History shows us that after 12 matches of a Premier League season there is just over a 1 in 3 chance that someone will still be unbeaten. So this will happen on average about once in every three seasons. Any team still unbeaten after 12 matches is almost certain to be one of the title favourites, so by this time talk of a potential unbeaten season and a ‘new Invincibles’ will start.
Arsenal fans should not worry. Being Invincible over a whole season is at most a once in a lifetime experience – in fact my own father lived his whole life and never saw it, and nor did his father. I’ve seen it, but I may never see it again.
The fact is that as the season goes on and the numbers of matches mount up the chance of a loss soon increases. Even if a team has a 90 per cent chance of not losing any individual game, then after only three matches there is a 27 per cent chance they will have lost. After 5 matches it’s 41 per cent and after 10 it’s 61 per cent. By the time you get to 38 matches, a team with a 90 per cent chance of avoiding defeat in every individual game has only got about a 1.8 per cent chance of still being undefeated. So that’s going to happen about once every half century. But no Premier League team has a 90 per cent chance of avoiding defeat in every game, the margins between teams in the same division are not that great and football is too unpredictable.
If every team in the division was of equal strength and there was therefore a roughly equal chance of a win, draw or loss in every game – in other words every team had about a 67 per cent chance of avoiding defeat each time – then by the time 20 match days had gone by the chance of any one team of the 20 still being undefeated is already only one per cent, or a once a century chance. With equally good teams the odds of carrying on as far as the end of match day 38 with a team still not beaten are miniscule – it’s less than a one in 200,000 chance.
In reality the chance of a team remaining invincible in a 20 team league is somewhere between that one in 200,000 (0.0005%) and the 1.8 per cent chance mentioned earlier, because some teams are stronger than others but no one is ever good enough to be 9:1 on to avoid defeat for every match. History shows the top English division went from 1889 to 2003 with no incidence of a team remaining unbeaten. Preston North End were of course undefeated in the very first League season, 1888-89, but the odds were a little better then, with fewer teams and bigger differences in standards. But there was no repeat in the following couple of decades, before the League built up to 22 teams, and once the competition settled down and the old First Division was up to full numbers the chance was even smaller than it is now.
So to repeat: no real need for Arsenal fans to worry, as we’re highly unlikely to see a repeat of the Invincibles in most of our lifetimes.
Except… there are a couple of things that cause me to have a slight doubt. The first is what happened with the Double. No one had done the Double of League and FA Cup in the 20th century until Spurs did it in 1961. The only two Doubles before that were by Preston in 1889 (their Invincibles season) and Aston Villa in 1897, so they were in a totally different era of smaller divisions and bigger differences between teams, and the common belief by the mid-20th century was that it had become impossible. Several teams had come very close, including Arsenal in the 1930s of course, but no one had done it. Then Spurs managed it. Only ten years later Arsenal repeated it, though by this time substitutes had been introduced to domestic football, which made it more likely the better team would triumph more often. Since then Liverpool, Man Utd (3 times), Arsenal (twice more) and Chelsea have all done the Double (and perhaps not coincidentally, far more subs are also allowed). Certainly no one believes the Double is impossible any more, and the days of the Champions League, oligarchs and oil-rich nations investing in football have meant that the difference between the best and the also-rans once again increased. The top division is smaller and for the last 20 years much less equal than when Spurs, Arsenal and Liverpool did their pre-Premier League Doubles, but belief is also a factor. As Arsène himself said when talking about the possibility of going unbeaten, if you don’t believe you can do it then you probably can’t do it. Nerves and self-doubt will come into play. But now everyone knows it is possible to go unbeaten in the modern English game because Arsenal have done it.
The second doubt I have is that nothing is static for ever and no one knows what the future will bring, so who is to say that the conditions for another invincible season won’t be more firmly in place in ten years’ time than they are now? TV deals have made the whole league much richer, but the rich are still increasing their wealth faster than the rest. In a few years, who knows?
However, against these factors is the thing that really makes football unique: its unpredictability and randomness. Or in other words, luck. Lots of football matches are won by poorer teams being lucky, and even the best can’t override bad luck every time. Arsenal’s luck held in 2004 – Van Nistelrooy’s penalty hitting the bar with Lehmann nowhere near it is just one example – but others may continue to find their luck runs out long before the season does.
So I wouldn’t say another invincible season can’t be done. But I do believe it’s highly unlikely, and Arsenal fans can relax fairly comfortably for quite a few years. (Fingers crossed.)