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Performance vs results: How sustainable is Arsenal’s fine start to the season?

October 14, 2019

SINCE the fairly underwhelming 1-0 victory over Bournemouth last weekend, a debate has broken out amongst Arsenal fans over the value of performances versus results.

Put simply, Arsenal have rarely performed impressively this season, they have looked disjointed and yet, they sit third in the Premier League table and the second string have produced exciting performances in the Europa League.

The victory over Bournemouth was especially divisive because it brought the “results v performances” debate bubbling to the surface. The match was punctuated by an international break which caused the debate to linger. The first thing to say is that there is a sense of déjà vu at work. This time last year, Arsenal embarked on a 22-match unbeaten run in all competitions with a clutch of displays that did not pass the eye test.

The “analytics community” warned that regression was likely if Arsenal produced the same level of performance and, given the way the Gunners’ season ended, it’s difficult to argue that they weren’t proved correct. In a nutshell, that is why performances matter, especially at this early stage of the season- they are the best indicator of future results.

Had the Bournemouth game ended in a draw, nobody could have complained. If Callum Wilson could have his moment again, as he rounded Bernd Leno, I am certain he would opt to shoot instead of pass in front of an unguarded net. If supporters are to be satisfied with results and results only and a win should only yield uncritical happiness, it follows that draws and defeats should only be met with criticism and dismay, which would be ridiculous.

Humans are complex and capable of experiencing several emotions simultaneously, it is possible to feel satisfied with the result but be concerned about the performance. Some people really are only interested in the bottom line, which is absolutely fine, of course. Paradoxically though, those people should be concerned the most about the quality of performance because, over an extended period of time, performances dictate the bottom line.

This debate has become slightly skewed as a dichotomy between entertainment and results. I cannot speak for all Arsenal fans, of course, but I don’t think that is the spirit of the argument, generally speaking. Entertainment versus results is something slightly separate and even more subjective, I feel- not least because we all have a different idea of what constitutes entertainment. Personally, I would be absolutely fine with a conservative, defensively sound Arsenal if that was effective and a good use of Unai Emery’s resources.

The Bournemouth match was a low intensity snoozefest, but also a slight outlier on Arsenal’s season. I think Arsenal’s games have been anything but boring. Against Spurs they roared back from two goals down to draw 2-2, at Watford, they moved into a two-goal lead before meekly surrendering to a 2-2 draw which felt fortunate given the amount of chances the Hornets were able to create in the second half.

At home to Aston Villa, the Gunners twice trailed and were a man down before winning 3-2. None of these games were sterile or an example of a team strangling the life out of an opponent through careful, cautious play. They were frantic basketball games borne of a total lack of control on Arsenal’s part, Unai Emery’s team have been anything but boring for most of the season, they have not entertained by design but through tactical disorder.

Of course, there is mitigation for Arsenal and Emery. Ceballos, Luiz and Pepe are new signings with prominent roles, while Joe Willock, Calum Chambers, Reiss Nelson and Bukayo Saka are essentially new players introduced into the team too. Alex Lacazette and both first choice full-backs have been unavailable to Emery during this time of upheaval, which is significant.

It is likely the Bournemouth and Manchester United matches were a little tedious because the coach is taking measures against the absolute glut of shots on goal his team had been conceding prior. The Gunners need to tighten their defence as a priority and there has been evidence of a more secure rearguard in those games. However, it is also true to say that if the level of performance does not improve, Arsenal will begin to drop unnecessary points soon enough.