After Arsenal closed out October by clinching yet another league win, beating Sunderland 4-1, Arsene Wenger offered a comment that opened up a bigger discussion than he realised.
“We now have difficult games coming up, with a difficult November,” the Frenchman said. “So, by the end of November, we will know more about ourselves.”
We will see whether his team has overcome a problem that has undercut them since he took the job 20 years ago. It is the problem of November.
Arsenal have almost always found the month tough, regardless of who they face. The statistics are striking. For every other month of the year, Their points-per-game average never drops below 1.88. It is mostly close to 2.0. For November, it is 1.59.
The drop-off is too large and constant to be a mere coincidence and it goes right back through Wenger’s reign. In his first full season, in 1997-98, Arsenal’s run to a league and cup double was almost over before it even started, rumbled by a bad November. Wenger’s side lost three of four games, including a 3-0 thrashing to Derby County that left them four points behind leaders Manchester United.
In 2000-01, they won one in three, losing to Everton and Leeds United. In 2004-05, reeling from the rancorous 2-0 defeat at Manchester United that ended a 49-match unbeaten run that encompassed the “Invincible” season of 2003-04, they lost one and drew two of four games. In 2006-07, they lost three of five games, suffering defeats to Bolton Wanderers, Fulham and West Ham United. In 2009-10, they lost two of three, to Sunderland and Chelsea.
Then, last season, they suffered their worst November yet and put the problem into even more focus for this campaign. It was the first season when Wenger’s Arsenal didn’t win a single match in the month, and they only recorded a points return of 0.67 per game.
The problem doesn’t happen every year, it must be acknowledged. Arsenal won all of their games in November of the 2005-06 season and that was one of seven out of 20 when they claimed more than two points per match. Sources say it happens often enough, however, for it to be an increasing topic of discussion around the club. Those at Arsenal are at a loss as to why it has been a trend, but there are a few theories.
One is based on one of the main problems over the past decade: their physical issues. Last season again seemed to showcase this. In the disappointing 1-1 draw at Norwich City on Nov. 29, Santi Cazorla picked up a knee injury that kept him out of so much of the season. His absence removed the side’s rhythm and some at the club put their failure to win the title last season down to that match.
Club sources re-iterate that Wenger “pushes them hard” in preseason, and that can eventually start to have a fatiguing effect three months into the campaign, sapping some of their vigour and leading to those injuries. It doesn’t help the manager has never been particularly good at rotation and has often refused to rest key players when it would have been easy to do so. In the last year, he has talked of his reluctance to leave Alexis Sanchez on the bench for certain games because of the player’s deep desire to always play.
If the problem is down to physical problems, though, the wonder is whether that leads to a cycle involving some psychological issues. Do the dropped energy levels and greater number of injuries force a loss of team cohesion, and a consequent loss of confidence because they aren’t playing well?
It probably doesn’t help that Arsenal have finished second or lower in their Champions League group for 10 of their 18 seasons in the competition, meaning they have often been under pressure in the competition, or outright panicking. That hardly helps. Last season featured so many of these issues, and it seems likely that the worst Novembers represented perfect storms in that sense.
Arsenal host Tottenham in the north London derby this Sunday and their first fixture of November has been put forward as a portent of the usual doom. However, another trend of Wenger’s time is that he usually faces them in November. He has faced them 10 times in the penultimate month of the year and generally had the better of it. His Arsenal have won five of those games, drawn three and lost just two.
It means victory this weekend won’t necessarily mean they will avoid the usual bad November — but it would be a good start to finally end a trend.
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