Consistency and Hobgoblins

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. — ‘Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.’ — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.”

Good morning, not much going on here in Arsenal world. I guess there’s the story about consistency and Arsenal finding it, or not finding it, and why can’t we find it, did we ever have it, and what consistency are we really talking about, something watery or something more like concrete, both have a consistency.

Personally, I lean toward: Arsenal have been consistent, you just didn’t notice it because they were also unlucky and lacking a little bit the sharpness. I also lean toward: every team in the Premier League is inconsistent at the start of this season.

From January to May, Arsenal were the best team in the League. They played a very consistent pressing style of football, they limited the number of big chances that the opposition created to about half of what they had in the 19 games before, and they scored on par with averages in terms of finishing.

What has happened at the start of this season is more of the same. Arsenal are second in the league in fewest big chances conceded, they lead the league in fewest shots in prime positions allowed, and they lead the league in big chances created and shots in prime created. They have been insanely consistent in terms of chance creation and limiting the opposition’s chances.

What has held Arsenal back is that they are only finishing 23% of their own big chances and 19% of their shots in prime. Those are both well below what I have seen from Arsenal over the last few years.

We have also seen a number of high-profile errors cost Arsenal some goals this season. From the start of the season last year to January 1st, Arsenal committed 7 errors for goals. From January 2nd to May, Arsenal committed just 1 error for a goal and that was on the last day of the season. These errors cost games early, especially the match against West Ham.

But every team in the Premier League has been inconsistent this season and, in fact, most seasons start off looking like a statistical car crash. If you map the points per game, league positions, or really almost any stat to start almost any season, they look like a seismograph during an earthquake. After about the first 10 games we start to get a clear picture of what the league is going to look like and patterns start to emerge.

Even if we throw in Champions League matches, where Arsenal have been astonishingly poor, we see that a lot of the English teams, with the exception of Manchester United (who have the easiest group ever put together), are struggling in Europe.

Just to illustrate: you have so far this season seen West Ham beat Arsenal and then turn around and lose two in a row to Leicester and Bournemouth. Then West Ham beats Man City and draws two in a row against Norwich and Sunderland.

Even the team which I felt was going to be runaway league winners this year, Manchester City, suffered two consecutive defeats at the hands of West Ham and Tottenham. I guess they don’t like hams.

And, of course, there’s Chelsea and Liverpool who have been a lollercopter of inconsistency this season. Chelsea only has two wins, one of which was gifted to them by the incompetence (or worse) of Mike Dean. The only thing consistent about either of those teams is that Mourinho will say something crazy after every match and Brendan Rodgers will say that his team played “excellent”.

I’m not at all saying that there weren’t frustrations with the way the team played at the start of the season. Just pointing out that for whatever reason every team in the Premier League has struggled with consistency this season.

I like what I see, statistically, from Arsenal and I’m firmly in the camp that Arsenal need to keep doing what they are doing and they will be legitimate title challengers.


Arsenal v. Man U: Opposites Repel

If you haven’t had a chance to watch Manchester United this season, you’re in for a bit of a surprise. Louis van Gaal has guided United to the top of the Premier League table but not with swashbuckling football, rather by playing a brand of controlled football which many have decried as boring.

Manchester United have never been known as a bulk shooting team. In all the years under Sir Alex, United led the League in shots per game maybe once or twice. And in his last season Fergie averaged just 14.7 shots per game, 7th best in the League. Fergie always prized efficiency over sheer numbers but surprisingly, since his retirement United have taken fewer and fewer shots per game each season, dropping to an all time low this season of just 11.4 per game. That’s 14th worst in the League, tied with Aston Villa.

Van Gaal is able to get away with this low total offensive output because his team is amazingly efficient. They have scored 11 goals this season (minus own goals) and 9 of them have been from Big Chances. Their Big Chance conversion rate is an astonishing 69% and they get 84% of their big chances on target. I can’t say whether that will “revert to the mean” because title winning teams often outperform standard metrics, that’s what makes them the winners, they are better than average. But I can say definitively that their conversion rates and big chance conversion rates are astonishing.

There is a hint that perhaps this is a Man U efficiency bubble. United only created three big chances in their first 4 matches. But since Liverpool, and the introduction of Anthony Martial, United have created 10 big chances in their last three matches. And while they scored 1 big chance of their first three attempts, they have scored 8 of their last 10.

What allows United to get away with such poor overall chance creation is not just the scoring efficiency but also the fact that they are the best defensive team in the League. They have conceded a League best 5 goals this season and have conceded the fewest total shots of any team, just 62. United have also conceded just 7 big chances to the opposition, and conceded 2 of those as goals, tied with Arsenal for the best record in that category.

