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How much do the big matches matter: Momentum

28 January 2011

Man Utd v Arsenal: an age-old battle for momentum (

My first look at matches between Premier League title contenders attempted to take an objective, numbers-based approach to the analysis, but this raised one or two questions from Dom and Jamie, which I was keen to address.

Principally, the analysis by numbers failed to take into account the momentum or ‘belief’ gained or lost in big matches, which would have a knock on effect in matches against weaker opposition. Take Manchester United in 2008-09 for example; their shock 4-1 loss at home to Liverpool triggered a second defeat at Fulham a week later. My original analysis failed to consider the Fulham result as a direct cause of the Liverpool result, rather taking the Fulham game as an independent result in the normalised league table. It’s conceivable that had United drawn or beaten Liverpool, the Fulham result may have been entirely different.

This new post will hopefully shed some insight into the football force that is ‘momentum’. Pundits refer to it constantly, either in the context of a match or a league season, or even both when considering Man United’s come-from-behind 3-2 win over Blackpool on Tuesday.

I’ve extended my analysis to the start of the century, to give a broader range of title challenges. Here the analysis will be a little more subjective, picking key results during the course of the season but also seeing how teams fared from these matches onwards. It’s all neatly summarised at the end.


From the arrival of Arsene Wenger to the arrival of Abramovich’s millions, there were two teams that ruled the Premier League; Arsenal and Man United. The 2000-01 season saw another title race between these two sides, and after an October meeting at Highbury, where Arsenal won 1-0 to draw level on points with United, the two met again in late February at Old Trafford. United, 13 points clear of Arsenal with 11 games left, were realistically guaranteed the title, but an Arsenal win might’ve sewn seeds of doubt. However, an emphatic 6-1 victory took United 16 points clear at the top, and they could afford to turn their eye to European commitments, eventually finishing champions by 10 points. The earlier victory at Highbury sent Arsenal on an unbeaten streak, but it wasn’t enough to trouble a richly-talented United.

Final League Table 2000-01

GD Pts
1 Manchester United +48 80
2 Arsenal +25 70


In the first round of games between the title contenders, Arsenal won two whilst Liverpool beat Man United, and by the end of January five of the six mini-league fixtures had been played, with only Arsenal’s trip to Old Trafford to come. The third of those mini-league fixtures came in late December, with Arsenal travelling to Liverpool without a win in three in all competitions and off the back of a damaging loss to Newcastle.

League Table on 22.12.01

P GD Pts
2 Liverpool 16 +10 33
4 Manchester United 18 +15 30
5 Arsenal 17 +14 30

The Gunners secured a 2-1 victory and didn’t lose another game all season; by the time the two teams met barely three weeks later Arsenal had leapfrogged Liverpool with a game in hand. In the end, a 1-0 win at Old Trafford sealed the title for Arsenal with a game to spare.

Final League Table 2001-02

GD Pts
1 Arsenal +43 87
2 Liverpool +37 80
3 Manchester United +42 77


We returned to the Arsenal-United duopoly in 2002-03, and begin to take a closer look at the concept of momentum in title races. The two teams met at Old Trafford in December, a game United won 2-0 and cut Arsenal’s lead to three points from six. Oddly, this neither tripped Arsenal out of stride or put United into gear, the Red Devils would lose back-to-back league games later that month.

The teams arrived at Highbury on 16th April with the table as follows:

League Table on 12.04.03

P GD Pts
1 Manchester United 33 +32 70
2 Arsenal 32 +33 67

An Arsenal win would take them top with a game in hand, a fantastic position with 5 games left. Any result for United would be a good result, and a 2-2 draw provided vital momentum as they won each of their last four matches. Arsenal, meanwhile, dropped points to Bolton and Leeds. The result is evidence of even a draw – particularly an away draw – being an important result in the context of momentum.

