ARSENAL season ticket holders are lucky folk.
Although they pay a good whack for the privilege, there’s always a long waiting list of green-eyed folk in the queue to watch a team who virtually guarantee good entertainment whenever they play.
Aside from the fact Nottingham Forest come first for me, if I had to choose a game to watch as a neutral it would probably be Arsene Wenger’s fluent, passing Gunners against Fergie’s high tempo ultra-attacking Manchester United.
But why hasn’t Wenger’s beautiful football won the Premier League title in recent years?
The answer may not be all to do with the slightly reduced quality of his squad – certainly compared with the ‘invincibles’ who went through the whole 38-game season unbeaten – or the easy-to-believe myth they have no heart when the going gets tough.
According to a very interesting book titled Numbers Game by Chris Anderson and David Sally, the answer may lie in a statistical analysis the game.
Teams who play football based on ball possession – like Arsenal – do win more more often than those who are starved of the ball, the numbers show.
But they don’t win as often as you might think – and there is good reason for that.
For to thread your way past a well organised defence with precise Arsenal-style passing to enable a striker to tap the ball into the net is understandably the hardest art of all in football.
Just as in chess where the ‘perfect’ game must end in a draw, top class defenders should, ill fortune aside, be able to hold top class attackers at bay for the majority of a football match at least.
Logically, it’s easier for the defending team to keep their shape when they are out of possession for long periods – and nothing increases a goalkeeper’s confidence more than making a few early saves or catches.
It’s little surprise then to learn that the most likely way of scoring is through a mistake by your opponents.
Long-term statistics show a high percentage of goals come from regaining possession in the opponents’ final third of the pitch such as through a careless or poor pass or clearance or the attacking team pressing space to force an error.
All this suggests Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool should continue to become more successful as their game is based precisely on that tactic.
Perhaps the saving grace of football, however, is that in some ways it is impervious to the statisticians.
In most sports, it is reasonably possible to predict winners and losers.
The recent titanic Test series between the New Zealand All Blacks and the British and Irish Lions proved literally too close to call, but what chance is there of a top Premiership rugby union side losing to the team at the bottom?
In the same way, most seeded tennis players will make it through to the latter stages of a Grand Slam with the odd shock creating the headlines.
In football, the stats are very different. Pre-match favourites win just over 50 per cent of matches. In other words, the same odds as a flip of a coin. Obviously, they will draw a good percentage as well, but you get the idea.
In recent seasons Stoke City and even more notably Leicester City have defied the statisticians in the way they have achieved success.
Very few goals come from throw-ins but that didn’t allow for a certain Rory Delap, pictured, flinging virtual missiles into opposition penalty areas for Stoke a few years ago.
Interestingly, this helped the worst team in the Premier League possession-wise to have a very good record at home to Arsenal even when they were chasing the game for around 70 per cent of the afternoon.
Meanwhile Leicester only saw 44.8 per cent of the ball – higher than only West Brom and Sunderland – during their remarkable title-winning campaign.
The reason for these anomalies is arguable but may include the difficulties opponents encountered playing against a style of play they had become increasingly unfamiliar with.
The game’s statisticans don’t advocate throwing the ball into the box from halfway inside the opposition’s half or smashing it 40 yards towards Jamie Vardy – and defenders seemed to have little idea how to cope.
The most reliable factor determining a side’s finishing position in either the Premier League or the EFL is, unsurprisingly, money.
This apparently accounts for 81 to 89 per cent of how a team achieves.
Jose Mourinho, Klopp and Wenger may be outstanding managers but none could steer Hartlepool to the Premier League title unless they suddenly appointed a member of the Rothschild family to the board.
But does changing your manager make a big difference to a club’s chances of success?
With a limited number of exceptions, the answer is ‘no’ – as I’ll show in my next article.