Arsenal offer an attractive choice for the neutral fan but the numbers say another club is truly playing the beautiful game
A friend of mine, an Arsenal fan, was explaining to me this week how her club's lofty standing in the Premier League was not only a triumph for Arsène Wenger's men but more holistically for football in general. Arsenal, she reasoned, were "England's Barcelona" – an elegant team committed to playing the game in a morally and intellectually superior way; right-brained players who were creative and spontaneous, using speed and stealth to tickle opponents into submission; a fusion of home-reared youngsters with previously unheralded foreigners, all curated without spiralling the club into debt. They were, in short, a team that any neutral could get behind.
I don't support Arsenal but I couldn't disagree with her. Wenger has argued; "Football is an art, like dancing is an art" – and he truly lives (and dies) by that belief. After eight trophy-less years he was allowed to open the wallet this summer. He could have bought a reliable central defender or a proven goalscorer, as everyone implored him to do, but he opted instead for an attacking midfielder – Mesut Özil for £42m – of which he already had an indulgent surfeit. It seemed insane until it became clear that Wenger was operating on a deeper conviction: if he was going down, he was doing it with the most stylistically pure Arsenal team ever.
You have to admire Wenger and, with his team sitting top of the table and practically assured of qualification for the last 16 of the Champions League, respect him too. After seven major titles between 1998 and 2005 he has now gone half his career in north London without winning one. The website sincearsenallastwonatrophy.co.uk details the time to the second since that 2005 FA Cup victory and links to a list of events that have taken place in the intervening period: these include the invention of Twitter and the iPad, as well as: "Six people have been arrested for kidnapping a llama and taking it on a tour of the New York subway."
So Arsenal are underdogs these days and there is nothing the unaffiliated observer loves more than a team defying the odds. Still there was a problem with my friend's analysis. Hadn't she seen how smug Wenger has become in post-match interviews recently? Arsenal may play the most attractive football in northern Europe but, oh boy, do they know it. To borrow Tony Cascarino's favourite phrase, if Arsenal were an ice cream they'd lick themselves to death.
But the question remains: if not Arsenal's beautiful footballers, who should the neutral fan root for? Surely not Manchester United (too popular) or Manchester City (too spoiled). Liverpool are out (Luis Suárez) and so clearly are Chelsea (John Terry, Ashley Cole, take your pick).
Cursory research suggests Fulham might be an appropriate choice. Craven Cottage is the only stadium in Britain to have a specific "mixed" area called "Little Switzerland" set aside for spectators. It's a sweet concept but the team is a mess this season and, if you are going to have a secret soft spot for a club, then it's perhaps advisable not to pick one that's embroiled in a season-long relegation battle.
Where does this leave the neutral fan or the person who supports a lower-league team and is looking for some Super Sunday action? Assuming some basic criteria: 1) a team that plays attractive, attacking football; and 2) a team whose figurehead player has not been found guilty of racially abusing an opponent – there are some obvious candidates: Swansea, Southampton and any team that Roberto Martínez manages, because he's clearly a good guy.
I decided to find if there might be objective reasons for favouring one Premier League team over another from Omar Chaudhuri, an analyst for the stats experts Prozone Sports. Data cannot tell us how attractively a team plays, Chaudhuri reminds me, but it can offer us indicators of its philosophy (total numbers of completed passes per game, say) and its aggressive instincts (shots on goal).
Before Saturday's fixtures Arsenal placed third in the rankings of total and successful passes in the Premier League this season, behind both the top club Swansea City (538.9 passes per game) and Manchester City. The overall landscape, however, is heartening for all football fans: so far in 2013 nine teams average more than 400 passes each game – which compares with just one club in 2005-06 (Arsenal) and one in 2007-08 (Arsenal again). This statistic indicates that even the most unsophisticated teams are comfortable knocking the ball around these days. By this reckoning Premier League football has never been so cultured.
Of course, Chaudhuri notes, a team can pass the ball sideways all afternoon, "but, if this doesn't translate into goal-scoring opportunities, you might argue that they aren't exactly 'exciting' for a neutral". In terms of attack Spurs have taken easily the most open-play shots this season (17.5 per game) but sadly the quality of their shooting is close to the bottom of the league, with Andros Townsend being surprisingly profligate. Manchester City overwhelmingly create better chances than Spurs and are more clinical about finishing them, which might explain last Sunday's 6-0 scoreline.
But if you are looking for entertainment – goals at both ends, shots taken, open football – one team stands out and it's not a name you'd expect: Norwich City. Sure, this season has not exactly gone to plan – they were 16th before Saturday's match against Crystal Palace and the manager, Chris Hughton, appears to be staring down the barrel – but Prozone's model suggests they have faced the toughest opposition in the league so far and are due for an upturn. If you're on the fence about football teams, forget the Gunners and sing like a Canary.
Tim Lewis's book on Rwanda's cycling team, Land of Second Chances, is out now