Final League Table 2002-03

GD Pts
1 Manchester United +40 83
2 Arsenal +43 78


The three teams who topped the table in May already filled the top three spots in September, when Arsenal travelled to Old Trafford to earn a 0-0 draw. The game is perhaps better remembered for Martin Keown’s reaction to the final whistle after Ruud van Nistelrooy had missed a last-minute penalty. An Arsenal win in October over Chelsea took them top, whilst Chelsea leapfrogged Arsenal in November with a home win over United.

With regards to important matches, no match clearly swung momentum in the title race. Arsenal’s 2-1 win at Chelsea in February was certainly important, at a stage where Chelsea trailed by 6 points, but it didn’t entirely knock Chelsea out of the running. By the time Arsenal faced United at home in March, Chelsea were only 5 points away whilst United trailed by 12 thanks to losses to Wolves, Boro and Man City. A draw to United at home was one of five stalemates for Arsenal in their final nine games before they finished 11 points clear and unbeaten. Chelsea’s European commitments (including a quarter final win over Arsenal) resulted in a poor end of season.

Final League Table 2003-04

GD Pts
1 Arsenal +47 90
2 Chelsea +37 79
3 Manchester United +29 75


Mourinho’s Chelsea made an early statement by beating Man United 1-0 on the opening day of the season. For United this was a blow; they won only three of nine games before meeting table-topping Arsenal on 24th October at home.

League Table on 23.10.04

P GD Pts
1 Arsenal 9 +21 25
2 Chelsea 10 +10 23
7 Manchester United 9 +2 14

In a match that became known as “the Battle of the Buffet,” United ended Arsenal’s 49-match unbeaten run with a controversial 2-0 victory. The match threw Arsenal’s season into ruin, drawing to Southampton, Crystal Palace and West Brom before losing to Liverpool, all before the end of November. By the time Chelsea earned a draw at Highbury in December, Arsenal were 5 points off the Blues, and were a further 5 off after a 4-2 home defeat to Man United in February. United climbed into second place at this stage, 8 points behind Chelsea, but couldn’t gather momentum as Chelsea proved too strong. The champions capped off their season with a home draw against Arsenal and a 3-1 win at Old Trafford, with the title already secured.

Final League Table 2004-05

GD Pts
1 Chelsea +57 95
2 Arsenal +51 83
3 Manchester United +32 77


As mentioned in the first analysis of big matches, Benitez’s early years with Liverpool saw a string of poor results against strong opposition, and a 0-0 draw with United and a 4-1 loss to Chelsea, both at home, left them 17 points off leaders Chelsea in early October, albeit with two games in hand. Man United’s 1-0 win over Chelsea on 6th November pulled United to within 10 points with a game in hand, but the game a seemed to be a catalyst for Chelsea; the Blues wouldn’t concede another goal till Boxing Day nor lose a game till February, by which time United and Chelsea had each disposed of a resurgent Liverpool at home. Chelsea fans may remember an important result on the 11th of March, where William Gallas’ 90th minute winner gave his side a 2-1 victory over Spurs. To consider this as momentum-shifting, however, is misleading, as Chelsea already held a 15-point gap going into the match.

Man United arrived at Stamford Bridge in late April nine points behind Chelsea, needing three wins in their final three games to even stand a chance of becoming champions. However a 3-0 Chelsea victory sealed their second title in as many seasons, meaning they could afford to lose their final two games of the season.

Final League Table 2005-06

GD Pts
1 Chelsea +50 91
2 Manchester United +38 83
3 Liverpool +32 82


A two-horse race that provided little interest with regards to momentum from the big matches. Chelsea and United’s first meeting of the season in November ended in a 1-1 draw at Old Trafford, maintaining United’s three point cushion at the top. Neither side suffered or gained any obvious side effects from the result. The important day in the title race came on 28th April.

