Even the most swivel-eyed loon among Arsenal supporters couldn’t argue that the Gunners have had a bad start to the season. But how bad is their worst-ever start? And what do Mikel Arteta’s artists and artisans need to do to avoid crayoning their names into history?
To discover how ruinously low the bar is, we’ve clambered aboard the wayback machine to assess the Gunners’ historical worst starts. We’ve drawn a line in the (quick)sand after the first five league games of each campaign, awarding three points for a win even if that wasn’t yet the rule.
Having lost 2-0 to both Brentford and Chelsea, Arsenal face league games against Man City, Norwich and Burnley; by mid-September, we’ll know how they compare to this horrible lot...
Four points from five games: lots of times
On 10 occasions, Arsenal have scraped one win and one draw in their first five league games. The most recent was in 2011/12, when the summer sales of Cesc Fabregas to Barcelona and Samir Nasri to Manchester City suggested the Gunners were keen to clear their stadium debts. A 0-0 at Newcastle and 2-0 home loss to Liverpool were duly followed by an 8-2 humiliation at Old Trafford.
That prodded Arsene Wenger into signing Park Chu-young, Andre Santos, Per Mertesacker and some bloke called Arteta. A freak goal against newly-promoted Swansea – Michel Vorm throwing a clearance against Angel Rangel’s back for a chuckling Andrei Arshavin to prod home – gave Wenger a welcome win but his remodelled side still surrendered two leads to lose at Blackburn, before 25 points from the next 10 games quelled the discontent.
The other nine times Arsenal have gone W1 D1 L3 are spread throughout the 20th century. The low point in 1907/08 was the then Woolwich Arsenal’s 4-0 home reverse to Bristol City; in 1909/10, the first two trips brought 5-1 and 5-2 whackings at Villa and Boro respectively. In 1912/14, three defeats in the first four appeared to have been alleviated by a win at Sheffield United, but it was the falsest of dawns: the next 18 games brought 15 defeats and three draws as Arsenal turned their flirting with relegation into enthusiastic consummation.
Relocated, renamed and repromoted, in 1922/23 they lost 5-2 at Liverpool, 4-1 at Burnley and 4-1 at Cardiff; in 1928/29, Herbert Chapman’s unfinished side lost to The Wednesday, Derby and Portsmouth. George Allison’s 1938/39 team recovered to finish fifth, but his 1946/47 team didn’t do so well. Starting with a 6-1 shellacking at Wolves, they were still 21st in December and a spring revival – improbably led by a 35-year-old top flight debutant called Ronnie Rooke scoring 21 in 24 – didn’t stop Allison stepping down.
The other two bad starts were in the colour-TV era. In 1973/74 Bertie Mee was rebuilding a decent side – league runners-up, two years after doing the Double – but home losses to Leeds and Leicester either side of a draw at Newcastle and a 5-0 pasting at Sheffield United left Arsenal third-bottom before scrambling to mid-table anonymity.
At least Mee’s side had won its opener. In 1982/83, his successor Terry Neill witnessed losses to Stoke, Liverpool and Brighton (who would finish bottom) plus a draw with Norwich, before a win at Coventry stopped them figuring more prominently in this pantheon of inadequacy.
Three points from five games
Five times, Arsenal have opened their campaigns with the equivalent of three points from five games – usually four losses crowding around a single cowering win. Luckily for most fans, they’re now beyond living memory for all but the longest-toothed of Gooners, and certainly all are well before a win actually gathered three points.
Indeed, twice in the first quarter of the 20th century Arsenal had a pair of awful starts within three years. Woolwich Arsenal started 1908/09 with a 0-4 at home to Everton, followed by losses to Notts County, Newcastle and Bristol City leavened by a win at Goodison. Two years later in 1910/11 they took a different tack to being cack, drawing four of their first seven and losing the other three.
Relegation and the First World War intervened, but in the early 1920s Leslie Knighton revived the tradition. This was the era of clubs rapidly playing league double-headers, and 1921/22 started with double defeats to Sheffield United and Manchester City bookending a one-win-each pair against Preston; Arsenal were bottom in March before a saving late spurt. As discussed above, the following season started marginally less awfully (LDWLL) but 1923/24 began with four straight losses – two to Newcastle, plus West Ham and West Brom – and Arsenal finished in 19th, only a point clear of relegation.
Herbert Chapman soon arrived to end all that mediocrity, and the other comparably crap start to the season came shortly after the Second World War. Just over a year after winning the league, Tom Whittaker’s side began 1949/50 with home losses to Burnley, Chelsea and Liverpool plus defeat at Sunderland, with only a win at Stamford Bridge to cheer. However, the Gunners then went 12 games undefeated, winning nine to rocket safely away from harm.
Arsenal’s worst start: two points from five games
Whittaker’s side won the league again in 1953, which makes it all the more surprising that their start to the next campaign in 1953/54 was, by our five-game criterion, the worst in the club’s entire history.
It started badly, with a 0-2 at West Brom, and didn’t get much better at all, home draws with Huddersfield and Sheffield United bookending losses at Bramall Lane and Villa Park. These were then followed by more losses, at home to Wolves and Chelsea, climaxing in a 7-1 larruping at Sunderland which sent the Gunners to the bottom of the table.
What happened? The major factor was the sale of key centre-half Ray Daniel to Sunderland for a club record £30,000. It didn’t help that centre-forward Cliff Holton, who’d scored 22 in 25 the previous season, only managed two in his first six.
The good news for Gunners – then and now – is that the drift didn’t last. Whittaker made four changes and his team won at Chelsea, sparking a run of nine wins and two draws in 12 games. That returned Arsenal to the upper echelons of the table – and if Arteta is to similarly restore his team’s position on those lofty perches, he will have to end comparisons with the club’s worst-ever seasons.
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