What Makes Teams Title Contenders?

One of the hottest debates currently going on in football Chatosphere is about Arsenal being contenders for the English Premier League title; although the biased Gooner in me thinks we are only having this debate because Arsenal is currently topping the league. No one would be asking the question if it was Chelsea or either of the Manchester clubs sitting atop the table. Well, the debate has already started and from all indication, it will continue till either Arsenal finally become mathematical winners or any of the other of the favoured clubs overtakes them. So, let’s get in the game.

What makes teams contenders? In the past (i.e. last few seasons), the team that is topping the league after 8 to 10 games is considered a contender because after 8 games, all flukey results would have evened out and whichever team is leading then must have been the most consistent. In other words, consistency was the most important criterion for labelling teams as contenders back in the days. (Please note that we are talking about being contenders here; not being favourites or eventual winners).

Today, however, the team that was tipped to fall out of top 4 (for the umpteenth time) this season is leading the pack with 25% more points than its nearest rivals. The team has been more consistent than any other team in the current calendar year and this is now showing in the league table. Consistency, which was the reason why before even a ball was kicked, some not only considered Arsenal to be a title contender but believed they could actually go all the way.

Alas, the rule has now changed. Consistency is no longer the most important factor for consideration for being a contender. There was a time when it was based on ability to beat the top teams – about 6 or 7 of them. But even that has now changed. It is now the ability to beat the 2 most favoured teams i.e. Chelsea and Manchester City; and probably on their home turf.

Yes, that is the new standard. Since Tottenham and Liverpool got well beaten at the Emirates, the goal post has been shifted.

But here is the problem with this new criterion for being contenders: it is mathematically ridiculous. It is ridiculous in context of what we have seen so far in the 2013/14 season. There are 38 games to be played by each team which makes the total possible point haul to be 114 for any team. The league is always handed to the team with the highest number of points irrespective of how they got them or who they got them against. No questions asked! The team with points nearest to 114 always win. I hope you see where I’m going with this.

So far Arsenal has lost 5 of those 114 precious points with others losing at least 10. According to the pundits and the media generally, losing 12 points to Chelsea and Man City (at 6 points each) means that you cannot win the league (ok, let’s just say it makes you a non-contender). There is a need to remind ourselves at this point that this whole “you must beat the favourites or your nearest rivals in order to become a contender” mantra is based on the premise that you and your rivals are going to amass about the same number of points from the 15 to 17 other teams in the league (depending how you define a top team). And this is where the whole premise falls and shatters into a billion pieces.

As pointed out by yours truly, these so called small teams can fetch up to 102 points while the maximum possible from the 2 ‘Super Big’ teams is a meagre 12. Now let’s look at the ‘real contenders’ and their point collections so far.

Chelsea lost to Everton and Newcastle while drawing against Tottenham and Man United (who are no longer contenders according to the pundits). While they have a 100% record against the other super contender, they have gained 17 of the possible 27 points from the 18 ‘lesser’ teams. If we project this forward, they could get about 68 points from a possible 108 in their games against the latter. If they maintained their 100% record away to Man City, they would have 74 points by the end of the season.

Man City lost to Cardiff and Aston Villa while drawing against Stoke City. They have also lost one of the ‘must win’ games against their co contender, Chelsea. They have gained 19 points from 27 against the non-contenders. If we project this forward, they could get 76 from the remaining 108 from the ‘lesser’ teams. If they win their home game against Chelsea, they would have 79 points at the end of the season.

Now let’s look at Arsenal

Arsenal has lost to Aston Villa and drew with WBA for a gain of 25 points from a possible 30 against 10 of the 17 ‘lesser’ teams. If we are to project these results, the club could get 85 points of the 102 available from the non-contenders. Even if Arsenal loses all 4 games against the ‘contenders’, they could still end up with more points if they maintain their form against the other teams.

This is why the pundits’ fixation with ties against Chelsea and Man City is so ridiculous. You don’t win the league by beating other contenders (although it really helps); you win the league by collecting more points against all opponents than any other team.

Period.

Before abuse and insults start flying in the comments section, the point of this piece is not to argue that Arsenal will win the league based on our current form and league standing. The point of this article is to argue that Arsenal CAN win the league based on our current form and league standing. And we are therefore, contenders. Leagues are won based on stone cold calculations and not sentimental speculations. There are 28 games to go; we’ll see who amassed the most points by 5pm on the 11th day of May 2014.

Arsenal just passed another ‘test’ as I was rounding up this article by beating Dortmund on their home turf. The next ‘test’ is on Sunday against Man United. If the boys pass it, you can be sure that another one would be set immediately. That was how Tottenham and Liverpool found themselves among the ‘lesser’ teams and non-contenders. Poor sods!

Looking back to 2007/8 and our first game of the season, I worry about the perpetual bad-mouthing of Arsenal and down playing of our chances. I worry because this talk of Arsenal not going to make it may soon become conventional wisdom (if it isn’t already) which will give referees leeway to screw us over, safe in the knowledge that the football following public would just shrug their collective shoulders because they have been conditioned to believe that we would ultimately fail.

While leading with 5 points in February 2008 (as we have done for most of the season), Alan Hansen and Shearer were still adamant that we wouldn’t win on Match of The Day. When the Eduardo incident happened and Mike Dean added insult to the injury (pun not intended), the duo did some concern trolling, focusing on Gallas’ tantrum with no complaint on the wrong penalty call. As referees kicked us further and further down, there was no outrage because, remember, we were mere stubborn pretenders! The people have been conditioned for our eventual demise; nothing strange was happening.

Despite having the best pre-season of all the English teams, including thoroughly beating one of the ‘contenders’, Arsenal’s state of preparedness for the season was being reported as shambolic at best. I believe to this day that Anthony Taylor was emboldened by the prevailing public view of the club to officiate the Aston villa game the way he did. All his bad calls were either forgiven or overlooked because, well, Arsenal haven’t “spent the fucking money”. That same team won their next 4 games, including 5-0 aggregate win over Fenerbahce. And that was before the arrival of Ozil.

It is absolutely important that we start getting recognition as contenders because the officials don’t live in media vacuum. Our games will be officiated with more fairness if the referees know that we are respected and expected to do well. A lot has been said about Ferguson’s bullying of officials but Man united got many favours because of their reputation and the fact that referees know that they would get called out by all and sundry for bad calls against them. Many wrong calls in favour Man United have been justified as them making their own good fortune.

It will be nice for Arsenal to be accorded a similar status and respect. Please say it loud and clear Gooners: We are contenders and we have earned the right to be considered as such.

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