Arsenal and the 07/08 Season – What if?

There have been some incredibly tight title races in Premier League history, with notable seasons including 95/96, 01/02, 02/03, 11/12 and most recently, 13/14. But growing up as a young Arsenal fan, there was one title race that gripped my imagination like no other, and that occurred in the 2007/2008 season. This race had the benefit of being between three teams, a feat only really replicated in 01/02 and 13/14, and it was pretty much too close to call for the majority of the season.

In early 2014, Arsenal were top of the league and going strong (stop me if you’ve heard this bit before), and were winning plaudits in the media. Analysts were much less convinced however, pointing to pretty ‘meh’ shot numbers and an unsustainable conversion rate, as this Statsbomb piece articulates. What I wanted to check with fairly rudimentary shot data having manually collected it (pre-enlightened era struggles) from Statto.com was whether Arsenal’s title challenge in 07/08 was sustainable, and if so, why they didn’t win the league, having been 5 points clear of nearest challengers Manchester United with 12 games to play, albeit with trips to Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge to come.

To August 2007 then, and some pre-season context. Manchester United had fought back from their first Premier League era blip with their first title in 4 seasons in 2007, beating Chelsea into second place. Arsenal had been well off the pace in 06/07, with the Invincibles squad in the midst of being broken up and talismanic captain Thierry Henry missing most of the second half of the season, and they finished 4th, level on points with Liverpool.

Transfer Activity

Here’s a transfer round-up of Arsenal’s, United’s and Chelsea’s summers.

Arsenal:

Arrivals Departures
Eduardo da Silva £7.5m Thierry Henry £16m
Bacary Sagna £6m Jose Antonio Reyes £8m
Lassana Diarra £4m Freddie Ljungberg £2m
Lukasz Fabianski £2m Jeremie Aliadiere £2m
Total spent: £19.5m Total received: £28m

Seemingly a fairly underwhelming summer for Arsenal, with a lot of attacking talent leaving and only Eduardo coming in on that front. Bacary Sagna would prove invaluable to a side lacking a top-class right back since the departure of Lauren.

Manchester United:

Arrivals Departures
Owen Hargreaves £17m Kieran Richardson £5.5m
Tomas Kuszczak £4m Giuseppe Rossi £6m
Nani £17.3m Alan Smith £6m
Anderson £20.4m Gabriel Heinze £8m
Carlos Tevez £9.5m loan fee
Total spent: £68.2m Total received: £25.5m

A big spending summer from Sir Alex Ferguson saw significant arrivals in midfield and up front, although he wisely chose to stick with the Ferdinand-Vidic axis that had served him so well in 06/07. Tevez was a late arrival in August after the Premier League case involving his registration.

Chelsea:

Arrivals Departures
Franco Di Santo £3m Glen Johnson £4m
Florent Malouda £13.5m Arjen Robben £25m
Juliano Belletti £4m Lassana Diarra £4m
Tal Ben Haim Free
Claudio Pizarro Free
Total spent: £20.5m Total received: £33m

A fairly fiscally conservative window by Chelsea’s and Abramovich’s standards, although they would go on to spend close to £25m in the January window on Anelka and Ivanovic. This squad probably had the smallest significant player turnover (Arsenal’s sale of Henry and Tevez’s move to United were to be important moves for their sides), similar to Mourinho’s Chelsea side before the 15/16 season…

Squad Ageing Curves

To create these I looked at each player’s age at the start of the season and placed them in 6 different age brackets. Optimum squad ageing curves see most players between 26-30, with a bit of experience on one side of the curve, and a bit of youthful vigour on the other side. The differences between the teams are pretty interesting. Title Challengers' Ageing Curves 0708 2

Chelsea and United are pretty similar, with Chelsea maybe possessing a bit more experience. But Arsenal, holy crap. They had one outfield player starting the season aged 30 or above, and that was Gilberto Silva, who only played ~1,200 league minutes. This was an incredibly young side. Look how many players they had in the age bracket 20-23 compared to everyone else (Fabianski, Senderos, Clichy, Diaby, Diarra, Fabregas, Flamini and Adebayor, the latter 3 being hugely important to them). Anyways, I’ll come onto experience later. On with the season.

