“We now have difficult games coming up, with a difficult November”
Those words were spoken by Arsene Wenger after his side had just beaten Sunderland 4-1 in a fairly comprehensive and easy manner. Incredible, considering the fact that Arsenal were unbeaten in the league since game week 1 and were notching up wins without too many difficulties. Yes, they had a few tough games coming up at least on paper. The North London derby against rivals Tottenham, a trip to Old Trafford, PSG’s visit to the Emirates. But going by actual form they were not as difficult as they seemed on paper. Spurs were starved of goals throughout October, Manchester United had scored a total of one league goal in October, and in Champions League Arsenal and PSG were both through to last 16, only the first and second positions were up for deciding.
So what led to the caution in Arsene Wenger’s words? The caution was there due to the infamous November wobble that afflicts his team almost every season. Last season was the worst November in Arsene’s tenure at the Gunners – not a single win in the entire month, with his team getting only 0.67 points per game. This November as well, Arsenal have played three matches in November and have drawn all three – a PPG of 1.0
The November hoodoo for Arsenal is very well known and I think most Gunners fans just accept that as a known fact now. But what causes this customary wobble, almost every year? Let us look at Arsenal’s Premier League and see if we can find some clues regarding what leads to this annual drop in performance.
I have collected data for the last ten full seasons and the current one from FootStats. I have considered goals scored, goals conceded and points as the metrics relevant (and available easily) from these 392 matches here. So, what does all this data say?
Is Defense the Culprit?
In these 392 games, Arsenal has scored 735 goals, 337 in away games and 398 at home. This amounts to 1.72 goals per away game and 2.03 goals per home game (1.88 combined average). That means in general over the last 10 seasons, the Gunners have scored at a rate of ~2 goals per game. But in the 42 November games that have been played over these 10 seasons the scoring rate declines to 1.39 goals per away game and 1.79 goals per home game (1.57 combined average), which is a decline but still their average scoring rate in November is about 3 goals every two games – not too bad from 4 goals every two games.
But when we look at the goals conceded, it is a different story. Overall, Arsenal allows 1.23 goals per every away game and just 0.80 goals per every home game. But when it comes to November, the Gunners leak a lot more goals, especially at home. They concede 1.21 goals every home game in November – from less than one goal per game to guaranteed at least one goal per game at home. In away matches, they concede 1.26 goals per game in November – very similar to their overall away average.
To me, it seems that this jump in no. of goals per home game in November is the real culprit, as it means that they draw and lose home games at a higher frequency in the penultimate month of the year, than in all other months.
Against Which Teams Does the Team Underperform?
To understand against which kind of teams do the Gunners drop their performance, I have divided the 36 opponents into three groups. Manchester United, Man City, Tottenham, Liverpool, Chelsea and Leicester are classified as Top Teams. It can be debated that Southampton and Everton could be included among the Top teams and Leicester could be removed. But the Foxes won the league last season so cannot be removed and if we include Saints or Toffees then why not Potters or Hammers? All the Top teams are sides that have been champions or consistent in top four or have challenged for the title at least a few times.
Then there is another group called Relegated Teams. These are 17 teams that have participated in Premier League over the last ten years but have since been relegated and are not competing in 2016-17 season. Finally, the third group of teams are the other thirteen teams (20 – Arsenal -Top Teams) in the current season.
In November, for the last ten seasons, Arsenal have played more home games versus the top teams than versus Others and Relegated teams combined. My first thought was that this was the reason for them suffering in November. But the data says that while they do concede more, they also score a bit more against the Top Teams. Against Others (just 3 matches in last 10.3 seasons), Arsenal actually perform better in November than overall. So, the only thing left is Gunners’ home performance against Relegated sides. As you can see, Arsenal are quite abject against the relegated sides (none playing this season). They score less than half the goals, less than half points but give almost double the goals. Those six home games against relegated sides with a little bit of help from the ten home games against top sides seem like significant reasons for Arsenal’s November woes. Is it that the team becomes complacent at home against easier opponents?
Looking at Away games, Arsenal has played most away games in November with Relegated sides. But there is not a very large difference between their overall performance against Relegated teams and their November performance against them. But when we look at their away matches against Others and Top teams, then we know that away from home, they suffer at the hands of the best teams in the league, as well as the average ones. Points per game and goals scored per game both drop considerably, primarily for Others but also for Top teams. Does this signify a lack of confidence away from home against average and better than average opposition?
It seems that for Arsenal to have a good November, they should play all good and average teams at home while playing all relegation candidates away from home. In the current month too, they have played Man United away and will play Bournemouth at home – both undesirable combinations as per above analysis. Only Tottenham at home was a fixture that suited them but that ended with just a draw.
No wonder, Arsenal are again going through a troublesome November.