Monday, 2 February 2015

Looking on the Bright Side

My last post on Arsenal, in early December, suggested that we were likely to improve significantly over the coming months as the squad settled down and injuries abated. This didn't require a crystal ball. A bumpy start to the season was always likely, given the after-effects of the World Cup and the time required to integrate new first-choice players - a process made more difficult by the international breaks in October and November as well as the many injuries. It is no coincidence that this improvement has happened after the Champions League and Euro qualifiers went into hibernation, and may also owe something to our early exit from the League Cup. The team looks to be benefiting from more time on the training ground, with reports of Alexis Sanchez's appetite for work being emblematic of more than just the Chilean's personality.

Though we've had to accommodate new absences since the start of December (Wilshere, Arteta and Debuchy), they've been in areas where we have been able to backfill competently, while the returns (Giroud, Ozil and Walcott) have significantly improved our attacking options. The progress of Hector Bellerin has vindicated Arsene Wenger's decision to let Carl Jenkinson go on loan, while the recall of Francis Coquelin has shown that a loan spell isn't a one-way ticket, a point worth remembering in respect of Joel Campbell as well as the Gooner full-back (on the other hand, Lukas Podolski already feels a distant memory, despite his popularity among the fans). The young Catalan has quickly become a fan favourite, though this, like the improvement in Monreal's reputation, owes much to a more solid midfield providing cover and freeing up the full-backs to attack.

As shown against Man City and Villa, the side now has a balance that allows it to sit back more and safely cede possession. This is being hailed as "flexibility" by the pundits, the "plan B" having apparently gone out of fashion, though we shouldn't forget that Wenger has been routinely criticised for being inflexible in the past. The solidity of the midfield owes much to Cazorla's workrate in a central role, effectively dividing the job previously done by Arteta between himself and Ramsey. With Coquelin happy to sit deep, Arsenal look less likely to be caught by balls behind the full-backs. This suggests that Sanchez will come back into the side at the expense of either Ozil or Walcott, rather than revert the midfield from a threesome to a pair. Add in Oxlade-Chamberlain and you've got four quality players to perm for two positions. Giroud and Wellbeck (plus the eager Chuba Akpom) offers rotation up front. Altogether we're looking healthy at the sharp end, which explains the Campbell and Podolski loans and the sale of Benik Afobe.

Rosicky, Wilshere and Flamini provide alternatives for the central midfield three (with Arteta to come), and we now appear to have (touch wood) enough cover at the back with the addition of Gabriel. Though the simultaneous loss of Mertesacker and Koscielny remains a risk, we're no longer skating on such thin ice, not least because Monreal (and briefly Debuchy) have shown that gaps can be plugged. Calum Chambers, who has looked a bit of a square peg at times, is likely to benefit more from time on the training pitch now than from games. Though not a straight positional swap, Krystian Bielik looks like he may be the long-term replacement for Abou Diaby in the squad, though preferably on the pitch rather than the treatment table (you have to suspect the Frenchman's Arsenal career may end in the summer when his contract is up).

The one blemish over the last 8 weeks was the defeat at Southampton (the point away at Anfield was tolerable in the circumstances), which owed a lot to Szczesny's poor decision-making. The promotion of David Ospina appears to have had a calming effect on the defence, while prompting a bizarrely orgasmic chant from the crowd (which is already getting a bit wearing). The media focus on the crafty fag in the shower (which sounds idiotic on so many levels) is perhaps Wenger's way of making a deliberate point about the Pole's immaturity. Ospina's four straight clean-sheets ought to be even more salutary (Szczesny conceded in each of his last 7 games before being dropped). Wenger's willingness to put the Pole's nose out of joint is also a clear message to the rest of the squad that no one can coast. The undemonstrative Colombian, as much as the hyperactive Chilean, may be indicative of the new Arsenal.

There will no doubt be further cock-ups, but over the course of the next 18 weeks you'd expect our overall performance to be closer to the last 8 weeks than the preceding 16 weeks from August through November. The draw of Monaco in the Champions League gives us our best chance to progress beyond the last 16 since 2010, while progress in the FA Cup against Middlesborough looks achievable. I doubt both Chelsea and Man City will implode, and the gap of 11 points looks too much to make up over 15 games, so third is still a reasonable target, probably around 76 points. Manure have gathered points without playing well, but I can't see them playing worse, so it will be tight at the end. Neither Southampton nor Spurs look like they've got the legs to finish in the top four.