Van Gaal’s apparent tactic is to win games by choking the life out of them and hoping that his superior talent will convert the few chances he gets and win them the game on the day. Oddly this is the exact opposite of what is happening at Arsenal at the moment. 

Arsenal are the most prolific shooting team in the league, averaging 21.1 shots per game. Arsenal have also created 23 big chances this season, more than any other team in the League, and yes, that counts Man City who have created 10 big chances in their last three matches alone, but who have only created 22 big chances in 8 matches.

Arsenal’s problem, as regular readers of the blog know, is that they have been wasteful in front of goal, converting a paltry 5% of their total shots and an abyssal 22% of their big chances. Both os these conversion rates are about half what we would normally expect.

Wenger is trumpeting his team’s win over Leicester, when the Gunners cruised to a 5-2 victory, and he has good reason to do so; his team finally converted their big chances, 3/5, and Alexis even added a low percentage distance goal to the tally. It remains to be seen if this was just a sprinkling or the start of a deluge for the Gunners.

Rooney is a nemesis, scoring twice in the last two matches and 14 times in 31 overall matchups with Arsenal, stretching all the way back to his days with Everton. Rooney isn’t the main focus though. United play 42% of their offense through the left side of the pitch, mostly running things through Depay. He hasn’t been prolific in front of goal (yet) but he is a dangerously quick and powerful young man and Arsenal’s Hector Bellerin will face a stern test.

Offensively, these two teams are direct opposites — Arsenal profligate, United frugal — and unless one of these teams abandons their form of the early season, this could be a very boring match.


Drink extra coffee to stay up for this match. I don’t expect an end-to-end affair like Arsenal’s win over Leicester but rather a cagey affair with both teams looking to kill off possession and hit each other on the counter. Rather than a goal glut, this is a match that will likely turn on a single conversion.



Sky Sports turns Arsene Wenger’s 19th Anniversary Press Conference into an omnishambles

Editor’s note: This is the transcript of the beginning of Arsene Wenger’s 19th anniversary press conference. A press Conference which is supposed to address the match previous and the match following but which devolves into an interrogation about what Arsene Wenger knew and when he knew it, over his team selection and then further devolves into an attempt by the reporter to have a duel between Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho with the reporter acting as Mourinho’s “second”. 

Good morning Arsene. First of all I just want to congratulate you on 19 years at Arsenal. How proud are you of that achievement?

Well, I’m more focused on our next game than looking back, you know, at how long I’m here. But we just, I don’t realize it has been such a long time because in our job we are focused on what is in front of you. One day, maybe, I will look back, but I don’t think it’s the best day today.

It seems appropriate that as you go into your 20th year there’s an Arsenal-Manchester United game after so many big tussles down the years. Is it still that same special fixture it’s always been for you? 

It is a special fixture, yes, because usually Man United is always fighting at the top. It is even a bigger meaning now because there’s three points between the two teams, we play at home in a big game, we just come from a big win at Leicester, and we want to continue our run. 

In terms of the team news is there any update on Laurent Koscielny at all?

Laurent Koscielny will certainly be out. He has a hamstring strain and it looks like it will be three weeks. Something like that. 

Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini are they in contention at all?

Both are out.

Francis Coquelin? Did he have any reaction? is he OK? 

Francis Coquelin should be OK, yes.

(This is the Sky News reporter’s bit) Arsene, regarding some of the fallout over what happened in mid-week. In the press conference after the game, you said, when we asked about team selection, that were things that we didn’t know and things that we chose to ignore. What do we not know about what happened in mid-week with your selection and what did we choose to ignore?

Look, I do not want to come back on that. I think all has been said after in the press conference and I don’t change a word of what I said. Looking at Ospina and Petr Cech, I think I have two World Class goalkeepers and it’s the easiest choice I have to make because I can pick any of the two and I’m very comfortable. It’s most difficult as well because the two of them are World Class players and always you have to leave one out.

You said we ignored things, what did we ignore?

I do not know anything that you do in your job. And so you make decisions because you have more information than I have and that’s exactly the same in my job. 

(Talks over Wenger) That’s not ignoring stuff, though, is it? If we don’t have the information, we can’t ignore it. 

That you don’t know, yes, but, look, you come to the game, you judge the game and you assess was I right or was I wrong. I never criticize that. I accept your judgement of how the team played and what is your assessment but I do not have to give you all of the information that I have to make my decisions. 

That’s fair enough. Do you accept that when you look at your squad in the summer and you think that ‘we only need to strengthen in one area’, which is the goalkeeper, that when it comes to a competition in the Champions League that you want to improve upon, when you don’t use the guy that you think improves your squad in that that the fans will be frustrated and angry? Do you understand that?

No. Not at all.


Because I make the decision that I think is right on the day. (big pause)

You said after the game.. you sort of inferred that you aren’t accountable to people for your selection. Do you think you should be accountable? Is it healthy that you’re not? 

