During Arsenal FC’s fantastic start to the English Premier League season, many skeptics pointed out that Arsenal have not beaten the best teams in England. If one considers this year’s Manchester United as one of the best teams in England, then Arsenal’s poor performance (relative to Arsenal’s recent standard) at Old Trafford did little to silence those skeptics. However, the better question to ask is whether beating the top teams matters when it comes to competing for the title?
Performance of the Past 12 Champions vs. The League
Other than 2010-2011 and 2002-2003 Manchester United, all champions accumulated at least 86 points. Only 2011-2012 Manchester United and 2008-2009 Liverpool, in that 12-year span, accumulated at least 86 points and failed to win the title. Champions have averaged about 88 points or 2.32 points/game with an average record of 27 wins, 7 draws, and 4 losses. No champion has lost more than 6 games and only Carlo Ancelotti’s Chelsea lost six times (Manchester City have already lost 4 games through 11 games). If one wants to look at combined draws and losses, no team has more than 15, but if one looks at champions who accumulated at least 86 points, no team has more than 12 (Manchester City and Chelsea both have 5 draws+losses through 11 games).
As of today, Arsenal have 8 wins, 1 draw, and 2 losses, good for 25 points or 2.27 points/game. They are rather close to the pace of the average champion over the last 12 seasons. While it does not have much value in predicting future performance, Arsenal have done well to not dig themselves into a hole/eliminate themselves from realistically contending. If the goal is to accumulate at least 86 points, a side can drop at most 28 points. Therefore, dropping around 14 points in the first 11 matches could represent a big blow to one’s title hopes.
Performance of the Past 12 Champions vs. The Top 4/Bottom 16
vs. The Top 4
vs. The Bottom 16
While Arsenal look to be on a decent pace, with respect to winning the league, they have only played 11 games and only one game against the three other sides that finished in the top 4 last season, which they lost. However, they have been phenomenal against the bottom 16, only dropping points at West Brom and at the Emirates to Anthony Taylor.
Comparing the two tables, it appears that the variation in performance of these title winning sides against the top 4 is greater than the variation in performance against the bottom 16. This makes sense as matches against the top 4 make up 18 points of a possible 114 to win over the season. Variation in performance against the top 4 also has a much weaker correlation with total points accumulated compared to variation in performance against the bottom 16. It is fine to drop 13 points to the top 4 like 2008-2009 Manchester United did, if you only drop 7 points against the bottom 16 (and if you are lucky you can drop plenty of points to both sets of opponents like 2010-2011 Manchester United).
While Arsenal are not on the same pace as 2008-2009 Manchester United side when it comes to taking points from the bottom 16, their first ten games puts them 4th on the table behind Jose Mourinho’s first Chelsea side. Let’s say that at the end of the season Manchester United, Manchester City, and Chelsea end up in the top 4 again, in some order. As long as Arsenal continue to crush the bottom 16 at this rate which scales to 80 points over the season, they could pick up only 7 points out of remaining 15 points against the top 4, and would probably win the English Premier League. And looking at the league this season, it appears that the top of the table will struggle to produce a team that gets to 85 points, as the top 6 and maybe even the top 8 of the Premier League are as close as they have been in years.
Performance of the Past 12 Champions vs. The Top 6/Bottom 14
vs. The Top 6
vs. The Bottom 14
While this author thinks Southampton will end up in the top 6 (and actually thinks/hopes they will finish in the top 4), Liverpool and Tottenham are probably more favored choices to finish in the top 6 compared to the Saints or Everton for that matter, and that is why Arsenal’s results against those two sides were included in their record vs. the Top 6.)
Unlike the many of the past 12 seasons, which have either been two, three, or four horse races that left the rest of the field in the dust, this season could see quite a bit of congestion in the top 6. It may be that the mini-league of the Top 6 plays a large role in determining who win the title, along with who qualifies for the Champions League.
Similar to the comparison of the last twelve champions’ performances against the Top 4 vs. performance against the Bottom 16, there is much more variation in performance against the Top 6 compared performance against the Bottom 14, though the difference has decreased. The same logic from the previous section probably applies as to why that is the case. Matches against the Top 6 only make up 30 points of the 114 up for grabs in a season. And even, if one believes that matches against the top 6 teams have special importance for any team with title aspirations, then Arsenal are not in a poor position at all with six points from three games.
Probably more important to Arsenal’s title hopes is that would fall right in the middle of the table with respect to points per game against the Bottom 14. With matches against those sides making up 84 potential points, it is clearly more important to capitalize against this set of opponents rather than its complementary set.
Performance of the Past 12 Champions vs. the Top 8/Bottom 12
vs. the Top 8
vs. the Bottom 12
Through the first 11 games, it appears that the top 8 in the table also represents the best eight teams in the English Premier League. Given that and the increased amount of points up for stake in the set of match involving top 8 opponents, maybe that should be the barometer to use, in order to judge Arsenal as this season progresses.
Since Arsenal have yet to play Everton or Southampton in their first eleven matches, their splits are unchanged and their sample size remains small. Therefore, the fact they would be fifth from bottom when compared to the twelve previous champions has little significance. When looking at performance against the Bottom 12, that lose to Anthony Taylor looms large when comparing them to past champions, but they probably do not have to post the same numbers as 2008-2009 or 2012-2013 Manchester United to win the league.
And a round of applause for 2008-2009 Newcastle United, who, though getting relegated after finishing 18th, can hold their heads high for starting their 2008-2009 season with a draw against Manchester United (23 wins in a row against the Bottom 12…talk about no mercy for the weak. That side would have made Sensei Kreese proud).
Performance of the Past 12 Champions vs. the Top 10/Bottom 10
vs. Top 10
vs. The Bottom 10
To be thorough here are tables of the past champions performance against the Top 10 and the Bottom 10. In this case, West Brom, by virtue of being 10th on a 1-goal goal difference over Aston Villa, places them in Arsenal’s top 10 split. As with 2008-2009 Newcastle United, 2012-2013 Norwich City can hold their heads high for a home win against Manchester United.
After all these tables and about 1300 words later, the only reasonable conclusion to come to is that there is more than one way to win a title. Arsenal may very well not win the title (Arsenal vs. the field, one should take the field), but it would be due to failing to get enough points from all sides, not just the top ones. You can go the 2008-2009 Manchester United route, who finished dead last among the twelve champions against the Top 4, Top 6, Top 8, and Top 10, but mercilessly destroyed the Bottom 10, 12, 14, and 16 like no other team in the past twelve seasons. You could go the opposite route, like 2002-2003 Manchester United, struggling against the bottom teams relative to past champions, and playing well against the best sides (or have Arsenal blow the title).
Or you could be like 2010-2011 Manchester United and win the league with 80 points (or 1996-1997 Manchester United who won a 38 game Premier League season with 75 points). As Arsenal go through this Premier League season, people will want to label matches against the best sides as tests of their title credentials, but those matches do not seem to play any larger role than matches against the lower sides. Therefore, it seems unwise to make judgments about a team’s title credentials after dropping points to a potential Top 4, Top 6, Top 8, or Top 10 side. If it is not unwise, then this author would argue that one should make judgments about a team’s title credentials after dropping points to Bottom 10, 12, 14, or 16 side.
Winning a league is not like winning the Champions League, where at some point (unless one is wildly fortunate) a side will have to go up against a Barcelona, Bayern Munich, PSG, Real Madrid, or Athletico Madrid and beat them over two legs. All that matters is that one accumulates more points than the rest of the field. Whether those points come against a side like Manchester City or a side like Crystal Palace does not matter.