Go away, Ned Ryerson

“If fatalism has a scent, Arsenal supporters wear it like eau de toilette.” So said Sean Ingle in the Guardian this week and he has a point. Even when results are good, you always have the feeling that there’s a touch of ennui rippling below the surface with Arsenal fans. We’re always one defeat away from the window ledge. In essence, I understand why navels have begun to be gazed following the rather limp defeat to Stoke City.

I get that it feels a bit like Groundhog Day. That a season that promised much feels like it might peter out again. The issue is one of expectation. That’s why Liverpool, level on points with Arsenal having been knocked out of both domestic cups early and with no European commitments, are being feted as having had a marvelous season. Expectations of Liverpool are much lower than they are of Arsenal, despite being similar sized clubs in terms of budget.

My purpose here is not to douse Liverpool’s candle to make Arsenal’s appear brighter (well, maybe a tad). The issue with Arsenal is that they do always finish about where they should, but they often promise to do more, which leads to a feeling of hopes having been extinguished. This article is, I think, a very good reminder of what one should realistically expect from Arsenal. Amidst the feeling of fatalism, I actually feel very positive about the shape that the team is in.

Back in early August, I wrote this piece previewing my expectations of Arsenal this season. I said I still thought that we would finish 3rd or 4th. That eventually, the squads of Chelsea and Manchester City would tell on us, particularly in March when the fixture list became positively evil. (Emphasis on the ‘il’ in evil). However, I would accept the season as one of progress if Arsenal finished there having featured on the outskirts of the title race, rather than as a kind of end of season steeple chase for 4th.

Beneath the glossy branding, most leagues in Europe are actually very predictable. Individual games have the potential for surprise, but league positions across Europe almost directly correlate according to resources. That is an unfortunate by-product of the increased revenues football has amassed but hasn’t shared equally. If Arsenal replace Arsene Wenger this summer, would we expect the new manager to overhaul City and Chelsea to win the league? The reality is we’d still be looking at roughly 3rd or 4th and trying to close the gap on the top 2.

There’s plenty of football to be played this season and we could yet explode like ratbags and finish 5th. Equally, we might sweep all before us and win the treble. In the article linked above that I wrote last August, I said I wanted to see improvement and I think I’ve seen it so far. The extent to which City and Chelsea were going to suffer with new managers was overstated I think. United have suffered because Ferguson left behind a sizeable rebuilding job and appointed the wrong person to carry the work out.

There were some initial kinks to work out for Pellegrini (away form) and Mourinho (goal concession) which have been dealt with quite quickly. Whilst they were ironing out their creases, Arsenal capitalised by leading the league table. I think we have always been enormous underdogs (how could we not be given what City and Chelsea have spent?!) in terms of going on to win the league. Realistically, absolutely everything has to go for us and things have to really go against City and Chelsea. T’was ever thus.

That’s not to excuse a rather limp performance at the Britannia of course, but I think that sort of performance has been rather rare this season. Last year it wouldn’t have felt out of place, this season it felt unexpected and was all the more disappointing for it. We haven’t made a habit of playing in that anaemic fashion. In fairness, Stoke have made a habit of getting results from the bigger teams at home. I guess what I’m trying to say is that though I was disappointed by the display at Stoke I’m rather more sanguine about our position overall and I’m optimistic about this squad.

The piece I wrote last August that I have linked above called for improvement and I think there have been clear signs of it. The team has seemed more focused and mature and less inclined to shoot themselves in the foot. The defence has improved immeasurably. Last summer I suggested that the likes of Gibbs, Szczesny, Ramsey, Wilshere and Chamberlain should start to evidence an upward curve in terms of their progression and I think that they have. Progression isn’t always linear (as Wilshere is proving) but there’s every reason to believe they’ll keep improving too.

Arsenal clearly timed the announcement of new deals for Mertesacker and Rosicky as a kind of Prozac for the fanbase and it’s quite a fitting panacea. New contracts aren’t as sexy as new signings, but they’re probably more important. For a start, signing an existing proven performer to a new deal carries less of a risk factor compared to a new signing. Having a background of stability also makes it easier for new additions to blend into the squad.

In the last 14 months or so, Arsenal have signed Szczesny, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Rosicky, Wilshere, Walcott, Chamberlain, Ramsey, Jenkinson, Gibbs and Gnabry to new contracts, with reports that Ramsey (again) and Cazorla are also close to signing. In the recent past Arsenal have had some issues persuading their better players to sign new terms which has rather forced our position to surrender them to rival clubs. The importance of signing existing players up is especially poignant to Arsenal fans because we know all too well how disruptive it is when your best players leave.

Stability is pretty much the only competitive advantage we can exercise over the likes of Manchester City and Chelsea because we’ve put some hard yards in developing players such as Szczesny, Gibbs, Ramsey, Chamberlain and Wilshere together. The more we can do to keep them together, the better. Chelsea and City have thrown quite a lot of money at their academies because they too think this is a good idea. However, they haven’t demonstrated the patience required to develop their own players for their own reasons.

With Arsenal’s increased financial firepower, to channel the spirit of Ivan Gazidis, I wanted to Arsenal to behave like a club with more led in their pencil. These contracts cost the club quite a bit of money. In the last 12 months, Arsenal look as though they’ve been shopping from a different shelf with pursuits of Özil, Suarez and Draxler. In short, they look willing to use that cash. Many may point to a relatively inactive January transfer window but I honestly didn’t see a player move that I felt we missed out on.

There is of course some work still to do around the edges, as there is at every club. That work is easier to do against a canvas of player stability, a lack of which has previously proved to be our downfall recently. In short, the impression I have is that Arsenal have a good core of players tied to long contracts and they look, from the outside, as though they are willing to add to that with a good calibre of player when the opportunity is available to do so. That’s why I’m cautiously optimistic about where we are and where we’re going. Until Saturday at least. LD.

Follow me on twitter @LittleDutchVA

Speaking of Arsenal’s future, it’s not just the first team that play an F.A. Cup Quarter Final at the Emirates in the coming days. The U-18s lock horns with their Everton counterparts on Monday, 10th March at 7pm at the Emirates. Tickets available here.

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