We lost 4-0 to Milan. Probably we are going out of the Champions League at the last 16 stage for the second year running. Even if by some miracle we beat Milan 5-0 in the second leg (What are the latest live odds, Ray?), we will probably lose in the quarter-finals.
Although the manner of the Milan defeat and the scoreline were hard to take, Arsenal failing at this stage of the competition is not news and is not the least bit remarkable. Here’s a piece I wrote for The Gooner issue 157 in 2005, which is still totally applicable, at least in terms of how we view ourselves.
Statistics is one of my favourite subjects. I like to think that this is not because I am in any way a nerd, but for purely practical reasons: I like to know the chance of success of any action I decide to take. I’m always disappointed that football managers, players and pundits don’t really seem to agree with me on this, but one man who does is Times journalist Daniel Finkelstein.
For those who don’t read The Times or look at its website, Mr Finkelstein writes a regular column entitled The Fink Tank. In this he explores, with the help of a couple of university professors who have built an alarmingly large database of facts and figures, interesting (to me, anyway) questions of football-related statistics. Usually he is trying to prove or disprove commonly held beliefs. These are generally Premiership-linked and quite often Arsenal-specific. Mr F does not have a cannon engraved on his heart and is in fact a Chelski fan, but even so Arsenal feature quite heavily. Last season, among other things, he looked at whether we really did miss Vieira when he wasn’t playing (common perception: yes; statistically: hardly at all), whether we should have sold Ashley Cole to Chelsea (swapping him for Wayne Bridge would theoretically have suited both teams), whether Lehmann should go (answer: only if replaced by Antti Niemi), and whether Arsenal should get to the by-line and put more crosses in, as the pundits are always saying (answer: not necessarily – accurate passing is statistically a much better way to set up goalscoring opportunities).
As we start the new season, some of those questions have now dated. But one question that is always pertinent at this, or any, stage of the season is: Why do Arsenal under perform in Europe? After the Bayern performance last season the Fink Tank boffins tried to find out. Being scientific sort of chaps, they discounted the common theory that we are just jinxed, and instead began by assessing the influence of a couple of individuals, Henry and Bergkamp. The non-flying Dutchman’s travel habits have long been held to be a disadvantage, but it turns out that Arsenal’s attack has generally done better away than at home in recent European campaigns, so clearly Dennis’s aviophobia isn’t the cause. The Henry theory is that in Europe man-marking curtails his game, but the stats show that he’s actually responsible for 40 per cent of Arsenal’s European goals and only 33 per cent of our Premiership goals in the games he plays. So it’s probably nothing to do with Thierry.
Then there’s the theory that Arsenal bottle it in big games. Thinking about the likes of Old Trafford 2002, numerous games against teams such as Chelsea and Liverpool, not to mention the Cardiff penalty shoot-out three months ago (Hurrah!), soon disproves that one. It does appear, though, that Arsenal don’t like to be underdogs, and haven’t won a European tie when they weren’t favourites since October 2002. However, as that’s only three games it’s probably not significant either. So is Arsenal’s play just unsuited to European competition? Considering we have a foreign manager and not long ago fielded 11 foreigners with five more on the bench, this seems a tad far-fetched as well. At this point they started to run out of ideas, until a brainwave hit them: maybe they were asking the wrong thing. So they crossed out the first word of the question and asked this instead: Do Arsenal under perform in Europe?
They looked at the form of every team that had played more than ten games in Europe since 2001-02, analysed what their domestic record should mean when translated to the European stage, and finally compared this with actual European performance. Of 43 teams, Arsenal were 20th, almost exactly in the middle of the list – in other words our European form is just what we should expect. Meanwhile the likes of Monaco, Porto, Chelsea, Newcastle and Panathinaikos consistently do better in Europe than their domestic form suggests, while Ajax, Lazio and Roma, among others, do rather worse. Right at the top of the list are Man Utd, who – until 2004-05 – gave the impression to the English press that getting to the Champions League quarter finals every year was easy for our teams, however badly they may be doing in the Premiership. So it’s not that we’re under performing at all, it’s just that we can’t help comparing ourselves to Man Utd, Chelsea, and now of course Liverpool.
Having reached this conclusion, the Fink Tank gentlemen probably sat back with satisfied smiles on their faces. Another mystery solved. Unfortunately for those of us with more emotional involvement, the follow up question has to be: Does this make you feel any better? It’s all very well just being average in Europe every season, but what we want is a season where we perform much better than average, where we outperform expectations even to the extent of winning the damn thing. Just one season, that’s all! Then who cares if we maintain the average by being really crap the following season, or even the following three seasons? Not me.
Apparently the chances of going a whole Premiership season undefeated were, even for a team of Arsenal’s class, one in 205. And yet it was achieved. The chance of European glory is substantially better than that, so is one season of overachieving really too much to ask?
I wrote that in 2005, and would you believe it, the next year we did overachieve and reached the final! The problem with that was that our expectations were raised even more, and are still at such a level that it’s not enough to qualify for the CL anymore, it’s not even enough to get through the group stages. We must be realistically challenging for the trophy every year, or the ‘silent majority’ (ha ha) of Arsenal fans are just not happy.
What I’d question in the light of the last 12 months is whether we are now experiencing a drop in class rather than just fluctuations of form. Arsene still seems to maintain it’s the latter; personally I fear the worst.