By Tony Attwood
On 31 August 2003, the Times newspaper ran a report on Arsenal’s league match against Manchester City. The report included the comment that this game included “the worst 45 minutes [by Arsenal] that any of their fans could remember”.
The date of that commentary gives a bit of a clue as to what happened in the rest of the season. And as you’ll probably know, on 15 May 2004 Arsenal beat Leicester City 2-1 at home, and finished the league season unbeaten. Not bad for the team that had been playing “the worst 45 minutes that any of their fans could remember.”
I’ve no idea what odds you could have got on Arsenal going the whole of the 2003/4 unbeaten in the league, but I would imagine they would have gone up quite a lot after the first match of that season – which we lost. Fortunately for the unbeaten record, it was a charity shield game against Manchester United. Arsenal lost on penalties.
In fact, that wasn’t the only defeat in the Unbeaten Season – we also lost two and drew one of the first three Champions League games we played, lost to Manchester United in the semi-final of the FA Cup, and were beaten twice (yes twice) by Middlesbrough in the semi-final of the league cup.
So, to return to my headline: what does history tell us about predicting results?
Following the tactical changes can certainly be a good way to start. And obviously making a note of Arsenal results through our history also helps.
For me, the main lesson it gives us is that it is worth looking at trends rather than specific results.
And it is clear from looking back to that historic season there is no doubt that Arsene Wenger was focused above everything on winning the league.
Wenger had won the league with Arsenal in 1997/98 but in the following three seasons the club came second to Manchester United, winning the FA Cup in two of those seasons.
Looking back at that period, although Arsenal came close to another double it is clear that Manchester United had built such a strong team that the only way Arsenal was going to overcome them was by setting aside thoughts of European glory or more FA Cup wins, and instead becoming focussed totally on the league.
Anything else was considered incidental – what mattered was another League title – because that is what Manchester United was doing season by season: collecting league titles. They won eight of them between 1993 and 2003.
The fact that Arsenal’s subsequent attempt to catch up with Manchester United in terms of league titles failed, was due to the decision to build what became the Emirates Stadium. Wenger was never a great spender in the transfer market, but he knew the players he wanted, and after the unbeaten season not only did his budget decrease dramatically, the world knew that if Wenger wanted a player, the player must have potential – and so the price instantly doubled.
So how can one use this information if one wants to place a bet helped by a bit of inside knowledge?
The answer must be to understand where clubs are in the cycle of things. In the first third of 2020/21 Arsenal were 15th in the league. But when we look just at the last two-thirds of that season Arsenal were the second-best team in the league. Anyone who used that insight, rather than following the media’s calls for another new manager, would have done rather well.
In 2021/22 Arsenal’s new team were emerging, but Arteta was still developing the approach, and each time a new modification was introduced Arsenal suffered defeats. In fact, if you look at the results there were four spells during the season in which Arsenal lost either three in a row or three games out of four. The reason in each case: the new approach was refined.
Of course, as a member of the crowd we might not be able to see that modification each time, but the fact was, as soon as Arsenal lost a match, it was time to lay off betting on Arsenal to win – until the new modification was bedded in.
Thus as a result of studying what was happening, those who placed bets on Arsenal’s games knew exactly what they were looking for. Those who followed the media’s howls for a new manager, would have done less well.