“Too good to be true” is a popular maxim that I think most of us realize the value of. There is simply something so improbable about being emailed at random by a Nigerian prince that shouts to the senses “something is amiss”. This also suggests that “too bad to be true” could certainly exist, and that’s where I start to seriously question the apparent bad luck of Arsenal FC when it comes to UEFA competitions.
Our drawing of AC Milan in the Champions League represents the third year in a row where we have drawn the most difficult possible opponent; despite the odds being favorable to avoid a difficult fixture. With all due respect to clubs like Lyon, Basel, and Zenit, the Runner-Up pool in the 11-12 CL draw had no worse possible opponent than the 7-time European Champions and current Serie A leaders… and without surprise, they were paired up against us in a repeat of the 2008 knockout stage competition. A savoury fixture for neutrals and certainly financially promising for UEFA.
Now, I am no mathematician and I do not claim to be. I realize there are mathematical omissions and errors that I am likely about to make (particularly on the matters of interdependency). But in a layman’s terms breakdown of Arsenal’s probability of three years of miserable draws, one quickly realizes that the odds of Arsenal’s results are significantly unlikely… and one has to question if luck really can be that bad.
2009-10 Champions League Round of 16 Draw
Arsenal’s possible opponents: Stuttgart, Inter, Lyon, Porto, AC Milan, CSKA Moscow, Barcelona.
Odds of drawing arguably the most difficult team (Barcelona): 1/7, or 14.2%.
2010-11 Champions League Quarter-Final Draw
Arsenal’s possible opponents: Schalke 04, Shaktar Donetsk, Real Madrid, Barcelona
Odds of drawing Barcelona: 1/4
Odds of two years of Barcelona in a row, therefore: 1/28, or 3.5%.
Note: This couldn’t have made for more drama, particularly in light of the Cesc storyline that was circling at the time. Truly a fortunate draw for UEFA! What a great advertisement for the Champions League…
2011-12 Champions League Round of 16 Draw
Arsenal’s possible opponents: Lyon, Napoli, AC Milan, Basel, Leverkusen, CSKA Moscow, Zenit
Odds of drawing the most difficult team (AC Milan): 1/7, or 14.2%
Odds of drawing Barcelona, Barcelona, and AC Milan three years running: 1/196 or 0.5%.
Zero point five percent. All the stars aligned for the HALF a percentage likelihood that would pit Arsenal – a team best known for their open-ended, attack minded, neutral-friendly football – against the biggest and baddest teams of each draw. Great fortune for marketers and those with a financial interest in an entertaining set of fixtures, no?
Immediately, a strong retort springs to mind; a lot of those other teams aren’t slouches either. So let’s take another run of the numbers.
09-10: If Inter, AC, and Barcelona represent a ‘bad’ draw, the odds are 3/7 or 42.9%.
10-11: If Real and Barcelona represent a ‘bad’ draw, the odds are 1/2 or 50%.
11-12: If AC and Napoli represent a ‘bad’ draw, the odds are 2/7 or 28.4%.
The total odds of three years of bad draws in a row are thus (3/7)(1/2)(2/7) totaling 6/98 or 6.1%.
More likely, but still pretty damn unrealistic.
What am I driving at?
I don’t like UEFA. I think they’re a corrupt, overpowered bunch run by a biased Michel Platini* who has unchecked power. I think his UEFA clearly favors certain teams, particularly Barcelona, and is heavy-handed in instrumenting the best possible draws from a business perspective. Look at UEFA’s severely questionable track record… the same track record questioned by Mourinho that got him shut up VERY quickly with a near-immediate 50,000 Euro fine and (pre-appeal) 5-match ban.
-History of inexperienced referees assigned to massive fixtures;
-2009 Chelsea, two clear handballs denied before Barcelona came back to win late;
-2010 Inter, man sent-off vs Barcelona who clearly simulated;
-2011 Arsenal, RVP sent-off vs Barcelona for virtually nothing (see my earlier article ““The Barcelona Myth” for further on these three instances);
-Significantly lengthy touchline ban for Arsene Wenger (who has spoken out against Platini) after UEFA failed to clarify their own rules, then punished him for not following those rules.
You then look at this year, where English teams over two competitions (Champions League and Europa League) drew 5 of the 6 hardest possible opponents in each’s respective tournament, and you just have to throw your hands up and say “really?”.
All of this from an organization run by a man who has a rather well-documented dislike of English football in general (further here) and who would displace European competitions in 2022 to facilitate the interests of FIFA and Qatari investors by playing a World Cup in December.
In sum, I’m not surprised in the least that Arsenal drew AC Milan. And I don’t think you should be either. Questions need to be asked of UEFA’s practices and people need to stop accepting “aw, bad luck” as an answer. There’s only so much bad luck that can go around… and Arsenal’s certainly had a lot of it.
*EDIT: I apologize for my misquote. It was actually Sepp Blatter at FIFA who made comments regarding racism in the game, not Michel Platini. For that I do apologize.