I’m accountable on the results of my team and the way we play football. (at this point the official video cuts to a later segment of the interview).

(From SkySports video) Do you think you should be more accountable for the fans on selection issues? Or you don’t see that as a valid argument?

I just gave you the answer.

If you’re not accountable in that way, does that not make José Mourinho right when he says that there’s only one manager that’s under pressure? That there’s only one manager that’s not under pressure?

Look. Stop that story or we stop the press conference. 

This whole line of questioning was bang out of line from the start but went from simple muckraking to wallowing in the pig sty when the reporter choose to parrot Jose Mourinho’s line that Wenger isn’t accountable.

First, it is absolutely astoundingly simple-minded to say that Arsene Wenger isn’t under any pressure. He is clearly under tremendous pressure from the fans who go apeshit on Arsenal Fan TV, twitter, the blogs, and on train platforms in Stoke, any time Arsenal have any slip up.

He is also under pressure from the players: what happens if he loses out on Champions League football? Do you think Alexis and Ozil are going to stick around while Wenger toils with an Arsenal in 10th place? Are you really that stupid?

As for Wenger’s accountability? I feel like an idiot that I even have to address this.

Wenger is ultimately accountable for everything at Arsenal. If the fans stop attending matches he will lose his job. If he loses the dressing room, he will lose his job. If he is relegated from the Champions League, he will probably lose his job. And if he thinks he can no longer do the job, he has said time and again that he will fire himself.


And the pressure of the job at Arsenal is massive. He has to deliver results on the pitch, results that make the vast majority of the fans happy, that make the players happy, that win trophies, and all the while that keep Arsenal’s bank balance positive.

You don’t think Arsene Wenger is under pressure? That he’s not accountable? How stupid are you?

What he’s not accountable to, is a small, loud, and ridiculous minority of fans and THEIR expectations. Their expectations that Arsenal be Chelsea or that Arsene Wenger apes Jose Mourinho, or that Wenger gets every decision right, that he never makes a similar mistake to the last mistake, that he buys the players they want, that Arsenal play like the Invincibles, and that he turns the clock back 20 years and turns himself into George Graham’s magic bung.

Wenger isn’t accountable to Johnny Rotten, some corporate clown who is about as counter-culture as Ward Cleaver and who knows fuck all about actual football. Or that guy on twitter who always gets the first reply to anything Arsenal tweet and it’s always “fuck off, buy players”.

And Wenger most certainly isn’t accountable to some SkySports reporter who wants to play a game of “gotcha” with the manager on the anniversary of his 19th year as manager in England. The absolute shamelessness of that reporter, going after Arsene Wenger over his selection of a goalkeeper as if he was pressing George W. Bush over the missing Weapons of Mass Destruction. Do you think he sat there, smiling, and thinking of the Pulitzer he was going to win for this “hard-hitting journalism”?

We get it. Three League titles, not enough. 18 years of European football, not enough. Keeping the club afloat during the 10 year rebuilding, not enough. Buying Ozil, not enough. Winning the FA Cup, not enough. Buying Sanchez, not enough. Winning the FA Cup, not enough. Buying Cech, not enough. Three points from the top of the table, not enough.  Never enough.

The venerable Nick Hornby once wrote about this ubiquitously moaning fan phenomena:

“I’ll tell you where it all went wrong for Arsene Wenger,” said a friend after the first leg of the Champions’ League quarter-final against Liverpool, a game that Arsenal were unlucky not to win.  “That two-all draw against Bolton, when we threw away a two-goal lead.” Like many Arsenal fans, I remember the game well – it was a decisive moment in the race for the Premier League, and those two dropped points meant that Arsenal would not win the title…in 2003. According to my friend, we have been on a sad, slow but steady decline ever since.

“What about 2004? When we won the League without losing a match? You don’t think he temporarily stopped the rot that year?”
That was a disappointing season,” he said. (My italics.) “We should have won the Champions’ League, and he chucked the FA Cup away.”

That was written in 2008, about fans during the Invincibles season. Wenger is not accountable to those people. He is, exactly as he put it, accountable for the results on the field.

And the result on the field was bad. Wenger acknowledged that fact as well the fact that his team didn’t play defense at the top level, gave away the goal right after scoring, and lost the game in a shambles. But instead of addressing the game, instead of asking what Wenger is doing to fix the defensive problems, instead of asking questions like “why has the pressing game changed this year over last”, instead of asking actual football questions, we get a reporter asking about team selection and accountability so that some fucktard can get a sly dig in at Arsene Wenger, elicit an angry reaction, and get his Pulitzer Prize winning headline story.

In essence, we get Jose Mourinho pulling the strings of a SkySports muppet.

And it’s a fucking omnishambles.