I love watching Arsenal. As you can imagine, given the fact I write about them every day, I live off the matches, the build up, the post game discussion, the anticipation of the next one, the permutations, the ups, the downs, the whole lot.
I find the two week gaps for Interlulls interminable but I don’t think I’ve ever been as glad to see the back of a season as I am right now. Space and time is needed to come to terms with what was, however you wish to dress it up, a pitiful end of season collapse.
11 points from our last 11 games. Certainly not the form of champions and really there are no excuses for it. If we want to blame referees, bad luck, injuries or anything else, we’re kidding ourselves. It’s just ignoring the fact that this team went from being in four competitions, with eyes on the league title, to scraping into fourth position. The cup exits to United and Barcelona I can live with, both very good teams, there’s no shame there (especially given the circumstances at the Camp Nou).
The Carling Cup, a freakish cock-up handed Birmingham the trophy, but it reflected the brittleness of this team. Almost afraid to win something, only we could have lost a cup final that way to a team as poor as them. Yet that’s cup football, we’ve lost to lower league opposition before and we probably will again.
It’s the league table that tells you what you need to know, or maybe don’t want to know, about this side. Yesterday we finished with a 2-2 draw against Fulham. Twice they went ahead, twice we pulled goals back to equalise, and even when they spent the last 15-20 minutes playing with 10 men we struggled to create anything. It was tedious end of season fodder and there was no Bolton miracle. Man City qualify automatically for the Champions League while we, who had aspirations of winning the Premier League, are left thankful our collapse didn’t begin a couple of games sooner.
See the video page for highlights, if you’re feeling masochistic enough this morning.
The away fans came across loud and clear on the stream I had. “Spend some fucking money, spend some fucking money”. And it’s easy to understand why. Not simply because this team has finished fourth, not simply because this team bottled it like bottling bottlers in a bottling factory, but because the club is, at best, stagnating and, at worst, going backwards. The league table doesn’t lie, check out the last few seasons:
[table id=2 /]
2007-8 was progress, 08-09 regression, 09-10 stagnation, this season regression once more. Our second lowest points total ever under Arsene Wenger, only the 67 in 2005-6 was worse.
Now, I’m fully cognisant of the realities of our situation, that there have been financial constraints, that we’re battling against teams with far greater resources than ours, but again that hides from the reality. It wasn’t the games against the clubs with these resources that cost us, it was games against Blackburn, Sunderland, West Brom, Newcastle and others that saw us trip up.
I’ve also long been a believer that simply spending money is no guarantee of success. What’s become clear, however, is that not spending money where it is needed, and obviously needed, is pretty much a guarantee of failure. Arsene trots out the line about how we were written off before the season began to justify our final league position. Except we’re not judging our team on what pundits said in August, most of us can’t bear to listen to them anyway. The team is being judged on where they were at the end of March.
Five points behind United, with a game in hand, and United still to play. It’s from that position I’m making my assessment of this team and the conclusion is not a positive one. Failure seems like a harsh term but I don’t know any other way to describe the collapse. Failure to win games, failure to turn up, failure to defend, failure of attitude and character, 11 points from 11 games is failure by any standards, sorry. Arsene says:
The players have had an outstanding attitude. We have accumulated disappointments that have had a big impact on the moral of the team. But we are not to go overboard. Maybe one year you will realise that it is not easy to finish in the top four every time.
I accept that 100% but when you’re in the mix for the title with just nine games to go – and you have the title in your own hands – it’s really not what you want to hear from the manager. It smacks of Redknapp, I’m afraid, and it’s another classic Wenger straw man. Much like the one he sets up every time regarding summer spending. Asked about the fans chant yesterday he said:
We will try to buy the right players. Spending is not a purpose, it’s not our goal. We want the right players. We cannot buy players for £50 million and, even if we try to strengthen our team and spend money if needed, that is fact.
Yet who has ever asked Arsene to spend £50m on a player? I don’t know a single Arsenal fan who has bemoaned the fact we’ve never spent £50m on one player. Not one. If the manager really thinks there’s that kind of expectation amongst fans then he is, quite frankly, completely and utterly out of touch. If he knows that and uses this as some kind of defence to justify another summer of bargain shopping, ending in the club making a net profit on transfers, then it’s kind of insulting.
Yes, I know the business, the self-sustainable model, the current economic climate blah blah blah. I’m glad the club is run in a careful way, but again nobody is saying that we should spend money we don’t have, only that we fully use the resources we do have available to us. It doesn’t all come down to getting the cheque-book out though, as we’ve been over before.
And that’s where my real worries lie. As per the press conference the other day the manager seems spikily reluctant to admit change is needed in terms of his ‘philosophy’, yet I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that it does. If we see a change in terms of his transfer policy, with experience and quality arriving along with some of the dead wood being shipped out, then perhaps I’ll start to feel a bit more positive and that some of the issues are being addressed.
I was watching Match of the Day last night and after the brief highlights of our game they interviewed the manager. I turned him off. He annoyed me and then that upset me because I remember when I’d listen to him till the cows came home. When I trusted him implicitly and believed that he was the right man to bring the club forward. Right now I’m not so sure.
Arsene has a massive job to do in the summer. He’s got to try and hold onto two of his best players, he’s got to show that continued underperformance has consequences beyond a fat, new contract, he’s got to address the team’s defensive issues, he’s got to instill more character and ensure collapses that we’ve seen in the final stages of seasons do not become a trademark of his teams (if they’re not already), and he’s got to look at himself and accept that what he tried to do, whilst admirable, hasn’t worked and then make the necessary changes. Whatever that takes.
And here’s the thing – the anger and frustration and depression of the fans can only be assuaged by actions. Words won’t do it. Some ambition in the transfer market and a good start to the next campaign will go some way to heal the wounds. Fans react to what happens on the pitch, it’s pretty simple. When things go well we’re happy, when they don’t, we’re not. Win games, show character and improvement, and the negativity will diminish. That’s his job now.
As I said the other day, I feel sad about this season. It feels like end of era stuff to be honest. However, it’s over, there’s nothing we can do now to change it, and all we can do is hope that the harsh realities of it mean that lessons will be learned, by the players and, most importantly of all, by the manager. I feel he needs pressure from the board, from the new owner, to make sure he makes the changes required, so there’s an onus on them too.
Sorry for not being more positive today but there you are. I’m not trying to avoid that side of things because there are things that offer hope. The emergence of Wilshere and SZCZ, Robin van Persie showing what he’s capable of when he can stay fit for a sustained period, the wins over the big sides, the very fact that we got ourselves into a position where the league title was in our hands, all these things should rightly be lauded and provide a measure of optimistic ying to the doomtacular yang.
Overall though, it’s a season which promised much and delivered nothing. Again.