League Table on 22.04.07

P GD Pts
1 Manchester United 34 +54 82
2 Chelsea 34 +40 79

United battled from 2-0 down at Goodison Park to beat Everton 4-2, and on the same day Chelsea drew 2-2 at home to Bolton. With 50 minutes gone in both games, Chelsea had drawn level on points with United, but by the end of the day the Red Devils held a 5 point lead. When the two teams met again in early May, United had already been crowned champions, and the two played out a 0-0 draw with second strings sides and an FA Cup final on the horizon.

Final League Table 2006-07

GD Pts
1 Manchester United +56 89
2 Chelsea +40 83


United kick-started their season with a 2-0 home win over Chelsea, pulling United to within 2 points of Arsenal and leaving Chelsea 5 points behind the leaders. A 2-2 draw between Arsenal and United and a 1-0 win for the Gunners over Chelsea left Arsenal top, a point ahead of United and 6 ahead of Chelsea. The next meeting between the big sides came in late March, with Chelsea securing a 2-1 win over Arsenal at Stamford Bridge. However, the momentum of the title race had already shifted away from Arsenal on the 23rd of February.

League Table on 11.02.08

P GD Pts
1 Arsenal 26 +36 63
2 Manchester United 26 +36 58
3 Chelsea 26 +21 55

A 2-2 draw at Birmingham, famous for Eduardo’s leg-break and captain Gallas’ full-time antics, triggered draws to Villa, Wigan and Boro, allowing Man United and Chelsea to leapfrog them into first and second respectively.

United would put to bed Arsenal’s challenge with a 2-1 victory at Old Trafford, but then lost at Chelsea to ensure the title would be decided on the final day. United’s 2-0 win at Wigan was enough to be crowned champions.

Final League Table 2007-08

GD Pts
1 Manchester United +58 87
2 Chelsea +39 85
3 Arsenal +43 83


United suffered a wretched start to the season, a stark contrast to Liverpool who beat both their title rivals by the end of October to top the league. A January victory over Chelsea was a sign of a Man United side gathering pace, as they continued a winning streak that would last till March. Draws hindered Liverpool’s progress, by the time they beat Chelsea in early February (which proved to be Scolari’s penultimate game in charge) they had drawn nine matches and were two points behind new leaders United. The final match in the top three mini-league came in March, United seven points clear with a game in hand.

League Table on 11.03.09

P GD Pts
1 Manchester United 27 +36 65
2 Chelsea 28 +32 58
3 Liverpool 28 +25 58

A win for United would surely seal the title given their form, but a Gerrard-Torres inspired Liverpool secured a 4-1 victory. The momentum threatened to shift completely as a nine-man United lost at Fulham, and found themselves 2-1 down at home to Aston Villa. The result would have left United second, two points behind Liverpool with a game in hand, but late goals from Ronaldo and Macheda visibly lifted the team’s self belief as they came from behind again at Sunderland. In May, a 0-0 draw at home to Arsenal sealed the title.

Final League Table 2008-09

GD Pts
1 Manchester United +44 90
2 Liverpool +50 86
3 Chelsea +44 83


Chelsea and Man United took advantage of Arsenal’s reputation as big-game ‘bottlers’, each winning against Wenger’s side before Christmas to leave the two teams first and second. Arsenal recovered from the Chelsea loss to climb into third, five points behind the Blues and one behind United by the time the league champions travelled to the Emirates. The manner of United’s 3-1 victory suggested they had the momentum, but squandered it with dropped points at Villa and Everton. The week after the defeat, Arsenal lost again at Chelsea, a result that took the home side top, two points ahead of Man United and nine clear of the Gunners. Like United, however, an impressive display was cancelled out by a damaging defeat as Chelsea succumbed to Everton at Goodison Park. Chelsea continued to stumble, and faced a difficult trip to Old Trafford on the 3rd of April.

