One of the problems ‘identified’ during the season, when things were going badly, was the fact that we relied on a core of players for most games, with the manager seemingly reluctant to use the squad players. This led to jaded performances and poor results.
In some cases the manager’s hand was forced. There isn’t a sane man in this world who would even consider starting Chamakh or Park over Robin van Persie given the form he was in. In others it was because of injury. I’m sure Wilshere would have played a lot of games this season and we know that Arsene loves Diaby, who would also have been involved were he able to stay fit, plus the whole Sagna and Gibbs/Jenkinson and Santos situations.
And in others it was the manager’s choice. For most of the season Arsene tried to fit Aaron Ramsey into the furthest forward role in midfield, laying the weight of replacing a certain Cesc Fabregas in the team. Now, don’t get me wrong, I like Ramsey, I think he’s going to be a very good player, but in what has been his first full season he’s struggled at times and, rather unfairly I think, become the target for some of the blame when things haven’t gone well.
The re-emergence of Rosicky must surely be as much a surprise to Arsene as it has been to us. Here was a guy who hadn’t scored in the league for two years, who suddenly found himself on the score-sheet in a massively important game, and thus rejuvenated. All the same he has started just 12 league games this season.
There has been a lot of talk about the number of different back four combinations we’ve had, we’re now seeing the benefit of having a settled unit. Two consecutive clean sheets for only the third time this season (1 – Newcastle and Udinese in August : 2 – Marseille and West Brom in November). We have yet to keep three. And when you look at the squad stats, only eight players have started more than 20 league games this campaign.
Sczcesny 30 – van Persie 29 – Theo 27 – Koscielny 27 – Song 26 – Arteta 25 – Ramsey 22 – Mertesacker 21
So, if we felt there were issues with this core group of players being over-played, tired and so, thus leading to poor results and performances, what has changed? There’s the full back solution, of course, the team is better balanced because of that. Sagna’s presence has liberated Walcott, Gibbs has provided solidity, allowing the manager to choose between Gervinho, Oxlade-Chamberlain and even Aaron Ramsey as the left sided attacker.
There’s Oxlade-Chamberlain, a player who, even when things were reaching their nadir, provided some form of positivity. He was a kind of light in the darkness, somebody for whom there was no criticism, no blame being apportioned, and who served as a reminder that for all the bad stuff going the nature of support needs fans to be behind a team and players.
There was a ‘moment’. I know I keep going back to that Sagna goal against Sp*rs but it sticks in my mind as clearly as any great Arsenal goal I’ve ever seen. It was a goal which said ‘Enough!’; a goal which asked a big question of the other Arsenal players. “Are you as fucked off with this as I am?”; a goal which demanded more and got more from this team.
When you see your right back that far forward, straining everything he’s got to get on the end of a cross to get back into a game which could easily have got worse before it got better, you have to respond. It was like somebody opened a valve or, dare I say it, looked down, saw the handbrake on and said ‘I’m taking this motherfucker off now’.
There is the change in mindset, a team working harder for each other and unwilling to return to days which must have been disheartening and trying because they knew they were capable of better. And there’s confidence. It now flows through this team like chocolate through Willy Wonka’s factory (any greedy German kids, watch out. Maybe that’s where Eisfeld has gone). Nigel Winterburn says:
Confidence plays a big part when you are on a good run of form. You just never think you are going to lose, even when you go a goal behind. You always have the belief that you will come back and that the minimum you will get is a draw.
I think it is sometimes hard for the supporters to understand how big a part confidence plays in a player. You need great mental strength as well and I think the team has showed that.
Ok, we know all about mental strength. Even when we don’t have it we have it but it’s clear that this is a more liberated, energised and confident group of players. And thus we go back to The Core. It’s more or less the same group starting every game. Of course the issue of fatigue isn’t as pressing now because we have the league and only the league to concentrate on, but it’s just interesting how more or less the same players who weren’t good enough to get into one journalist’s combined North London XI a few months ago would dominate that team now.
And that’s not to say this is a squad which is perfectly balanced because I think we all know we have issues. There are players who continue to contribute little and as Arsene talks a lot about only having 25 players in the squad there’s no doubt we can make things more efficient next season. I don’t think there’s any point in discussing those players on a one by one basis, we all know who they are, we know who the ones on loan are (and it looks as if Denilson will spend another season on loan in Brazil), and in an ideal world who we’d let go this summer.
But perhaps the last few weeks has gone some way to prove that this group of players can form the basis of an improved squad next season. That the core group of players, with Wilshere back, with someone like Podolski added to the attacking side of things, without four full backs injured at the same time, with players playing in their natural positions, and a couple of other decent additions, might just be good enough to go the distance.
I don’t want to get ahead of myself here, by any means. There is still a lot to do this season but if we can maintain this momentum until May, then we put ourselves in a good position to right most of the wrongs, to make progress rather than fight fire, and to focus improving not just the core, but the whole squad.