Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Still in Range

Three quarters of the way through the league season, Arsenal are 4 points off the top. Inevitably, the commentary is largely about failure. This is partly a consequence of leading the league for long stretches, and partly the dominant narrative of recent years, which assumes that the Gunners will blow up at some point. The latter clearly informs the former, with sage pundits predicting the inevitability of collapse since September (the same pundits who reckon Liverpool can make a late dash). There has even been a reappearance of the pseudo-scientific explanation for our table-topping: "Their points tally has exceeded their general play". This just means we have been more efficient at converting chances into goals and goals into points. Our recent dip in form is taken as evidence of regression to the mean, though it actually points to a bout of inefficiency (the "unnecessary" goals against Sunderland are part of this as well).

The last three weeks have been a mixed-bag, but perhaps not the disaster assumed by some, critics and fans alike. The away thumping at Liverpool was traumatic, but it owed as much to Liverpool's good form and fortune on the day as our poor start. Ironically, a determination to get back into the game quickly, rather than settle for a 0-2 deficit at half-time, saw us take too many chances against a side built to counter-attack. The worst performance of the month was the home draw against a very poor and unadventurous Manure. This was easily the worst game seen at the Emirates all season, and probably tainted by the Anfield experience.

The first-leg against Bayern Munich was shaping up to be a great game but the die was arguably cast in Naples when Arteta, who would otherwise have been our likely penalty-taker, picked up a suspension. After Özil's miss, and the disruption of Gibbs's injury, there was little surprise when Robben milked Szczesny's challenge to put the game beyond us. The second goal, which has probably put the tie beyond us, was again down to an understandable but naive desire to equalise. We don't lack craft or courage, but we need a little more cunning.

The cup victory over Liverpool, and the comprehensive display against Sunderland, were better indications of our ability, though the defeat at Stoke pointed to inconsistency, as Wenger rightly acknowledged. While our record at the Britannia Stadium is poor, and the result owed something to bad luck, it was an uncharacteristically flat performance after a week-long break. The remainder of the season comes down to being able to play consistently at or near to our current potential, which means 20 from a possible 30 points and a final total of 79. Most pundits are predicting doom on the basis of Spurs and Chelsea away and City at home, but victories in the other 7 games would still produce 21 points. If we beat both Chelsea and City, then the title is wide open.

If we do fall short this season (and by that I mean failing to get first or second, not dropping to fifth), then a lot will come down to the effect of injuries. This can be over-stated (the press obviously dwell on the subject as it provides substance for non-match speculation, like transfers and training-pitch bust-ups), but I think there has been a drop in effectiveness (or "efficiency" in Wenger-speak) due to the absence of Aaron Ramsey and the mixed form of Jack Wilshere. When fit and on-song, both offer the ability to break through the opposition's lines and create space for goal attempts. The loss of Theo Walcott has also been felt, but I think it is drive in the centre of the pitch that matters most. Some have criticised Wenger recently for not playing Oxlade-Chamberlain wide right in more games, but it is clear the manager is trying to develop him in a more central role, essentially as a successor to Rosicky. Having options wide is superfluous if you can't create space in and around the penalty area.

Arsenal still look a work in progress. The back five are a lot more settled and Sagna's eventual departure (if not this summer then in 2015) manageable. Vermaelen looks likely to leave and I suspect we'll buy a proven replacement, rather than promote a rookie centre-back. The recently-announced contract extensions for Mertesacker, Rosicky and Ramsey all look shrewd, while the acquisition of Özil is already paying off. Despite the eagerness of some to insinuate that he is over-rated, or just not capable of handling the English game, he already leads the assists table at the club and has scored as many goals as Cazorla. Assuming he improves as he adapts, he could be outstanding next season. If Ramsey can pick up where he left off, Wilshere get his mojo back (once he stops worrying about Brazil), and Walcott return even more matured, then we could have the best attacking midfield by some distance. I suspect a new striker will turn up as well.

There is much to admire in this squad, and every reason to believe that they will get better. The question now is whether they can make a burst for the finishing line this season. A decisive victory in Munich is unlikely, but an FA Cup final and a close finish in the league are both well within range.

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