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Just how far can Arsenal go this season?

It is a strange fact that it doesn’t take much time and effort to work out where Arsenal have gone wrong in the last couple of seasons and what it would take to put things right. Strange because most commentators haven’t bothered to do any sort of analysis at all.

Yes they have looked at individual players and said that certain ones need replacing (Xhaka and Mustafi usually come in for criticism here. Last season Iwobi did too but that has now stopped following a few good performances.) But beyond that, no.

And yet the real explanation for coming sixth last year is easy to find: it was the collapse of Arsenal’s away form. Just have a look at this table of away form over the past few years.

2015/16: Away form: Won 8, Drew 7, Lost 4. Final league position 3rd
2016/17: Away form: Won 9, Drew 3, Lost 7. Final league position 5th
2017/18: Away form: Won 4, Drew 4, Lost 11. Final league position 6th

The decline in away form started in 2016/17, with seven away defeats. By 2017/18 it was the dominant factor in Arsenal’s decline to 6th as we got 11 away defeats.

Then if one looks as Arsenal’s home form for 2017/18 (the season that resulted in Mr Wenger’s departure and endless tales of collapse) it read, won 15, drew 2, lost 2.

That home performance in a season that was often called “appalling” was second only to Manchester City. And it wasn’t the result of a series of dodgy wins by the only goal – Arsenal ended up with a goal difference of +34 at home.

Now to me this gives us a real clue as to what can be achieved this season. If Arsenal can maintain their home form of last season, and return to an away points total of 30 or more, then we can certainly get back into the top four. Maybe the top three.

Last season Liverpool in fourth got 75 points. Arsenal in sixth got 63, which means that 13 more points are needed (assuming for the moment that everything else stays the same).

It will be hard to pick up 13 more points at home this season than last, given that we had such a good season in Islington last year. So instead of that, we need to pick up 13 more points away from home. Instead of four wins and four draws we need seven wins and eight draws.

So what the table above shows is that we don’t even have to be as good away from home as we were in 2015/16 to get back to fourth.

Now of course there is a problem. In the past people used to talk of the “big four”. Now they talk of the “big six”. The “big four” was of course never static – for a long time Manchester United were part of it, while Tottenham and Liverpool spent many years languishing out of the limelight.

So the point is that for Arsenal to climb from sixth to fourth, we not only need to return to our regular away form, we also need other clubs in last season’s top six not to improve still further.

At the moment it looks like Manchester United are obliging while Tottenham’s future remains uncertain – the lack of transfers in the summer and the eternally delayed move to the rebuilt ground are giving them a few wobbles. Additionally, most clubs suffer a decline in form when they move to a new stadium, and if Tottenham follow that pattern they might well slip a little further.

Predicting where a club is going to end up at the end of the season is thus a mug’s game – involving predicting what will happen to half a dozen clubs. No one is likely to get it right.

But the progress of Arsenal so far and the slippages of other teams makes me hopeful. Indeed given that the away target is 13 more points away from home I am already encouraged. Last season as noted we got 16 away points all season in 19 games. So far we have got nine points in four games. If that form continues we would get 42 away points – far more than needed to end up fourth, even allowing for other teams improvements.

And yes I know that I am making all sorts of assumptions here – although I would add that our games so far have been fairly average in terms of the season – one game at home and one away against other members of last season’s top six is what one would expect if all the games came out of the hat at random.

So, onto the final objection: is fourth the limit of my expectation?

No it isn’t – of course I would love us to win the league and of course if that can’t happen I would like to come second, and if not second then… well, you know where I am going.

But this is where the other clubs come in. Manchester City and Chelsea can spend absolutely anything they want because they are backed by countless billions, and neither the PL nor Uefa has got the stomach to try and stop them. That is not to say they are unstoppable, but stopping them is not in our power. It needs the sort of internal explosion that Chelsea have suffered a couple of times in recent years to deliver the decline. There’s nothing we can do about it.

The other clubs however are less secure. Liverpool have spent their money, and whether they will have even more to spend in January I am not sure. Although they are the media’s darlings, they are getting an extraordinary level of injuries (while most clubs got one player crocked in the international break Liverpool had four).

Tottenham as we have noted do not have the finances of other clubs while Man U are in such a strange place it is hard to know where they will end up.

So, pull it all together the simple answer is: an improvement in our away form back to what we saw up to a couple of years back would get us the points for third or fourth. But that requires two of the five teams above us last season not to improve dramatically this season. I think any of Liverpool, Tottenham and Manchester United might well oblige.

Two of them maintaining their current form will see us in fourth. All three of them will see us third. And if our improvement away is even greater than I’ve budgeted for, and other clubs stay as they are, we might just (although I think it is a long shot) come second.

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