You’d have to go back five years to find a title race as close as the one we are having in the Premier League this season.
Even in the off-year that Manchester City didn’t win it, Liverpool steamrolled the league by Christmas and was out of sight before the pandemic hit and gave us any hope of stopping the Reds from winning their first title.
It is no surprise then that tensions are high at the top of the table, specifically at the top of London. After a loss to City midweek capping off a poor run of one point from a possible nine, going into the break at Villa Park 2-1 down could have called curtains on Arsenal’s 20-year-long wait to be crowned champions again.
With the wait that Gooners have been subjected to, it’s understandable that they are looking for every injustice, every narrative point to cling onto, before the seemingly inevitable happens and City resume as champions of the Premier League.
One such narrative that has bubbled away for years is the treatment Arsenal receives from the Video Assistant Referees at Stockley Park.
Key examples that cause particular outrage include Ederson’s foul on Odegaard when City visited The Emirates Stadium last season, Martinelli’s bizarre double-yellow-red away at Molineux, and a handball debacle at Turf Moore that saw two Arsenal penalty appeals waved away and a Burnley red card rescinded; that one happened in nearly two years today.
These mistakes, with the exception of Martinelli’s red card, were definite mistakes, only embolden the AFTV generation to make outlandish claims about an agenda against Arsenal, a Premier League that is fixed, and a narrative in this country built on the wants and desires of three teams from Lancashire and Chelsea.
But this is a mistake. Because officiating is bad across the league, and any season ticket holder will tell you, referees regularly lose control of matches. To pile on more frustration, the in-stadium experience of VAR is awful. Confusion reigns once celebrations calm down, players stand in the middle of the pitch awaiting a verdict, VAR flashes on the big screen 10 seconds before the eventual decision is made, and fans are given less than 30 seconds to see the decision for themselves.
On top of this, Arsenal does have legitimate reasons to feel aggrieved after the farce at the Emirates that saw an offside Christian Nørgaard assist Ivan Toney’s equaliser. The PGMOL’s subsequent apology to Arsenal and admission that offside lines that would have proved Nørgaard was offside weren’t drawn because of “human error,” also only serve to embolden these claims of corruption.
The mistake comes, not only in believing the world is against Arsenal but in not wondering why poor refereeing is impacting them.
Data, particularly when it comes to xG, would indicate that Arsenal struggles to see off their opponents early. Arsenal currently averages a lick over two goals per game with an xG of 2.04, but are let down by a concessions xG of 1.18, having currently conceded a goal for every game they’ve played in.
Those stats are amongst the best in the league, but over the past five years, only Liverpool has won the league with an xG differential of less than a goal. That strikes me as the real issue Arsenal have with VAR; if you’re rarely more than a goal to the good, you’re more likely to be impacted by a poor decision.
Blaming officials for not putting teams to bed also affects performances at home. According to FootyStats, Arsenal does not have a home advantage, marginally averaging fewer points at home than away, and are 27% more likely to concede more at home than away. So the evidence would suggest that hysterics from the fans are having a negative effect on Arsenal’s title challenges.
Don’t be bitter
Of course, it’s very easy for me to say fans shouldn’t get so wrapped up in refereeing decisions. As a West Ham fan, I’m sure I’ll see a list of times refs or VAR failed us when we eventually go down because the board WILL NOT SACK DAVID MOY- I’ll leave that rant for another time.
The point I’m trying to make is that this team is clearly a passionate one and they are so close to achieving what will go down as a great Premier League campaign. Many refused to buy Arteta as a serious manager at the start of the season and even fewer predicted they would get into the Champions League.
Now they sit at the top of the table, two points clear with a game in hand against a struggling Everton. If they win it all, it’ll be the cherry on top of a sensational season that has seen Arteta’s men declare Arsenal are back; which is no bad thing for football.
Yet the fan-sized elephant in the room is that Arsenal allow games to become more open, in the second half. If the weekend is anything to go by, such an emotional team get caught up in the officiating as the game progresses, and can end up straying from a clinical game plan.
Although statistically, the Gunners haven’t lost any games in the second half compared to the halfway stage, fans are more likely to see more than one goal in the second 45 minutes (61% of the time), on top of the first half goal they’ll see three in every four games.
With an xG of just over two goals a game, and an average total goals per game of 3.22, it’s little wonder why Arsenal are being robbed of results by the standard of officiating. But when fans are having a detrimental effect on the team, the solution to this problem for now at least should be to look inwards.