Monday, 25 May 2015

Onwards and Upwards

And so the season finishes with Arsenal enjoying the giddy heights of third. Despite our points total dropping from 79 last season to 75 now, I think most observers consider this to be progress (the 5-season record is 68, 70, 73, 79, 75). In fact, the lack of the traditional nail-biting finish may well be to blame for the recent points slump, with the draw at Old Trafford pretty much signalling the end of our league season. The game against Sunderland saw the return of the old handbrake, while the spanking of West Brom was as close to beach football as you can get under the beady eye of Tony Pulis. Though it was amusing to see Wilshere's strike win the goal of the season poll on MOTD last night, the truth is that he'd have had his ankle kicked off in a truly competitive match. Talking of school's out, am I the only one who noticed the Stoke defence obligingly part for Steven Gerrard's consolation yesterday? He must have been sickened to hear that Lampard scored as well.

This stately progress obviously owes a lot to the inconsistency of Manure, Liverpool, the Spuds and Southampton, but that in turn highlights Arsenal's now perennial ability to produce consistent runs during the season. Between the loss at St. Mary's (1st January) and the home draw against Chelsea (26th April), we picked up 33 out of 36 points, with the blip at White Hart Lane being the only failure. If you divide the season into thirds (12, 13 and 13 games), Chelsea's tripartite record was: 32, 27, and 28 points. Arsenal's comparable record was: 17, 28 and 30. The contrast in fortunes over the first third pretty much determined the season's outcome. Mourinho's triumph was down to the careful husbanding of resources (they did well to avoid major injuries, particularly in defence) and the pragmatic preservation of that early lead. The charge of "boring" is legitimate but as irrelevant as Mourinho's diversionary media tactics. Chelsea were able to hang on because the challengers either started too far back (Arsenal) or were inconsistent (everyone else).

In the previous season we managed 28, 27 and 24 points, which shows that the falling off at the business end was not quite as pronounced as some fans thought at the time (it looked worse because of the marginally better performance by Citeh and Chelski and Liverpool's mad dash for the line). One extra win in the final third of the season would have evened up our points but would not have been enough to improve on fourth spot. Basically we were a couple of points short in the first two thirds of last season and 4 short in the final third. This season, an extra 12 points over the first third (i.e. 29) would have left us level on points with Chelsea, and it's reasonable to think that momentum and the prospect of the prize might have secured an extra 2 or 3 points over the last month. To challenge for the title, we need to average 29 points per third. We did that over the last two thirds of this season, which is why I think we have made progress, despite the lower final points tally.

This will remain the case even if we fail to win the Cup next Saturday. In fact, it's worth emphasising that our cup progress over these two seasons is indicative of improvement in the league, rather than a compensation in the manner of Hull or Villa, with the victories over Liverpool and Manure as psychologically important to the team's development as the league victory at Citeh. Whether we win or lose, the event should serve to sharpen the players' appetite for next season. The only real cloud on the horizon (and it's small one, to be honest) is the possible effect of the Copa America, specifically on Alexis Sanchez (David Ospina is less of a concern). As the host team, Chile will be expected to do well, which might mean up to 6 games, with the final on the 4th of July. Even our own Duracell bunny is going to look jaded after that so don't be surprised if he misses the new season start on the 8th of August.

In terms of the squad, the additions of Sanchez, Ospina, Welbeck, Gabriel and Debuchy have added depth, while Chambers and Bielik are sensible investments for the future. The pressure to buy this summer looks less intense, which might mean a record-breaking signature purchase, or it might mean three teenagers from Ligue 2. You never can tell with Wenger. Most fans think we need another goalkeeper, given the uncertainty over Szczesny and Ospina's recent regression (that Fabianski fella looks quite handy), though it's possible our last remaining Polish custodian might re-establish himself if he gets the nod for the FA Cup and plays a blinder. Many fans still feel we need another defensive midfielder: some balls to go with our Coq. Morgan Schneiderlin looks an obvious target and is of the age when he needs Campions League football if he is to progress further, though there are also rumours about the more all-action Arturo Vidal.

Contrary to popular belief, Per Mertesacker, who turns 31 later this year, can get slower and will. It's also worth noting that Koscielny, Debuchy and Monreal will all turn 30 by the end of next season. While we have excellent, proven young full-backs in Bellerin and Gibbs, we will start to look light at centre-back again unless Wenger is confident enough to promote Isaac Hayden alongside Gabriel as the backup plan. Talking of age, Rosicky's extension is surely a Peter Pan-esque exception to the usual rule and we can expect a few of the other older players to depart. Arteta might have another season in him, if only for ambassadorial and coaching reasons, but Flamini looks like he's ready for the vets league while Diaby at 29 has the legs of a 40-year-old. Santi Cazorla at 30 is also approaching the borderline, though I suspect Wenger wants to retain him to alternate with Jack Wishere.

