To be Frank

And now the end is here and so we face the final curtain. Regrets? It’s fair to say we’ve had a few. With the league season over bar the shouting and 4th place wrapped up, Arsenal are fans are left to ponder the question of whether the team have improved this season. Have they taken a step forward? It’s a thorny question and one that is difficult to debate. Like all other analyses of our season, it is stained somewhat by big defeats away from home to the top sides.

2013-14 has been an enigma wrapped up in a contradiction. On the face of it, Arsenal threatened to challenge for the title but collapsed spectacularly in the spring, just as they did in 2007-08, 2009-10 and 2010-11. We again failed to win our Champions League group and, consequently, again crashed out at the Round of 16 and we have finished 4th in the league. We’ve been well beaten by sides around us. On the surface, it’s difficult to vouch for progress being made.

It looks as though we have been hoodwinked into believing that we had a side capable of challenging, only to be undone by mental and physical frailties. It all seems so familiar, yet, at the same time, somehow so different. Whether or not you think we have ‘improved’ is subjective. It also depends I think on how far you feel it is necessary to distil defeats at Anfield, Stamford Bridge and the Etihad from the equation. However, it’s difficult to deny that the Gunners have shown signs of improvement at the very least.

If Arsenal defeat Norwich, they’ll have more away wins than any other team in the Premier League and the second best away record in the country. Despite 5-1 and 6-0 losses to Liverpool and Chelsea, we’ll also have a positive goal difference in our 19 away fixtures. If his goal is not breached at Carrow Road, Wojciech Szczesny will win the ‘Golden Gloves’ award for the most clean sheets kept by any goalkeeper in the Premier League. We have shown that we can defend.

At least four of the back five would be among the front runners for Arsenal’s Player of the Season award. The template of our early season success came from that solid platform as Arsenal sat deep and invited teams onto them (their average possession statistics have dropped noticeably this season), soaking up pressure before countering efficiently and effectively. As I wrote a few weeks ago, I think Arsene decided to abandon that style just as the run of fixtures became notably tougher.

It could be that he felt inviting teams containing players as gifted as Hazard, van Persie, Mata, Sturridge and Suarez was a recipe for disaster. If the problem is solely tactical for these big games, you would conclude that that’s easier to isolate and solve over the summer. However, there has to be a psychological issue too, which is more difficult to unravel. Even with a poor game plan and with players missing, we ought not to be losing by scores of this size to our near rivals.

Interestingly, in his pre Norwich press conference this week, Wenger highlighted the Gunners’ attack as an area for improvement, “City and Liverpool’s offensive potential has been fantastic. That’s where we need to improve.” This is where the thorny issue of injuries comes into play. The addition of Mesut Özil and the meteoric improvement in Aaron Ramsey has, I think, galvanised Arsenal as an attacking force. That we were without both and Theo Walcott simultaneously at a key stage of the season was undoubtedly to our detriment.

Lacking Özil’s guile, as well as Ramsey and Walcott’s thrust, enabled teams to push higher up the pitch against us and hassle us out of possession. Chelsea and Liverpool executed this game plan in a way I don’t think they would have been able to had Walcott and Ramsey been available. In fact, for the short period of the season that Walcott was fit for selection, Ramsey’s goalscoring quelled. He didn’t score in any of the 5 games prior to his injury at West Ham, a run that almost entirely coincided with Walcott’s return to fitness.

Without both, the top sides were able to defend and attack Arsenal in a much more decisive manner. With Ramsey and / or Walcott and Özil in tandem, I think Arsenal have definitely improved as an attacking unit. There again, keeping key players fit is an area where we emphatically have not improved- whatever the underlying reasons are for that. None of us really know for sure. You would hope (and think) that it’s something the club will look into as a matter of urgency.

I always felt and wrote many times on these pages that Arsenal’s squad needed another season together to forge a genuinely established chemistry. Last August I forecast that Arsenal would feature as an outside bet for the title, before drifting away from the scene somewhat when the really tough run of fixtures arrived in March. We probably exceeded expectations by leading the league for as long as we did. Had Arsenal lost 1-0 or 2-1 at Stamford Bridge and Anfield I would probably feel more vindicated by my pre season prediction.

Without wishing to proffer it as an excuse, the construction of the fixture list is an oft overlooked factor in analysing a season. I would to qualify that by stating that I don’t suspect any mischief or lack of fairness here. Compiling the fixture list is an unthinkably complex task. However, I think the Chelsea and Manchester United home matches might have worked out differently had they not tailgated such chastening defeats, which led to a subconscious caution in our approach to both goalless draws.

The Liverpool match at Anfield provided a kind of “diseconomies of scale” psychologically for both sides. It gave Liverpool the vim and vigour to forge a title challenge with an amazing late run, aided by their fixture-lite freshness. Whilst it probably killed Arsenal’s belief in terms of the league title. Everton briefly looked as though they would challenge our top 4 berth because they went on a long winning run that coincided with a poor spell for Arsenal. Had these twin occurrences arisen in, say, December or January, the threat to Champions League qualification would have looked much less foreboding.

Ultimately, Arsenal are on course for 79 points, which would have been enough for 2nd place last year and in 2010-11. In fact, not since 2009 has that total not been sufficient for a top 3 berth. We gained 73 points in 2011-12. For all the talk of the title contenders being weaker this season, they’re actually taking more points. Everton are on course to win the same amount of points as Spurs amassed last season. Wenger’s side have finished closer to first and further away from 5th, which must have been a realistic pre season target.

I think a lot of individual players have improved too, the likes of Szczesny, Ramsey and Chamberlain for instance. A lot of the feeling when we look back at 2013-14 will be governed by what happens at Wembley next week, but I think the team have improved; it’s just that the level of progress fell from marked to reasonable. The challenge will be stiffer next season, with Liverpool in the frame and Manchester United and Spurs likely to be coached by competent managers. This time next year, Arsenal’s improvement cannot be debatable. For this season, whether or not Arsenal have improved is very much a case of “yes with an if, or no with a but.” LD.

Follow me on Twitter @LittleDutchVA

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