Saturday 3 December 2016

Lowering of bar gives Gunners best shot at moving target

thecouch@independent.ie

Tommy Conlon

Published 17/01/2016 | 17:00

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger. Photo: Adam Davy/PA Wire
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger. Photo: Adam Davy/PA Wire

The annual competition to find the best football team in England has traditionally set a high bar for its contenders. The championship race in the top flight has always been a marathon of body and mind, a gruelling test of every facet that a squad and manager presents for inspection.

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Usually at least one team reaches up to meet the standard. This season it looks as if the championship will have to lower its bar to find a winner. Its unforgiving rigour will have to be a little more forgiving. The exam will have to be dumbed down. The champions will be elected without reaching the quota.

In December, Arsene Wenger suggested that this year's title could be won with the lowest points total in Premier League history. He anticipated that it will be won with 80 points or less, and could even go as low as 70.

The lowest winning points total so far has been 75 - Manchester United in 1996/'97. The highest winning points total was 95 - Chelsea in 2004/'05.

Stats are always open to interpretation and one could plausibly argue that no matter how few or how many points the champions have amassed, they've been put through the wringer anyway. They have played 38 games over nine months and survived all manner of adversity to come out on top. In other words the campaign is in itself so arduous that any winning team automatically fulfils all the criteria required of genuine champions.

But the 20-point difference between lowest and highest confirms that the championship bar is not set at a fixed standard. Season by season it moves up and comes down, depending on the volatile fluctuations in the form of its 20-team field. It does not insist that the contenders attain some sort of immutable standard, without which they'll be found out eventually by the side that does.

There is a tendency to think that the championship demands these ideal criteria of any team with its eye on the prize. In reality it is the teams themselves that establish the criteria and the standard. They only have to win the race against each other. Unlike an official record in pole vault or high jump, they do not have to clear a definitive height to take the crown.

Chelsea in '04/'05 also set a record for the fewest goals conceded by Premier League winners - a mere 15. Now that was an ideal standard of sorts. And it would have reassured anyone hoping that the championship in England would maintain an inscrutable rigour no matter the circumstances.

But in 1999/2000 United won the title having conceded 45 goals - the highest amount, and a swing of 30 goals in five years.

In the season that they conceded 15, Chelsea scored 72. In '09/'10 they smashed the goals-scored record with 103. They conceded 32, double the number from five years previously, but still won the title.

We know that standards oscillate in this competition from year to year, but perhaps they oscillate more than we think. It remains a ferocious examination of any squad's technical talent, physical stamina and psychological mettle. But some seasons it is less severe than others. Sometimes the winning team will get away with a few more flaws in its structure, or in its coaching and management.

So while Arsenal supporters were cursing that late concession of an equaliser to Liverpool on Wednesday night, and Manchester City fans were likewise tearing their hair out over the 0-0 at home to Everton, any ensuing pessimism about their title hopes was probably premature.

No result is terminal at the moment. No team looks poised to take decisive advantage of a rival's slip-up. Arsenal are currently conceding precisely a goal a game, which by the standards of '04/'05 would be a fatally fragile defensive record. But City, three points behind at time of writing, are also conceding a goal a game. Arsenal haven't been rampant in attack either, with 37 goals in 21 games; City have 39 in 21. So, it's more or less mutual stalemate here too.

The prevailing fear of course is that the other side is bound to hit a winning streak sooner rather than later and leave them for dust.

But of the two, City should be the more vulnerable. Week by week their manager is being undermined by a growing presumption that he will be replaced in the summer by Pep Guardiola. And at some stage one would have to think that this incremental dilution of his authority will have ramifications in the dressing room, and on the field. They are also playing like a team that has gone soft from success.

The title is there for Arsenal, even with Mathieu Flamini in the holding role. And Wenger's purchase last week of the Egyptian defensive midfielder Mohamed Elneny might suggest he has finally faced up to this perennial blind spot in his thinking.

But never mind City or Arsenal. If the championship remains in such a forgiving mood this season, then maybe it should go the whole hog and let a modest provincial club with an affable Italian manager take the laurel. If Leicester City were to win the whole damn thing it would constitute not so much an abrogation of standards, but an entirely improbable triumph for pure sporting romance.

And as the Premier League has shown all too often, it is the one thing that money cannot buy.

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