Overall, we're starting to see the promise visible last season bear fruit, while the squad reinforcements have provided greater flexibility and depth. We probably still need another couple of players next summer, bearing in mind that Mertesacker doesn't look like the sort of defender capable of continuing into his mid-30s at the top level (he'll be 31 in September), and I suspect that one or both of Arteta and Flamini are likely to be released within the next 18 months. Now that the money tap has been de-iced, buying proven quality looks well within budget. Expect rumours about Mats Hummels and Lars Bender to start circulating once the transfer window closes.

We may not win anything this season, and may finish with fewer league points than last - which could lead to more anti-Wenger ranting over the summer - however I think we're heading in the right direction and should be capable of mounting a serious title challenge before the manager's current contract expires. On the other hand, and indulging my inner optimist, this could be the season when we finally overcome the memory of Paris 2006. A final in Berlin against Bayern Munich would be fun, particularly if Ozil can spare us the need for penalties.


  1. Herbie Kills Children2 February 2015 at 17:20

    Yes, Arsenal are well in with a chance of that last automatic champions league spot and Wenger has skillfully made this expectation into something akin to winning the treble! rather than a gradual and relative decline of Arsenal. I think they sacked George Graham for something similar!

    1. That's a bit harsh, Herbie.

      Given that (outside Scotland) a club cannot expect to finish first every season, "relative decline" is inevitable and recurrent. This season will be hailed by Manure fans as a great recovery if they manage to finish in the top four. The consistency of Arsenal under Wenger has become a stick with which to beat him (fans of other clubs are rightly baffled by this).

      Wenger's problem isn't that he is being compared to others, but to his earlier self before Chelski and Citeh came into money. It's a factor of his longevity. He has the highest win ratio of any Arsenal manager in history. His average league position is 2.7, which compares with a pre-Wenger average of 7.5.

      By the way, George Graham was sacked for taking bungs, not for finishing fourth.

  2. Herbie Kills Children2 February 2015 at 19:54

    "By the way, George Graham was sacked for taking bungs, not for finishing fourth."

    Really, I didn't know that. He knew he allegedly took bungs but I thought they got rid of him because they finished lower down the table?

    Well, anyway, the pre Wenger position of 7.5 was in an era of more open competition (I presume the 7.5 refers to all prior history), where Derby could win the league title and smaller teams had a chance of finishing higher in the league. This has been gradually eroded to a point where the bigs clubs monopolize more than they did before (accepting Liverpool in the 1980's). This also helps account for the win ratio, which is not a sign of Wengers genius but more a sign of the trend to the domination of the big clubs.

    Arsenal are not over achieving under Wenger, I don't see how anyone can take that view, if anything they are slightly underachieving. If underachieving is now the standard for excellence then Wenger can be considered excellent!

  3. To some extent I'm with Herbie here and, after all, they have only just caught up with Southampton in what I consider to be one of the weakest ever PL seasons in terms of quality. I think Wenger has been just 'doing enough' by finishing in the Champion's League places and winning the FA Cup but, despite your optimism, I can't see them mounting a challenge for the league or Champion's League in the near future. I suspect Wenger is safe due to cautious reasons. There may well be a manager who could build a more ruthless or disciplined team that could win the league, but you take a risk that that kind of strategy could backfire, and fans may not be as patient with a new manager if there is a drop in the standard of football.

  4. Arsenal finished 10th in 1993 and 4th in 1994, so Graham was (once more) on a upward trajectory. His departure was solely due to the bungs paid by the agent involved in the transfers of John Jensen and Pal Lydersen. As well as being sacked by Arsenal, Graham was banned for a year by the FA.

    Arsenal aren't overachieving under Wenger, but nor are they underachieving. Between 1998 and 2005 the club finished in either 1st or 2nd in the league. Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea in 2003. Sheikh Mansour bought Man City in 2008. Since 2005, Arsenal have finished either 3rd or 4th.

    Now that the stadium debt has eased and more funds are going into transfers, it would be reasonable to expect them to start finishing higher, but I think this will be incremental, which is why I think a title tilt is probably another season or two away but we'll do progressively better in the CL.