Yes, it's a small sample size, but such a rate of return would have brought home 99 points on the season.

My point is this: we have had to wait until the very last minutes of the season to know where we'd finish, but we finished strong and look set to start the next campaign in similar fashion. Our current squad has shown more mettle, grit, and tenacity than our reputation previously suggested. Standing pat, we'd probably still finish fourth or higher next year as our younger lads mature and realize their potential. A summer of insightful spending--one, maybe two key signings--might just be the difference between a Manchester club and a certain North London club lifting a trophy or two by the end of the season.