Thursday, December 1, 2022

Can’t pull the wool down

So the season is over and another summer is upon us. It’s been here for four days and already I’m bored of it. As Mick Jagger once drawled, “the sunshine bores the daylights out of me.” (Not that that presents a problem in London, but stick with the metaphor). Already I find myself looking ahead to those glove handed, dribbly nosed November afternoons. Watching your breath visibly pour out into the air, like a ghost dancing, as you fire off another stream of invective at a hapless referee.

At the Hawthorns on Sunday we just about executed the job required. The benefits of 3rd place are many and varied and are well documented. Personally, I’m just relieved that it’ll be my natural hatred of Chelsea that will dictate my emotions on Saturday evening with no caveats. With the dust barely settled on the season I can’t decide whether I consider 3rd place to be a relative success or not. Obviously considering our start to the season, it is remarkable. But that feels a bit like saying, “Considering I set myself on fire and leapt out of a 5th floor window, it’s remarkable I can still walk.”

If we accept that competing with the infinitely resourced Manchester City is a desire rather than an expectation (and I realise not everybody does), then automatic Champions League qualification is a minimum target. Our regrets will predominantly be in the cup competitions, where we didn’t make a particularly good fist of winning anything at all. It’s clear that Champions League qualification is a priority to the club. It is to every club. Alex Ferguson is the only manager to win the Carling Cup since 2006 and still be in his job come the end of that calendar year. For Mourinho in 2007, Ramos in 2008, McLeish in 2011 and now Dalglish, their respective club owners found it a piffling distraction.

However, a top four finish and a trophy needn’t be mutually exclusive targets. Otherwise, we are just perpetually accepting existence as success. I suppose my confusion is bound up in the fact that we essentially achieved the bare minimum, but it looked for so long as though the bare minimum was a small, blurry dot on the horizon. Other sides have had similarly hilarious periods of ineptitude too. That’s what’s made this season so entertaining for the neutral. Everybody has been rubbish. It’s been great.

City and United held their own little choke-a-thon in the title run in, desperately trying to surrender the title to one another in hilariously inept circumstances. Chelsea are also infinitely resourced and they’ve finished 6th as some of their more senior “professionals” conducted a hatchet job on their manager. Liverpool have kept punch line writers in business all season long. Tottenham’s wheels came brilliantly careering off their bandwagon (*cough* Darren Lewis  *cough*) and Wigan were the only side in the bottom half who actually seemed to want to avoid relegation. And they only woke up in March.

So I guess some of our more slapstick moments have merely been a symptom of the prevailing fashion of the time. I guess in dissecting the season overall, we need to look at improvements that have been made and ones that need to be made. According to the ever excellent @Orbinho, 54% of Arsenal’s goals conceded last season emanated from setpieces, whereas this year that proportion has halved as Pat Rice took over setpiece drilling on the training ground to tangible effect. But we have conceded 49 Premier League goals. The same amount we conceded in 1994-95 when we finished 12th and played 42 league games. That’s led to accusations levelled against our back four, but defending is about more than just the defence.

As Arsenal Column points out here our attacking play requires a high defensive line. A high defensive line should begat a midfield that presses and harries its opposition. This, to me, is our biggest failing. Vermaelen has picked up plenty of criticism for pushing on too much this season. Not entirely unwarranted. But one only has to look at the ease with which the ball gets to our defence in the first place to see that the midfield has been in dereliction of duty at times. The two West Brom goals were a case in point on Sunday. Unchallenged passes straight from the centre of the pitch had our centre backs under pressure instantaneously.

It’s for this reason, amongst others, that we suffer so much without Arteta. We’re still a team ever so slightly struggling with our post Cesc identity. After the summer shambles had been settled, we undertook a transition into a more direct, rumbustuous side. The play went through van Persie, with direct, pacey players like Walcott and Gervinho on the flanks, Santos piling forward from left back and a box to box midfielder like Ramsey. It worked well too, culminating in an impressive run through the autumn months.

But losses of form for Gervinho and Ramsey and loss of fitness for our full backs meant that that style became less effective. Chamberlain was still too raw to be expected to fill the gap left by Gervinho on a weekly basis, so we saw a transition back into the possession based side we were with Cesc; with the likes of Rosicky, Gibbs and Benayoun becoming a more regular feature in the second half of the season. Song had picked up a handy knack of delivering a killer through ball, enabling our play to become more centralised.

It will be interesting to see which style Wenger persists with next season. It looks as though we are in the market for a midfielder and the type of midfielder we buy will probably be a key indicator. If he’s a technical, creative ball player, possession will again be king. But if he’s a more bustling, no nonsense type, then we’ll likely be a team based on pace and fast transition of play. But that’s really the only mystery of the summer with regards to what we need to do.

Sebastien Squillaci features in the team that didn’t give the ball away all season, Ju Young Park only just missed out by virtue of completing 3 of the 4 passes he attempted this season. I guess that means we’ll be playing a possession style next season! In all seriousness, there’s a fair amount of “wastage” in the squad. We all know who the culprits are; we all know what needs to be done. This summer is all about retaining (van Persie, Walcott), obtaining (consult your nearest YouTube reel complete with shit emo soundtrack) and dispensing.

On a final note, I think one of the biggest improvements this season has been in the support. Certainly inside the stadium. I’ve been at every game bar Olympiacos away and I think the volume and the togetherness of the support has been exemplary. It reached a kind of nadir at the end of last season. Months of niggly in fighting bubbling under the surface of an end of season capitulation and ticket price rise gave games a genuinely unpleasant atmosphere. In that respect, it felt like the 8-2 at Old Trafford was a kind of thunderstorm that cleared the air. Even before that, I recall a standing ovation being afforded to the players after a 2-0 defeat to Liverpool in August, during the maelstrom of our summer clusterfuck. I think a tempestuous summer followed by a horrendous opening of the season galvanised us as a force inside stadiums.

The fact that we’ve shorn ourselves of some unlikeable mercenaries has helped too. Questions about quality are valid, but this is certainly one of the more likeable Arsenal squads of recent years. Open mutiny had become commonplace in the preceding seasons. But bar the Chamberlain substitution against United, I don’t recall the supporters being especially tetchy this year. Not anymore than is common among other club’s fans inside stadia nowadays. I think the self imposed handicap in the summer led us all to see the top 4 finish as a genuine prize rather than just a wooden spoon. Whatever the reasons, I enjoyed my travels immensely this year and look forward to sharing a beer with you all again in August. LD.

Follow me on Twitter @LittleDutchVA

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