Monday, 22 May 2017

The Final Chapter

Though there is an FA Cup Final to come, Arsenal's season is effectively over. Of course, you could have made much the same claim after the successive defeats to Watford at home in late January and Chelsea away in early February, though the rot probably set in with the back-to-back defeats at Everton and Man City in December, but there remained hope of Champions League qualification until the last league match. That we are now headed for the novelty of Thursday night football in the Europa League feels like a watershed moment in the club's modern history, not least because participation in the senior tournament has long been Arsene Wenger's default plea of mitigation when our title challenge has petered out. If the manager doesn't walk away, it will surely herald the final chapter in his tenure at the club, for good or ill. Given that the last five seasons saw us finish on 70, 73, 79, 75 and 71 points, it is perhaps unfortunate (as the manager has been quick to note) that 75 this campaign didn't earn us a top-four finish. This might suggest a more competitive league, but the stretching of points suggests the opposite. The gap from 1st to 17th (i.e. excluding relegated teams) widened from 42 points last season to 53 points this.

My prediction in January was that we'd finish third with a points tally in the low 80s (we got 75) and that Chelsea would win the title with just shy of 90 (they got 93). I optimistically expected Spurs to slump to fourth, but they managed to ignore the weight of history, recovering from defeat to the Hammers to put in a strong run over the final couple of weeks and finish second. As expected, Liverpool did run out of steam towards the end and Man City were inconsistent, but both were able to make it over the line ahead of us. Though there's been plenty of fluctuation among the top six teams over the course of the season (both Liverpool and City hit top spot in the first third and we surged to second on three separate occasions - the last in January), only the top two at season-end could be said to have either met or exceeded expectations. Chelsea were worthy winners, but the pleasure this gave John Terry must have soured it for many neutrals. Overall, it's been a poor league with only 6 points separating 8th position from 17th, while the gap from Arsenal in 5th to Southampton in 8th was a scarcely credible 29 points. In other words, it's turning into two leagues: the top six and the rest.

Broken into thirds (12, 13 and 13 games), we got 25, 25 and 25 points, which highlights that our problem was repeated, short bad patches, rather than a slump. 30 points a third is usually enough to clinch the title, so we essentially came up short by one draw and one defeat every 3 months. February and March certainly had a slumpy feel to it, with the added downer of yet another brace of defeats by Bayern Munich, but that period also saw us progress in the FA Cup, albeit with the good fortune of draws against two non-league teams. Our usual trick of finishing strongly and catching Tottenham was stymied by poor performances at Selhurst Park and White Hart Lane, though I suspect they would still have edged us out even if those results had gone the other way. Spurs have been less brittle and more relentless of late, which makes them oddly reminiscent of early-period George Graham, while our ability to go from the sublime to the ridiculous is like watching a Tottenham side from the 80s. Another eerie parallel has been their use of Wembley for underwhelming European nights, in preparation for their temporary residence next season. The pundits are predicting new home blues, which may extend further when they return to White Hart Lane. It's the unfamiliar stadium, not the location, that seems to matter, as we found with the short stroll to Ashburton Grove.

Much of Arsenal's mercurial nature can be attributed to volatile form among the forwards and moments of madness among the defenders (yesterday was typical, from Welbeck's open goal miss to Koscielny's rush of blood). Ozil suffered a personal slump at the beginning of the year while Giroud, Walcott and Welbeck have all been inconsistent. Sanchez has also been alternately infuriating and decisive, often within a single game. In fact, in most games. At the back, Koscielny remains a mix of the imperious and the impetuous, suggesting that he'll improve as a defender when he loses a yard of pace. Mustafi had a patchy first season, which isn't unusual, so should be better next season, while Holding looks promising and Bellerin has clearly been restricted by injury till recently. Monreal has probably been our best defender, simply through sheer dependability and the unfazed manner in which he has accommodated changes in formation and position. There aren't many players who look at home both as a centre-back and a wing-back. Though Sanchez will probably get the player of the season vote, I'd plump for the adaptable Nacho: a man who doesn't even look like a footballer, if you exclude a compressed Peter Crouch.

It seems odd, given the perennial worry over the balance between attack and defence, that Arsenal's midfield hasn't been the focus of more angst. This isn't because we've settled on a particular shape or roster, though Wenger clearly has hopes for the Xhaka-Ramsey axis in the new 3-4-3 formation, but because of the pressing problems elsewhere on the pitch. Whether that system will survive into next season is not merely dependent on Arsene staying, but on whether he really sees it as preferable to 4-4-2 long-term, and I suspect that will be influenced by the chances of building the team around Cazorla again (or fully converting Wilshere to a deeper role), which would necessitate an extra screening player of the Coquelin variety. Given Santi's age and Wilshere's fragility, I suspect he'll revert to 4-4-2. Personally, I quite like the new formation because it gives us more penetration from the wings and allows a defender to sally forth and attack space between the opposition's lines. While Oxlade-Chamberlain briefly shone in the wing-back role, before the inevitable injury, Holding looks keen on exploring his inner Beckenbauer.

It's not inconceivable that Wenger will keep 3-4-3 but restrict it to the Europa League. I'm assuming that he'll treat the competition as an upgrade on the League Cup rather than a downgrade on the Champions League, which means it could be a chance for the club's younger talent to shine. Prospects like Iwobi and Holding, not to mention a possibly returning Calum Chambers, need more demanding, competitive games if they are to develop. Assuming the board finally insist on a tougher target than a top four finish, Wenger may be reluctant to indulge too many of the younger players in the league, so Thursday may take over from Tuesday/Wednesday as the new development night. If my surmise about the board's intentions is right, it would imply a number of seasoned players coming in rather than a reliance on talent emerging through the ranks. In fairness, that has been Arsene's policy since the capture of Ozil in 2013, though some of the newer players, like Lucas and Elneny, look like they fall into the category of "interesting": a Wenger foible, if ever there was one.

I suspect we'll need some good fortune, not to mention a sparkling performance, to come away with silverware on Saturday. The loss of Koscielny and Gabriel, and the likely absence of Mustafi, suggests that we may struggle at the back whatever formation we choose to play. If Mertesacker is drafted in, I can't see us risking a back three given his limited pace and lack of match fitness. Against Everton we reverted to 4-4-1 once Koscielny was sent off, which proved we can be an excellent (if profligate) counter-attacking team. Though Ozil has rediscovered his waspish form and Sanchez is capable of turning a match, an early slip-up could see us chasing the game on a hot day with Fabregas expertly orchestrating keep-ball. If we get another dumb red card, we'll surely lose, so you can expect Costa to target Monreal or Holding. Our hopes may come down to a moment of Mesut magic, a Sanchez gamble at the right end of the pitch, and for Petr Cech to play a blinder. It's about time he saved a penalty. As to what happens after Saturday, I don't think anybody really knows how this is going to play out. Not even Wenger.

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