Friday, March 1, 2024

And now, the end is … er … here

Did you ever see that old Simpsons episode where Bart gets so bored of beating Homer at a boxing computer game that he gives Homer one last chance to defeat him before declaring retirement? A determined Homer goes away, receives some tutelage and hones his gaming skills. When he plays Bart again he gives his son a simulated pounding in the boxing ring, but just as he prepares to administer the knockout punch, Marge pulls the plug and Bart retires undefeated? (If you haven’t, this torturous analogy will have been a waste. If you’re not au fait with the minutiae of specific Simpsons episodes, I suggest your life might have been a waste to this point anyway ).

That’s kind of what St. Totteringham’s Day felt like this year. Spurs had us on the ropes for much of the season. They have a good, tactically astute football manager as opposed to a caricature of a used car salesmen. Much as we did in 2011-12, Spurs had this season’s form player hoisting them up on his shoulders. Whisper it quietly, but Spurs didn’t even really shit their pants and collapse this time. Arsenal, in the meantime, were reeling from a second successive summer where more than one first team regular was sold and were left with a tactically unbalanced squad.

Arsenal had to ditch their attempts to play Wengerball because the chemistry just wasn’t fomenting on a consistent basis. Somebody from the coaching staff obviously read my blog in the wake of the Spurs defeat (Arsene, Bouldy, don’t worry about thanking me publicly, I’ll take a Diamond Club box next season as payment) because they went back to basics and earned a very commendable 26 points out of their last 30 to grab the coveted 4th spot.

Spurs lost Modric last summer, but the development of Bale into a genuinely world class match winner was enough to cover the loss, much in the same way that van Persie’s escalation in 2011-12 was a temporary band aid for Fabregas’ departure. (Modric isn’t in Cesc’s class of course, but the comparison stands). Tottenham will endure a summer of speculation over Bale. Even if Levy and co see out the storm this time, it will continue in every window until he inevitably leaves. Arsenal have held on grimly for the sponsorship and TV monies windfall and are, theoretically at least, looking at a relatively peaceful summer for once. Tottenham, lest we forget, are still trying to fund a stadium move.

As this blog from @AngryofN5 points out, we’re not quite debt free, but we’re also not in the belt tightening austerity years that Tottenham will have to withstand if they’re to go ahead with a stadium move. This is all basically a long winded way of saying that this should have been Tottenham’s big chance to overtake us. The landscape is beginning to shift to a sort of economies of scale situation in our favour. Theoretically, we’re about to get much richer and they’re about to get much poorer. (We have outstripped Spurs resources wise for some years as it is).

There’s been a lot of excitement around Arsenal’s financial muscle this summer and what it should mean. Without wishing to paint your hopes and dreams an unbecoming shade of beige, we still don’t have the spending capability available to Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United, the teams that finished ahead of us last season. We are rather hoping that the instability in all of their managerial situations tilts the scales towards us. But essentially, next season, fourth is still “about where we should finish.” Realistically, I think this team will need another year or two together before they can develop into bona fide challengers.

The focus will be to at least make the journey a little more comfortable. That means pulling away from the chasing pack for the top 4 and trying to glimpse the coattails of the forerunners. As @YogisWarrior suggests in this concise season review, much of that gap can be amended by improving our head to head record against the teams around us. Performing better in the domestic cups should also be seen as a priority target. In the past, I’ve defended Arsenal’s relative trophy ‘drought’ on the basis that we were typically being eliminated from knockout tournaments by the likes of Chelsea, Manchester United and Barcelona.

Losing to Bradford and Blackburn in what turned out to be very winnable competitions represents the undoubted lowlight of the season. Our under-performance in the cups meant our schedule was much clearer for league purposes during the run in. Chelsea and Spurs had more onerous commitments than Arsenal in the final 8 weeks of 2012-13. Desired improvement in the cups would remove this advantage next spring, so we would have to balance team selection appropriately. The bottom line is, the depth and quality of our squad must be embellished.

Though the manager has clearly chosen to be cautious with his kitty in previous summers, the pressure and expectation on him to spend is greater than ever. In essence, we’re asking him now to do something he hasn’t really done since the turn of the Millennium. In the summer of 2000, he splashed out for Pires, Lauren, and Wiltord (Edu was eventually added in convoluted circumstances). In 2001, Jeffers, Wright, Campbell, Inamoto and van Bronckhorst arrived. Of course, the stadium move was officially approved in December 2001, which is significant for the timeline in this case.

This year, our coffers are boosted and everyone knows it. Emirates, BT and (probably) Puma essentially supplant what player and property sales have brought in in previous summers. Arsene Wenger showed a proclivity towards brave decisions towards the end of 2012-13 by dropping his captain and his goalkeeper. The situation with Vermaelen has not concluded with the season’s end. The manager still faces a contentious decision there. Assuming Vermaelen isn’t sold, he is going to have to consider what he does with the captaincy.

Unless we receive a big offer, I’m not convinced Vermaelen will leave. Johan Djourou will surely depart, so that’s already one centre half we will have to replace. Bacary Sagna’s future is still the subject of debate. If he goes, I don’t think Arsene will want to spend the bulk of his summer replacing outgoing defenders when this promises to be a summer of consolidation. Even if Vermaelen enjoys a fabulous pre season and forces his way back into the team, his place is surely not certain enough for him to continue with the armband.

At Newcastle on Sunday, when Arteta hobbled off, he didn’t traipse down the tunnel. He stayed in the dugout and seemed to assist the manager with instructions from the technical area. Arteta was the first person Wenger embraced at the final whistle, which suggests that this wasn’t an unsolicited, John Terry style intervention. If the captain’s first job is to be the manager’s conduit to the players, I’d suggest Arteta is better placed to do that whether Vermaelen is playing or not.

Ordinarily, I don’t like debating the destination of the captaincy. I think it’s something British fans obsess over too much, as if the owner of the armband offers an instant panacea to a team’s ills. A good team should have a conglomerate of leaders in any case. But it’s an issue that is there regardless and one that needs to be dealt with. Wenger must curse the fact that he’s compelled to name a skipper. The captaincy has been an albatross and a recurring political headache since Tony Adams retired.

The stadium move in concert the Premier League oligarchies relegated Arsenal from title chasers to a band of clubs pursuing Champions League qualification. In the short term at least. This summer has to represent the time when Arsenal bridges that gap so that they move closer to first and further away from fifth. Ultimately, this is why we made the stadium move in the first place. So that in the long term, we could behave as a superpower without fear of inferiority complex.

In 2007-08, 2009-10 and 2010-11 we were in the championship running for about two thirds of the season before late collapses, precipitated by a shallow squad and mental frailty, were our undoing. This year, the group showed that they have the mental fortitude to finish strongly when they need to. Now they need another sprinkle of quality to extrapolate and sustain that form over a period of ten months. Arsene, it’s over to you. LD.

Follow Tim on Twitter – @LittleDutchVA

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