Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Is it better?

Perception is an interesting thing.

If you were to ask anyone if they thought this league season had been better or more enjoyable than last season, I’d wager most people would say yes. The fact that we topped the table for longer than any other side in 2013-14 made little difference in the end as it was a title challenge that fell apart, along with some outrageously heavy defeats, that people remember most. Still, we finished with a total of 79 points.

Right now, with three games left, we have 70 points. Three wins would see us finish with the exact number of points as last season. Indeed, we could even drop points along the way and still finish in a higher position, so is that progress? Is that a better season? Do you judge by where you end up or by how many points you garner? Or something else entirely?

It’s a funny one really, because there are reasons why it feels more positive this time around. We’ve won games against big sides (or at least not been pulverised in some); the squad feels more complete and more competitive; some positional issues have been sorted out, especially in the centre of midfield where Francis Coquelin’s emergence has provided security and bite that has been missing; and it just feels like there’s a maturity and pragmatism to the way we play (in general) that was lacking in the past.

So, it’s more positive, but is it better? Last season we finished 7 points off the leaders. Even if we win all our remaining games, the gap between us and the champions is likely to be greater than that, so despite all the good things this season, the points gap suggests we’ve got even more ground to make up than we did last time around.

In Europe we didn’t go out to a Bayern or a Barcelona, we went out to Monaco. We lost twice to Swansea, and for all the new-found vigour away at big clubs got beaten by Stoke, Southampton and Sp*rs on our travels.  Which isn’t to dredge up the low points of this season in order to prove a point, just to ask the question is it better?

And so we come back to perception, or simply how it feels. To me, even if we only match last season’s points total, it still feels like an improvement overall. We’re still capable of those flawed performances like Monday night against Swansea, but that’s the ‘joy’ of football in a way. The margins are so fine. If Alexis or Walcott scores we’d be talking about the team’s character in breaking down such stubborn resistance instead of bemoaning 20 seconds where we let our concentration slip.

I’d like to think that the way the team came together over the last three months is far more representative of its quality than the late defeat we just endured, or even the poor performances and results at the start of the season. Last week we were talking about blossoming on-pitch relationships, attacking verve, defensive solidity and a team that plays much more as a collective than a group of individuals.

Losing to Swansea hasn’t undone that but it provides another test: how quickly can we bounce back? It’s not been unusual in the past for a couple of indifferent results to follow the end of an unbeaten spell, but given the period of the season we’re in, there’s simply no room for manoeuvre in that regard.

Per Mertesacker speaks about how the shortened summer break means it’s so important that we avoid a Champions League qualifier, and he’s absolutely right. It’s not the last thing we want, and we’ve certainly coped with it well enough in the past, but we’d be much better off if we didn’t have to contend with that in the early part of next season.

The other thing that this season tells us, even if your outlook is rosier than it was last May, is that there’s still work to be done on the squad if we really want to be competitive next year. The manager has already spoken about his desire to add another 10-15 goal a season player to the squad and you can see why.

I don’t really buy into the no plan B criticism because we’ve scored all kinds of goals this season, from all kinds of positions, but you’d be hard pressed to make the claim that we’ve been anywhere near as efficient in front of goal as we should have been. And while I’ve expounded on the new-found balance in the side, perhaps you have to look at why, when we made changes to try and win the game on Monday night, we brought on two players and played them, essentially, out of position.

You’re never, ever going to have a squad that’s complete. No team does, it’s why every summer they make moves in the transfer market to fill gaps, to improve quality, to try and make them better, and we’re no different. There’s likely to be some natural attrition this off-season, and perhaps some moves we don’t anticipate, but the key thing is for us to take the building blocks of this current campaign, and make ourselves more competitive for the next one.

I do feel that we’ve made progress, regardless of the final points total and where we end up in the table. Ultimately, you judge a season on those very tangible things, but you can’t ignore what you see when we play. I believe we’re better placed this summer to add the squad and improve as a team than we were last time around.

Our requirements were greater then than they are now, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t work and investment needed this time around too. The challenge now is finish as strongly as possible, then make sure the things we do need are done well and efficiently. In the very short-term, however, we can’t look beyond Sunday and another trip to Manchester.

If you haven’t already, check out yesterday’s Arsecast Extra for discussion of the Swansea game, and plenty more besides. More from me tomorrow.

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