|His toughest campaign yet...|
"It wasn't really the losing, it was the routine. Year after year, it was always the same story. Fighting until the end only to see we didn't have the energy, in the semifinals, the finals, to arrive in the final sprint."
Cesc Farbregas, speaking on his time at Arsenal (August 15, 2011)
Such was Fabregas' assessment of the difficulties he experienced at Arsenal upon his departure for Bracelona last summer, which now seems like so long ago to many Arsenal supporters. Why shouldn't they and their manager feel vindicated at this point? After a disastrous start the club has come on strong the last nine matches, winning eight of them to take 24 of 27 points and move into third position in the table. Looking at the run in the club had the more difficult draw of teams versus its cross town rivals that are also in the race for third and fourth, but they went a long way towards evening the odds with their 1-0 win over Manchester City this weekend. This nine match run has been the Gunners' best form during the 2011-12 season, with both the Euro Club Index and Sports Club Stats now holding the Gunner's odds of finishing 4th or better at 90% or higher.
All signs are pointing to a 15th straight season of Champions League soccer for Arsenal and an interesting off season where hope will spring eternal that a few key signings by Wenger can bring championship glory to the Emirates.
However, a look at the numbers is in order before the corks are popped and Wenger's reputation is rehabilitated. Much like last week's Liverpool post, the two graphs below present the 4-match running averages for PPM and table position for the last three Arsenal seasons. If the history in these graphs is any guide, the Gunners aren't out of the woods yet.
Fabregas knew what he was talking about, and the phenomenon of the late season swoon extended beyond the cup competitions to which his quote might be directly attributed.
In the 2009/10 season the Gunners were only one point off second position (Manchester United) and three behind the league leaders (Chelsea) with five matches to play. Rather than finish strong, the Gunners would stumble to a third place finish claiming only four points from fifteen available via a 1-1-3 record. Chelsea would go 4-0-1 to claim their third Premier League title, while Manchester United would go 4-1-1 and fall two points short of nipping Chelsea at the finish line (Chelsea held a large edge in goal differential that necessitated Manchester United win the championship outright by points).
Things got even worse in 2010/11, where the Gunners' swoon started in match 28. At that point the team was sitting second on 56 points, four back of leaders Manchester United and seven ahead of third place Machester City. The next 11 matches would see Arsenal earn twelve points from thirty-three. Yet again they limped into a Champions League spot, this time falling to fourth and being forced into a play-in against Udinese the following season. Such a string of late season swoons, combined with longings to go back to a boyhood home (Fabregas) and a boatload of money (Nasri), served to dislodge key players and incite the crisis of confidence at the beginning of this season.
That crisis is now clearly in the past. Wenger's leadership is now hailed as a key to the season's turnaround, and stands in stark contrast to the siege he was under the first third of the season. Yet while the pressure has lessened, it has not gone away. Chelsea is still alive in the Champions League, and an unlikely championship for their club in that competition would mean only the top three clubs in the Premier League would get berths in next year's competition. With Tottenham only two points back and Chelsea five back it will still be a tight race for a Champions League spot, no matter what the projections say. Arsenal can't afford to have any type of late season let off, not even one as narrow as the fall off in 2009/10. They've fought very hard to get back to the position they are in today, as evidenced by the second graph above that shows the running average of table position. They must finish just as well as they've played recently, and only then will they be able to look back on this season as one of redemption for the players, the manager, and the club.