League Table on 29.03.10

P GD Pts
1 Manchester United 32 +51 72
2 Chelsea 32 +53 71
3 Arsenal 32 +40 68

In a tactical masterstroke, Ancelotti left Drogba (supposedly carrying a groin injury) on the bench as Chelsea dominated the midfield to record a 2-1 victory. The result did enough to trip United out of their stride as they crashed out the European Cup four days later and were held at Blackburn in the next round of fixtures. Chelsea threatened to lose their momentum when they fell at White Hart Lane to Spurs on the same day Paul Scholes scored a late winner against Man City. The Tottenham defeat proved only a blip, as Chelsea scored 17 unanswered goals in their final three games, including a 2-0 win at Anfield, to win the league in style on the final day.

Final League Table 2009-10

GD Pts
1 Chelsea +71 86
2 Manchester United +58 85
3 Arsenal +42 75


Like the previous big match analysis, there’s no exact science or formula to this. We do know momentum exists, but it’s very difficult to quantify. The intention behind this post is to see whether the big matches provide the momentum for teams in a title challenge, or other results. Summarising each season,

2000-01: No obvious momentum swing from big matches, United probably had a big enough cushion to secure the title regardless of results.

2001-02: Significant momentum swing for Arsenal from an away win at Anfield in late December.

2002-03: Momentum shift from Arsenal to Man United following 2-2 draw at Highbury in April.

2003-04: No obvious momentum swing from big matches, though it could be argued that the invincible Arsenal gained sufficient confidence by not losing to their rivals.

2004-05: Significant momentum shift away from Arsenal in October, but no significant momentum gain from Man United following “Battle of the Buffet.” Chelsea took advantage.

2005-06: No obvious momentum swing from big matches, Chelsea crowned champions by beating United in April.

2006-07: Momentum shift to Man United in April, but not from results of big matches.

2007-08: Significant momentum shift in February away from Arsenal, but not from big matches. United strong enough on final day despite earlier loss to Chelsea.

2008-09: Momentum shifted to Liverpool following victory over Man United in March, but was won back in April following comeback victories in other matches.

2009-10: Sufficient momentum swing in April following Chelsea’s victory over Man United.

Of the ten seasons, four title victories (2001-02, 2002-03, 2004-05, 2009-10) can arguably be directly attributed to the momentum gained from big matches. Three of the seasons (2006-07, 2007-08, 2008-09) saw momentum shift from matches involving only one of the big teams whilst a further three seasons (2000-01, 2003-04, 2005-06) suggest that the big matches played no significant role in the destination of the title, in that the champions were too strong for any opposition.

Some of the more recent seasons have seen titles have tended to be decided, momentum-wise, in matches involving only one of the big teams, or rather not in a ‘big match’. This is perhaps indicative of the league’s quality becoming more condensed, in that weaker opposition now have a bigger role to play in title races. Bolton and Birmingham earning draws against Chelsea (2006-07) and Arsenal (2007-08) respectively are examples of this. In the earlier Premier League seasons of the century, many of the title winners were a significant cut above the rest of the teams in the league, or even above other title contenders on occasions. The anomaly is the most recent Premier League season, but given Chelsea lost 6 league matches, and none of them to the traditional ‘big four’, it’s safe to say the momentum trend of seasons before 2009-10 continues. The nature of results this season suggests we may see a title race not dissimilar to the ones in more recent seasons.

The timing of momentum shifts are intriguing (ignoring whether they came in big or other matches); once in October, once in December, once in February, and four times in April. Perhaps this isn’t surprising given the shortage of games left in the season from April onwards, but it does show the difficulty for multiple teams in a title race to each string together strong results in the second half of the season, even from February or March onwards. The main beneficiary of April momentum shifts? Unsurprisingly, Manchester United, with late goals playing a part more often than not.

Hopefully this analysis has shed more light on the importance of big matches in title races. Whilst the media and TV companies had the right to bill top-of-the-table clashes as “all-important” in earlier league seasons, more recently teams have gained or lost momentum in other matches, giving credence to the belief that the Premier League is increasingly unpredictable with regards to the title race.
Note: League tables from mid-points in the season are those that are the last available before the game in question, so may be a day or few days before the match. Equally, if there are any suggestions as to better dates of momentum shifts, or on the post in general, please comment below.


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