Right now, my kids are in love with a book titled Sam & Dave Dig a Hole.
It tells the story of two boys who take a pair of shovels to the backyard and start digging in search of “something spectacular.” At first they dig straight down, but don’t find anything. So they stop and start digging to the side, but still find nothing. So they split up, go in different directions, up and down and sideways, and still find nothing.
Unbeknownst to them (but beknownst to the reader and the boys’ dog), at each turn the Sam and Dave narrowly miss discovering diamonds of increasing size. Finally, they dig so far down they fall out of the earth and somehow end up right back where they started.
It’s hard to read the story and not feel frustrated—”if only you’d gone a little further, you would have struck it rich!” But their haphazard strategy isn’t a bad one; changing directions on the verge of discovery took them closer and closer to even more spectacular near misses. And they’re innocents, never knowing how close they truly came to glory.
I thought of this book this week when I read Ben Torvaney’s latest post on Statsbomb, on the statistical likelihood of Arsenal not winning a title in 12 years based on their adjusted bookie odds each season. It turns out it’s kind of small:
By the method described above, the probability of Arsenal winning 0 league titles from 2004/05 to 2015/16 (inclusive) is estimated at 14%. With a crude simulation like this, it’s probably not wise to read too much into the exact numbers. Nonetheless, this does suggest that Arsenal have been somewhat unlucky not to bring back a few titles over the last 10 years.
How many? Well, the odds suggest at least one or two. Had they been ‘lucky,’ it may have been a few more. Yet that luck cuts both ways—Torvaney calculates Arsenal’s odds of making the top four for 12 consecutive seasons at less than 1%!
They may have missed those big diamonds, but Arsenal didn’t fall out of the bottom of the earth either.
However it was this paragraph that nailed the malaise that has long surrounded Arsenal under Arsene Wenger:
Ultimately, looking at it like this misses the point. Most Arsenal fans aren’t disappointed by one missing title. Instead, it is the sheer repetitiveness of each season. Every year the same mistakes are made on and off the pitch. At least in Groundhog Day, Bill Murray learned a thing or two each time he woke up. A bit more silverware and the resulting improvements in the playing squad would have helped paper over the cracks. But football is (slowly) modernising and those who fail to learn from their mistakes risk falling behind.
Yet while Torvaney captures what makes Arsenal so frustrating, his diagnosis on the cause undercuts his post. If Arsenal made “mistakes on and off the pitch,” their missed league titles can’t be explained by random variation. If that’s the case, Wenger should have known those diamonds were only a little further down the hole.
If however Arsenal’s performances over the past 12 years are the result of random variation, the club is stuck in a kind of orbit, one where the gravity of good luck (consistent top four finishes) is counterbalanced by the tangential velocity of bad luck (no titles).
But this banal equilibrium still doesn’t let Arsene Wenger or the board off the hook for Arsenal’s 12 year drought. To understand why, consider a few ‘what if’ scenarios.
What if, for example, Arsenal finished a season back in the noughties in, say, 7th or 8th place, the result of several unlucky results? A real crisis! Maybe Wenger is sacked and a new manager appointed, one willing to spend that London real estate equity to win immediate silverware. However, despite the tremendous excitement as peak players arrive at the Emirates, Arsenal yet again narrowly miss out on a title the following season. Still, with a new manager and new players, the supporters feel the future is bright.
Or another scenario: Arsenal finish that same season in 7th place but decide to give the manager one more year. Wenger, knowing his tenure is under threat, agrees to make some audacious signings, and fans feel excited again. Yet while Arsenal come within 3 points of first place, they can’t seal the deal. Still, with exciting new faces and a sense of renewed mission, the supporters feel the future is bright.
In both of these examples, Arsenal have won exactly as many titles as they have here in the real world. The difference however is the ‘crisis’, one that forced the club to take action, even if it is ultimately fruitless, even foolhardy.
When it comes to sacking the manager, for example, there is plenty of evidence for its futility, like this great Laurie Shaw post from this past week. In many cases it can make things worse.
As for big expensive signings, Wenger is smart enough to know that buying ‘elite’ players is often a risky, money-losing prospect. They eat up a large chunk of the wage bill. They are often at or just below peak age, which means they will almost certainly lose value in the transfer market as they see a drop off in quality on the pitch. And their stats may be luck-inflated.
Yet in our hypothetical examples Arsenal is forced to make these gestures, not because they’re effective or smart, but because in the face of a perceived crisis, fans, the media and ultimately the players and the board demand them. They are what journalists love to call a “signal of intent.” They deflect criticism, they placate, they focus attention elsewhere, they take advantage of temporarily lower expectations.
In a perfect world, everyone would realize the emptiness, and indeed costliness, of these kinds decisions. Yet inaction in the face of even perceived crisis can affect how others see a club, which can in turn affect the club’s purchasing power, the size of the transfer fees it must pay to get decent talent, the influence of the manager, the ability of the club to retain its players, and other ‘real’ factors. Wishing that everyone could know what you know isn’t good enough.
Arsenal’s comfortable, bland consistency—their steady orbit—has helped delay the need for some kind of drastic action over the years, some gesture on the part of the club to show they intend to change, but it has not removed it. Wenger is an incredible manager. He has not made any major blunders, his strategy is safe and sound. It’s probably not entirely his fault that Arsenal has missed uncovering all those big diamonds over the years. But he is not immune to the circus that is modern football, and believing so may have cost him his legacy, and stunted Arsenal’s short and long term prospects.