The core younger players have generally progressed. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has had a season fragmented by injuries, but he has shown maturity in his few appearances. Both Ramsey and Wilshere are more intelligent and less predictable in their approach, which probably owes something to Wenger playing them "out of position" on the flanks, but may also reflect the influence of Ozil. The German can still risk the fans' ire with the slacker nonchalance that masks his scheming, but I think most observers (or at least those privileged enough to see him live, where you get a better sense of his spatial awareness) recognise he is a special talent. He's already built up a substantial YouTube archive of improbable passes, flicks and dummies that stands comparison with Denis Bergkamp. He's even started to win the odd challenge, which always elicits a cheer, though I doubt he'll ever progress to the red-card devilment the Dutchman was capable of. At 26 years of age, you suspect he has a golden season coming soon.

Theo Walcott has recovered his speed, while the timing of his runs has got better, but his control is still hit-and-miss. What also seems to have improved is his shooting, but he requires space to exploit this - which West Brom kindly provided yesterday - hence he may be less effective than the stronger Welbeck against a deep and obdurate defence. The positive is that Arsenal have a variety of contrasting attacking talents in these two plus Giroud and Sanchez. There are some fans who fancy an upgrade in the form of Raheem Sterling, though this ignores the similarity of the Liverpool player not with Walcott but with Sanchez. Despite the retro success of Harry Kane and Charlie Austin, I think Wenger is right to think that a modern strikeforce, particularly one that wants to progress in Europe, is a complementary combination of parts rather than a one-man show. This would, of course, explain the signing and limited use of Lukas Podolski. I'm not sure there is a rational explanation for Yaya Sanogo, though.

My predictions for this season (in December, just after we'd lost away to Stoke in miserable circumstances) were optimistic but reasonable:"My punt is third place in the league, just edging out Manure, and (with a bit of luck in the draw) last eight in Europe. We might even get back to Wembley in the FA Cup." We fluffed our lines in Europe, despite getting precisely the luck I'd hoped for, but otherwise I was bang on (just talk among yourselves for a minute while I preen). It's too soon to be making precise predictions for next season, but I do think we will get over 80 points for the first time since 2008 and we've got to crack that round-of-16 nut in the Champions League sooner or later.


  1. Herbie Destroys the Environment25 May 2015 at 20:38

    I think Ozil has actually gone backwards since the kid I remember in the 2010 world cup. I felt that about Arshavin after he joined Arsenal.

    Wenger does have an ability, which is never recognised (if he had a Yorkshire accent he would not be given such an easy ride!), to turn really impressive play-makers into horseshit.

  2. Your preening in your own prescience is well justified. In February you wrote "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. "

    Herbie - you're a tool.

    1. Herbie Destroys the Environment27 May 2015 at 21:27

      I often thought the word tool should be applied to those who use the term libertarian leftist.

      I also think the prediction, in February, that Arsenal wouldn't catch either Chelsea or Man City and would manage 3rd place and that Southampton and Spurs would be outside the top 4 will not unseat Nostradamus as the king of the predictors. Now if he had said Bournemouth would have been promoted in September..

  3. I think Herbie has a point in so far as Wenger's record of signing established players and fitting them in to the team is much poorer than that of acquiring younger players and moulding them to his needs. The exception to this are the 'old guard' of Graham's players that he inherited and managed to get good service from.

  4. Though he didn't sign him, Wenger was undoubtedly responsible for the best years of Denis Bergkamp's career, and he has also successfully integrated established players such as Marc Overmars, Manu Petit, Robert Pires, Sol Campbell, Per Mertesacker, Santi Cazorla and Mikel Arteta.

    Arshavin was one of those players who, in retrospect, had probably already peaked when Arsenal signed him. While we generally assume that players improve with age until they hit 30, many start to decline in their mid-20s (think of Lee Sharpe post-Manure or Michael Owen post-Real). Wenger hasn't been slow to offload players who've plateaued, e.g. Hleb, Nasri and Vermaelen.

    I think's it's a little unfair to assume that his talent as a manager is as one-dimenisonal as polishing rough diamonds, or converting coltish wingers into strikers. He certainly seems to enjoy a lot of respect among senior players, and it can't all be down to introducing Lee Dixon to the joys of broccoli.