03 March 2014

"EXCLUSIVE:"Arsenal "always" falters in February/March

In the kind of breath-taking exposé that at first shocks readers into a stunned, dispirited silence, The Independent says today that "recent history does suggest that it is always in the months of February and March that the Gunners' title challenge falters." I'm sure that, like me, many of you look at that headline or lead-in and say to yourself, "crap. February was terrible, and March looks like it'll turn out even worse!" Then, with little else to say, we shake our fists at the sky and utter oaths like "consarn it" and "fiddlesticks." This is, after all, a family-friendly publication. This prediction from The Independent looms over us like the Sword of Damocles, dooming us, it seems to abject failure. After all, who are we to resist the weight of history? Who do we think we are to dare dream of achieving such power?
A closer read, however, suggests that there's both more and less to the lurid headline. What follows is this:
Since the club last won the Premier League in 2003-04, they have been in the top two on 1 February in three different seasons, but in none of those campaigns did they improve their position during those months, falling down the table in two.
Little to argue with there. In three seasons since winning the Prem in 2004, then, we've been in first place on 1 February only to fall down the table each time. In 2004-05, for example, we were in second place, ten points behind Chelsea but finished in second, 12 points behind them. In other words, the gap only grew two points. How that counts as faltering, especially in a season that Chelsea set a new record for points in a season, is perhaps lost on me.

The story is a bit starker in 2007-08, when we went from being level on 57 points with Man U on 1 February only to fall to third, four points behind them (87-83). In the span of time that Man U used to take 30 points, we could only manage 26, so yes, we did stumble, a fact accentuated by Chelsea slipping ahead of us at 85 points. Stuck in there somewhere, of course, was a horrifying leg-break to Eduardo that did more than deprive us of a key player; it arguably sapped morale at a key point in the season.

The last case-study for which there is complete data is then 2010-11, which saw us five points behind Man U (51-46) on that first day of February, and falling to fourth—12 points back of Man U and behind Chelsea and Man City to boot. This, in my book, is the only one that counts as truly faltering. This is the only season in which the margin truly grew and that seemed to grow as a result of our own frailties such as when we drew with Newcastle after being 4-0 or lost shockers such as the league cup to Birimingham (which has no bearing on the Prem, of course, but highlights how inconsistent we were).

Yes, as Homer reminds us,"you can come up with statistics to prove anything. Forty percent of all people know that." In other words, yes, on the face of it, Arsenal seems to falter in February and March. That sounds grim. Look at it another way—despite facing better-financed clubs, despite losing key players to transfers and injuries—we sustain title-challenges for far longer than we perhaps have a right to do. So we falter in March? How many matches remain, Independent, when this swoon sinks us? Ten? Twelve? In each instance proffered, a case can be made that we held out longer than almost anyone else. No, we didn't succeed, and yes, we couldn't match point-for-point with Man U or Chelsea over the long run. That's not the marvel.  The marvel lies in how long we held on against squads that were far superior to us. There's no trophy for that kind of persistence; indeed, many critics, among them quite a few Gooners, prefer to dub it failure.

The narrative is a bit harder to shake, especially given how the script seems to be writing itself yet again this year. We're a club in transition and have been for a few seasons now while our rivals seem immune to transitions as they simply reload year after year by signing key players time and again—some from us, some out from under us. Yeah, I'm clinging a bit stubbornly to scraps of pride while eyeing enviously the trophies that others are polishing, but I refuse to accept the facile "analysis" that paints as as forlorn and inept losers doomed to repeat the past. This may not be our year to rewrite that script, but it's too early to suggest that the writing is on the wall, the ink is dried, or whatever other metaphor is needed.

Ten matches. Thirty points. There's still time. It might take a minor miracle, but stranger things have happened.