The First Nine Games

Arsenal started off like a house on fire, going 8-1-0 in their first 9 games, helped by a 26% conversion rate, an 87% save percentage and a pretty easy start, with Tottenham away proving the only really challenging game, and with a small sample size PDO a tad high at 111. Nonetheless, for a young side, written off in many quarters before the season had started, to have a SoTR of 0.64 was an impressive start, but one dwarfed by Manchester United’s shooting numbers. Despite having a typically slow start to the season (2 draws and a defeat in their first three games), United reeled off 6 wins in a row to stay on Arsenal’s tails, with a whopping SoTR of 0.73 over 9 games. I’d wager it would be pretty difficult to find any team with such a degree of shot volume dominance over 9 games in Premier League history. Their conversion rate was a little on the low side, but Van der Sar was already excelling again with an early unsustainable save percentage of 93%. For Chelsea, the start of the season was a bit of a strange one. They started off well, with 3 wins and a draw from their opening fixtures, but shot numbers never convinced, even early in the season, and Mourinho was sacked after only six games, with a TSR of 0.57. Not elite, but plenty good enough for 3rd/4th, and despite the small sample size, Chelsea’s shot level stayed at around 0.57 for most of the season, as shown below.

Title Challengers' TSR 0708.png

It’s not really surprising that United were comfortably the best team by TSR and SoTR with shot monsters like Ronaldo and a young Wayne Rooney in their side. Over the course of the season, their conversion rate was consistently lower than Arsenal’s, whether that’s a season-long quirk or a dual result of a Wenger team prioritising shot quality in the time before expected goals and United’s more haphazard shooting approach, I’m not sure. What’s remarkable is how early Chelsea’s TSR stabilised, indicating that Caretaker Manager Avram Grant didn’t do as good a job in terms of improving the side as their improved results would necessarily suggest.

Up to Boxing Day

Arsenal’s points per game (PPG) and shot numbers dropped slightly off, in understandable circumstances given how they started the season, with draws at Anfield and against United at the Emirates seemingly evidence of this side’s ‘bottle’, whatever that means. Despite their shot numbers falling a little bit, United kept pace, leading Arsenal by one point at the half-way point on Boxing Day. Chelsea had been steadily creeping up the table with fairly unremarkable stats compared to the other two (lower shot ratios, save percentage and conversion rate), but found themselves only 7 points off the top with 19 games played.

Title Challengers' Points 0708.png

And So To Birmingham

The next 7 games went pretty much perfectly for Arsenal. They won 6 and drew one, playing some scintillating stuff against Everton, West Ham and Manchester City in particular, with the Eduardo and Adebayor partnership starting to flourish, picking up 16 out of a possible 18 points, whereas United and Chelsea could only pick up 14 and 12 points respectively. Arsenal’s win at home to Blackburn left them 5 points clear with 12 games to play, the joint-largest lead a side would have in the season, and there was a mounting sense that the title race was pretty much over as far as I can remember, despite the fact Arsenal still had to travel to both of their closest challengers. Then Arsenal went to Birmingham, and everything changed. Eduardo had his leg broken by Martin Taylor, and despite a stunned Arsenal coming from behind to lead the game, Gael Clichy gave away an unnecessary last minute penalty which James McFadden converted. 2-2. The enduring image of that game will be William Gallas storming to and sitting at the far end of the pitch after the penalty was given, and to many, that signified the beginning of the end as far as Arsenal’s title challenge was concerned. To me at the time, it certainly seemed like the Eduardo injury affected Arsenal, they seemed sluggish and frail in the following matches. But did this translate to the numbers?

First 26 games (Pre-Birmingham)
TSR 0.60
SoTR 0.61
PPG 2.42
PDO 113.5
Sc% 28.3%
Sv% 85.2%

Immediately in the first column the PDO value of 114 jumps out at you. Looking at its components, both of them are a little high, if we were being analytical, we’d predict both to regress just a touch.

Last 12 games (Post-Birmingham)
TSR 0.64
SoTR 0.63
PPG 1.66
PDO 97.6
Sc% 20.4%
Sv% 77.2%

Wow. So Arsenal look like they were an even better shots team in the final third or so of the season, but their conversion rates and save percentages fell off big time. For some context, if you apply Arsenal’s sc% and sv% from their first 26 games to their shot data from their last 12 games, they’d have, on average, scored 8 more goals and conceded 5 fewer, which would have given them a projected goal difference of +56, only 2 off United’s eventual +58. But this didn’t happen. Why did Arsenal’s %s fall off however?

Part of it is probably down to regression, to sustain a PDO of greater than 110 over the course of a whole season is very unlikely, and Arsenal’s final PDO of 108 is probably round about the most a top club can affect and nudge its PDO north of 100 through its ability to control the quality of shots taken and faced.

PDO Distribution.jpg

But part of it is down to score effects as well. Arsenal conceded the first goal in games against Birmingham, Aston Villa, Middlesbrough, Bolton and Liverpool in the last 12 games of the season, forcing them to chase the game for long periods, resulting in more speculative shots against a packed defence. These lower quality shots would obviously be easier to save, and Arsenal’s need to throw men forwards would leave them exposed on the counter-attack, resulting in higher quality chances for the opposition, and ergo a lower save percentage for Manuel Almunia/Jens Lehmann. It’s not at all beyond the realms of possibility that a fairly inexperienced team (with an outfield average of 23) would do this, but without xG data, it’s pretty hard to work out to what extent regression/bad luck/game states played a part. I think it’s fair to say that all three (combined with the mental trauma of Eduardo’s leg break) occurred to some extent, especially in the 4 games Arsenal played after Eduardo’s injury (including the one against Birmingham), where they outshot their opponents 69-17 yet contrived to draw all of them.

