24 November 2014

Fourth form maths: What'll it take for us to finish fourth?

Amid the dross and rubble left behind after Saturday's debacle, we've now slumped to our worst start in some 32 years. 17 points from 12 matches means that we've only managed to collect a meagre 47.2% of the points available. Over the course of a 38-match season, that would leave us with 53.8 points—good perhaps for a mid-table finish, which would almost certainly end our streak of Champions League appearances, among other outcomes. Would it spell the end of Arsène's time as manager? Perhaps. We're already talking about this as the worst start in more than three decades and our worst start under Arsène. However, rather than poring over the details of the past, let's take a look at what the future holds and what get a sense of what's possible.

Year

W
D
L
Points
Position
1982-83
First 12
4
3
5
15 (41.6%)
13th
Final
16
10
16
58 (46.3%)
10th

Year

W
D
L
Points
Position
2012-13
First 12
5
4
3
19 (52.7%)
6th
Final
21
10
7
73 (64%)
4th

Year

W
D
L
Points
Position
2014-15
First 12
4
5
3
17 (47.2%)
8th
Final






 The tables above give us a quick rundown of each of the three seasons we're comparing. In each of the three, we got off to similarly atrocious starts. In that abomination of 1982-83, we never quite recovered, continuing to win, lose, and draw at rates similar to those of the first 12 matches. Over that 42-match season, we did increase our points-haul enough to climb three spots higher in the table, but that was so long ago and in such a different era (even a different league) that there's not much to take from it, and good thing, too. A more-direct comparison can be made to the 2012-13 squad, which includes, after all, many of the same players still with us today.  Despite starting that season only one result better than our current form, We had taken seven points in five matches against key rivals, including an 0-2 win at Anfield, a 1-1 draw at the Etihad, and a 5-2 over Tottenham. However, we dropped points in draws at home against Sunderland and Fulham and at away to Stoke, and we lost away to Norwich. In other words, we were doing tolerably well against bigger clubs while stumbling against mid-table or lower ones. After that uneven, sluggish start, though, we seemed to rebound very well, taking 58 points from the remaining 26 matches, a rate of 68%. This was good enough to finish fourth, which has come to represent our minimum expectation.

For what it's worth, the fourth place finisher has had 79, 73, 69, 68, and 70 points—an average of 71.8. Whether 72 points will be enough for fourth place this time through is open to debate, but we can use it as a yardstick for now. Assuming that we need 72 points, we'll have to do a bit better than we did in 2012-13. We'll need 55 points from our remaining 26 matches, a rate of 70.5%. For comparison's sake, Southampton have taken 69.4% of available points thus far; Man City, 66.7%. On one hand, we've already gotten a few of our tougher matches out of the way, drawing at Goodison Park and at home with Man City and Tottenham. On the other, we've been abysmal in these big matches, keeping only three points from the five thus far. We've done only marginally better elsewhere. Last season, we were similarly bad in those big matches but could at least count on taking the lion's share of points from mid-table teams. Having already dropped points to Leicester, Hull, and Swansea proves that we're in disarray on many levels (not that this comes as any kind of epiphany).

A season ago, there persisted a feeling that we would bounce back no matter what the scoreline, and there were some brutal ones. Thus far, while we've avoided or at least minimized such tragicomic scorelines, that resilient, resolute feeling is nowhere to be found. As with that 2012-13 season, the players on the pitch look shaky, tentative, uncertain of their roles or responsibilities. Some of that is natural—new signings have to adjust and bed in, and injuries have stripped us of options, forcing players into unfamiliar positions and formations. As we think about how to address these issues, there are signs of gathering strength. Giroud, in his first appearance after getting injured against Everton, nearly scored with his first touch, a header with defenders draped all over him. More significant, of course, he delivered a goal that might be more important as a template than for how it affected the outcome (which is to say, not at all). Rather than pressing forward and pinning Man U back, Arteta lofted a ball over the defense for Giroud to finish. A quick counter? Since when do we do that? With players like Walcott and Özil coming back soon, we might start to see more of these quick-hits over or through the defense, a refreshing change of pace from nibbling passes around the edge of a packed box. 

A loss like Saturday's should force us to do some serious soul-searching at all levels, but it shouldn't force us to forget that there's enough quality in this squad to bounce back into contention.