Arsenal and the rut of consistency

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As the Gunners battle down the home stretch, a familiar fight brings familiar worries.

Arsenal has finished 3rd or 4th in the Premier League for 10 straight seasons. As the 2015/16 season hits the home stretch, the Gunners are fighting tooth and nail just to click the turnstile to 11 straight. They have not finished worse than 4th in the Premier League since 1996. The endless argument of consistency vs. success wages on at the Emirates, with no end in sight.

Arsene Wenger is an Arsenal legend. Nearing the conclusion of his 20th season in charge of Arsenal, the 66-year-old Frenchman does not have a single true failure on his managerial resume, yet he’s been dubbed a “specialist in failure” by Jose Mourinho.

Consistency is a Catch-22 that Arsenal and Wenger are both struggling to deal with. They are consistently consistent, a predictable machine, and it’s tearing them apart.

But to dissect the true issue with Arsenal, one must dive deeper than that. While the finishing position for the Gunners has been ultimately predictable each season, the route to the final destination has been dotted with moments of panic and uneasiness at the worst of times.

Fans have called for the dismissal of Arsene Wenger, but theres plenty of risk involved (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
Fans have called for the dismissal of Arsene Wenger, but theres plenty of risk involved (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)

Take this year’s results. The club has put together an impressive record against the top teams domestically, with four wins, five draws, and two losses against the table’s current top seven, and an unblemished record against the others in the top four. The problem moments have come against teams Arsenal should beat – the teams Manchester City and Leicester City are beating up on. Of Arsenal’s six losses this season, four have come against teams in 8th (Southampton), 10th (Chelsea), 14th (West Brom) and 15th (Swansea).

And therein lies the failure Arsene Wenger has come to specialize in. Not all-out disaster, but compartmentalized catastrophes. Arsenal continues to be uncomfortable in the most comfortable moments. Last season, they finished in third, four points behind Manchester City. Where did those four points go? Two losses to Swansea City (finished 15th) and one to Stoke (finished 9th) were the culprits. The year before that, they fell to Aston Villa (finished 15th) on opening day, ultimately finishing three points back of Chelsea in third place. Going back even further to 2012/13, they lost to Norwich City (11th) in October and had disappointing draws against Southampton (14th), Aston Villa (15th), Fulham (12th) and Stoke City (13th) en route to 4th place finish, two back of Chelsea.

The Gunners have never shied away from the big moments, the big games, or the important pieces. It’s part of the reason they’ve managed a Champions League place for so many consecutive years. Just this season, they’ve bagged six points against Leicester City when few others have managed to decipher the Foxes. They’ve had goals in the 77th minute and 76th minute to pull level in the North London derbies and earn valuable points against arch-rivals Tottenham.

But even on a smaller scale, the slip-ups are inevitable. The Mirror posted an article lamenting the inability of the club to finish the chances Mesut Ozil has produced this season, the argument hinging on his assist-to-chance-creation ratio this season. But upon closer inspection, it isn’t all that horrible. Ozil has created 277 chances since the start of the 2013 season, of which just 32 have been put away for goals, a rate of 11.5%. That’s not very good, but when compared with the rest of the league, it’s not all that awful either. West Ham’s Dimitri Payet this season has a chance-conversion rate of 10%, while Willian‘s is at a paltry 7%, likely a major factor in Chelsea’s massive struggle this campaign. The Mirror makes a valid point that the finishing at the Emirates is not championship quality, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. But this does:

Expected goals spread out across an entire season calculates the probability of a team to win, lose, or draw based on the differential in chances created by Arsenal vs. their opponents. When boiled down, it means Arsenal is struggling at times not only in front of net but on the other end of the pitch too, allowing opponents to score on chances that are deemed poorer. Ultimately, this proves that the Gunners are disappointing across the board, a microcosm of their experiences the past few seasons.

Arsene Wenger's consistency has slowly transformed him into a polarizing figure (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
Arsene Wenger’s consistency has slowly transformed him into a polarizing figure (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)

Injuries have also been a culprit for their moments of demise the last few seasons, and it’s an excuse they’ll beat to death, but where is the line? Arsenal’s been one of the best teams in the Premier League for years, so calling them “failures” is more complicated. They have been championship quality at times but not when spread out across the larger sample size of a single season. It’s easy to understand why the Arsenal front office is hesitant to risk the consistency that’s brought 19 straight Champions League berths and possibly a 20th to come. The allure of an elusive title is more than enticing, but having seen Chelsea, Manchester United, and Liverpool in recent seasons, the peril also stares the Gunners in the face.

That risk is what likely keeps Arsene Wenger his job. Consistency has saved the Frenchman from failure. Consistency has also been the root of his disappointment. How much longer can the Gunners stand being good but not great? The lines between success and failure have been blurred at the Emirates, and questions remain about what’s best for the club going forward.