Those four drawn games, and the four following it, saw Arsenal’s lead eradicated and the team fall to third, with defeats at Chelsea and Manchester United nails in their title challenge’s proverbial coffin. If you’re more interested about Arsenal’s tactics and they related to their drop-off, this is an excellent piece . It’s quite hard to say Arsenal ‘bottled’ in these performances per se, but maybe it’s fair to some small extent to ascribe the players’ inability to put the ball away in those crucial games to ‘bottling’, a fairly lazy and insulting term nonetheless, and one I’d rather avoid.

Title Challengers' sc% 0708.png

Title Challengers' sv% 0708.png

The Final Push

With that, it came down to United and Chelsea, as it had done for the two preceding seasons and as it would do for several future years, with both hitting their attacking strides with conversion rates rising. In the 9 league games following Eduardo’s leg break and Arsenal’s implosion, the two sides matched each other, both going 8-1-0 before the gargantuan meeting at Stamford Bridge between the two. Chelsea, whose results since January had been boosted by the January arrival of Nicholas Anelka, prevailed 2-1 with a late Michael Ballack penalty, leaving the two sides neck and neck with two games to play, with United possessing the vastly superior goal difference. Chelsea beat Newcastle but drew to Bolton on the last day, a result made irrelevant by United’s wins over West Ham and Wigan, leaving the table looking like this:

Position Club Points Goal Difference
1st Manchester United 87 +58
2nd Chelsea 85 +36
3rd Arsenal 83 +43

It’s pretty rare to have three teams break the 80 barrier, and the only other season in which I can remember it happening was 13/14, which was made even more impressive by the 4th placed team, Arsenal (hold your jokes), finishing on 79. Nevertheless, the 07/08 season was remarkable in that there was pretty much a sustained 3 horse race for the entire season, with the title being decided on the very last day. As an Arsenal fan, supporting a very young team written off by all after selling their all-time goal-scorer in the pre-season, I can only look back at that day in Birmingham and think “What if?”

See if you can spot that game on the graph below.

Title Challengers' PPG 0708.png

PPG +GD/G TSR SDiff/G SoTR SOTDiff/G PDO Sc% Sv% Best Worst
MNU 2.29 1.53 0.63 +6.56 0.65 +4.31 111 22.5% 88.5% 8 1
CHE 2.24 1.03 0.58 +3.55 0.61 +2.47 109 24.2% 85.1% 0 5
ARS 2.18 1.13 0.61 +5.11 0.62 +2.87 108 25.6% 82.8% 1 3

From this viewpoint, United’s success almost looked inevitable, although that doesn’t really tell the full story of the way the season panned out.

Although they were a good team (as proven by getting to the Champions League Final where they lost to United), Chelsea weren’t really a great team in 07/08. A shot differential per game of +3.6 isn’t much to write home about for a title contender, although in their defence, there were mitigating circumstances. Only five of their outfield players managed to clock more than 2,000 minutes (in a 3,420 minute season), compared to 8 from Arsenal and 9 from United, so it was pretty difficult for Grant to ever get a settled team.

Arsenal, especially when one considers their shot domination in their blip which cost them the league, can be seen to have been a little unlucky to come 3rd, especially when 2nd, or even 1st at a slight push, would have better reflected their actual ability. What prevented them from winning the league in my opinion was both a lack of experience, which manifested itself in the post-Birmingham reaction, and the lack of a partner for Adebayor (who played almost 3,000 league minutes over the season) in his dry patch in 2008 after Eduardo broke his leg, with van Persie only playing his first 90 minutes in a match against Bolton at the Reebok, after that run of 4 consecutive draws and a defeat at Chelsea.

Title Challengers' Mins Per Age Bracket.png

Nonetheless, Arsenal’s reliance on young players was almost unheard of from a title-challenging team’s perspective, and there’s no doubt that this team were unbelievably talented, and probably should have actually won things when they matured, particularly in 2009-2011. There’s a strong case for them being Wenger’s best side of the Emirates era, being the only post-2005 Arsenal side to break the 80-point barrier, although next year’s iteration, if recent signings are anything to go buy, could give them a run for their money.

If you want cheering up (I know I did after writing this), I’d advise you to watch the first two thirds of this (Arsenal’s 07/08 season review) and try to enjoy the quality of football on display, and remember what could have been.

Thanks for reading.

You can follow me on Twitter @OneShortCorner.

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