In the middle of Arsenal’s 22 match unbeaten run at the outset of Unai Emery’s Arsenal tenure in 2018, Statsbomb ran an article entitled ‘Arsenal aren’t this good’. I remember it causing a stir on social media because it divided opinion among Arsenal fans and we were divided along lines of preconception.
Shortly after the piece was published, Arsenal crushed Fulham 5-1 at Craven Cottage. I was in the away end that day and the travelling contingent started to chant ‘we’ve got our Arsenal back.’ I felt uncomfortable with it on a couple of levels. As much as I felt Arsene Wenger’s departure was necessary and not before time, I felt it was disrespectful to a man who brought the level of success to the club that he had.
Ordinarily, I wouldn’t feel too precious about that but mainly I felt uncomfortable with it on an intellectual level. Clearly Arsenal played really well on that day at Craven Cottage but the Statsbomb piece chimed with me because it put into numbers what I had been trying to articulate in words. I just wasn’t convinced by what I was seeing and had questions over the sustainability of Arsenal’s results.
There was a significant kickback to the piece on social media too and I think that is fully understandable. Arsenal were at the outset of a long awaited new era, results were good and, at that point, I think it’s emotionally natural to object to having the party balloon pricked by someone telling you that the pints you’re enjoying are going to give you a big headache in the morning.
Baked into some of that reaction, of course, was some general disdain of the ‘analytics community’ and their killjoy ways. There is an unfair perception that people who are inclined to look at numbers and data are somehow draining joy from the sport when, really, numbers and data are simply how a lot of people understand and enjoy the sport themselves.
Some of us are Microsoft Word and prefer words and prose (hi!) Some of us are PowerPoint and are visual learners. Some of us are Excel and like numbers and spreadsheets. All those avenues are equally valid ways of understanding the world and spreading that understanding to others.
I refer to this Statsbomb piece because, in my mind, it represented a watershed moment in Arsenal discourse (it almost certainly didn’t but my brain just likes to order it in this manner). Because, despite the pushback and dismissiveness, the author of the piece was proved completely correct. Arsenal’s performances stayed roughly the same but the results eventually sagged.
The ‘data people’ saw it early, had the bravery to express it when many didn’t want to hear it and, in the long-term, were vindicated. I’m not a data person, I am Microsoft Word. If you want me to do or understand something, put it in words and paragraphs. But over time, I realised I would have to incorporate numbers and data into football writing because that is the expectation of the audience now (and rightly so).
It’s not enough to say ‘I think I observe this thing happening.’ The onus is there to provide evidence. It doesn’t come especially naturally to me to illustrate observations through data and I am never going to get a gig writing for a site like Statsbomb but I’ve had to embrace (admittedly quite basic) data as a means of both finding and presenting evidence (and being prepared to challenge my train of thought when the data tells me something my eyes aren’t seeing).
I think, over time, the surrender / acceptance of data has become increasingly apparent. When attitudes shift, they usually do so silently. Sceptics don’t verbalise the termination of their scepticism. Which brings me on to Saturday’s 5-0 win over Crystal Palace.
I think every fan, however data literate, notices when their team doesn’t score for three consecutive games. You don’t have to be knee deep in FBRef columns to diagnose that as an issue and for it to become the dominant discourse among the supporter base. What better panacea for such a spell than a 5-0 home win over midtable opposition at home?
On the face of it, that ought to be heralded as a problem addressed, if not solved entirely. But that hasn’t been the prevailing mood of the Arsenal fan base in the days since Saturday. Arsenal’s first two goals came from setpieces and while goals from setpieces count just as much as any other type of goal, it didn’t assuage fan concerns over the team’s ability to pick defences apart from open play.
From there, the subsequent three goals against Crystal Palace have a different context, where the opponents have to open up a little more. Two of Arsenal’s goals also came deep into stoppage time. On one hand, we might bemoan the death of innocence that a 5-0 win off the back of a fallow period in front of goal isn’t heralded as the end of all our problems.
On the other, it says something about the greater literacy of football supporters nowadays. Fans are more ready to understand that, in truth, there probably wasn’t a huge difference in overall performance between 0-2 home defeats to West Ham and Liverpool and a 5-0 win over Palace. Fans are better at understanding that drastically altering the game state through early setpieces goals, while pleasing, probably don’t totally address long-term concerns over the ability to reliably break down defensive teams.
And of course, that is both blessing and curse. We know more but knowledge is often the midwife to anxiety. I also won’t pretend that every football fan is now knee deep in Statsbomb, FBRef or Statszone, nor should they be really. It is, obviously, absolutely, fine to respond solely to results and engage only on an emotional level.
I would say the vast majority of fans do that and that is totally fine. If you are reading this column, there is a fair chance you are probably not one of those fans (again, I say this non-judgementally).
It’s not that everyone has become a ‘data nerd.’ It’s more that, over time, resistance has slowly dwindled to ideas supported by data and has slowly and more subtly seeped into the overall discourse. Many of us watch the game in a slightly different way now, whether we realise it or not.
The internet, social media and sites like this one have turned football into a 24/7 industry where once it was a once or twice a week pursuit, where the full stop on the weekend’s football emerged at the Monday morning water cooler at work or in the playground at school.
No doubt there is a lot of filler football content (he says, shifting uncomfortably in his seat) but there is also a lot of informed, evidenced analysis and it’s transformed the way we respond to football to the point that a 5-0 home win doesn’t totally cure what ails us.
It is absolutely intellectually correct that we respond in this way, even if it doesn’t feel as satisfying at times like this. It is one of the great paradoxes of life that knowing more often leads us to enjoy less.
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