Friday, March 1, 2024

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George Orwell once said that the biggest struggle in life is seeing what is perched on the end of one’s nose. He wasn’t wrong, but sometimes it’s just as difficult to exert focus away from that which is staring you in the face. The question as to whether Arsenal have demonstrated progress in 2014-15 compared to 2013-14 is one that has raged across the Internets for a few weeks now. Understandably so, because it’s such a fascinating question with no definitive answer. In the warm glow of a strong finish to the season and a serenely sourced trophy, it is easy to hitch a ride on the crest of the FA Cup wave and say that Arsenal have definitely progressed.

This season has arguably been an inversion of the last, a kind of 2013-14 glimpsed through a fairground hall of mirrors. In 2013-14 we started like a freight train before our league campaign fell apart. The Gunners huffed and puffed their way to a trophy at the end of it all, a redemptive balm after burning up in the heat of the title race. This season, the Gunners started terribly slowly and were out of league contention before the clocks went back. They finished strongly and won a consecutive FA Cup in matter of fact fashion.

The euphoria of Arsenal’s electric start to 2013-14 has dimmed in the memory banks and been replaced by a much more current “isn’t everything swell”-ness. In the autumn of 2013, the Gunners harnessed a good run that actually started at the back end of the 2012-13 season and threw in the Özil factor. At the outset of this campaign, spirits were unusually high, with the FA Cup as a springboard and some swiftly concluded and exciting transfer business, optimism permeated a fanbase that had previously worn fatalism like a hair shirt.

In the summer of 2013, Arsenal were able to capitalise on their stability, with Manchesters City and United, and Chelsea, all embedding new coaches. But this year, it was the Gunners who were briefly marooned in transition. The famed World Cup hangover, injuries to key players, the loss of Koscielny and Sagna to the backline and a new shape taking time to brew were all factors in this period of stasis. The Gunners eventually finished a place higher in the league, but with an inferior points total compared to 2013-14, which emphasises the schism between the Roundheads and the Cavaliers of this particular debate.

In measuring Arsenal’s progress (or lack thereof) what is quite extraordinary, is that, on a micro level, the team have developed in almost every measure. Yet in doing so, they probably failed in their primary, overarching aims. Second guessing Arsene Wenger is something of a fool’s errand, but there are some main areas I think he identified last summer to facilitate progression. For a start, he hired Shad Forsythe in an attempt to curb Arsenal’s injury woes. As the season advanced, the squad’s bill of health became increasingly cleaner, leaving experienced, trusted performers kicking their heels on the bench. (Sometimes, they didn’t even make the bench). Having a deeper squad doubtless helped. Wenger wasn’t forced into rushing players back as he has so often in the past in lieu of quality alternatives.

I think Arsene wanted his team to share goals around more freely and vary their threat. In 2013-14, they became too reliant on Aaron Ramsey’s purple patch. The trio of Ramsey, Giroud and Özil pretty much constituted the entirety of their threat. This season, Wenger gave up on Lukas Podolski and added the bombastic Alexis Sanchez and Danny Welbeck to the mixture. Last season, six Arsenal players scored more than 5 goals in total. This season, seven players managed that feat. (Walcott was effectively missing for half of each season, but made it into this bracket on both occasions).

As well as adding Alexis to the mix, Wenger tried to sneak another creative midfielder into his formation. Initially, he tried to chisel Wilshere and Ramsey into the centre of midfield together, which proved to be an uneasy relationship. Wilshere’s injury actually saw Santi Cazorla move into a deep lying playmaker role, which enabled Santi to carve out his niche in this Arsenal side. The Gunners were the 7th most creative side in the Premier League in 2013-14 in terms of chances created, they moved up to second in that metric this season.

Wenger’s team were actually quite functional during their good run of form at the beginning of 2013-14. They had racked up eleven 2-0 wins by February, which reveals a fairly predictable pattern. This season, Arsenal have created more chances and taken more shots. They scored 99 goals in 2013-14, compared to 106 this season, having played a game less. (Though the extra fixture in 2013-14 proved to be a 2-0 defeat to Chelsea in the League Cup). Wenger always wants his teams to be exciting, but above all, dangerous and I think Arsenal achieved both of those aims in this campaign; admittedly this was due almost entirely to the Alexis factor.

I think Arsene will have wanted his team to be more defensively solid and he certainly would have wanted a better showing against direct rivals in the league. The two points are intertwined given some of the shoeings administered to us last year. Arsenal were defensively much more sound against their rivals (which is a low bar, in fairness), but they discovered a more formidable foundation, aided by the tenacity of Coquelin and the discovery that Santi Cazorla’s twinkle toes are actually a potent defensive weapon. Together they formed a pleasing, if unlikely, partnership that provided the platform for a pair of away victories in Manchester.

Whilst not as valuable a commodity as points, goal difference is a good barometer for how well a team is balanced. The Gunners improved their GD by 8 in 2014-15, which demonstrates the value of not losing 5-1 and 6-0 to the teams around you! The team conceded 35 goals in the league this season, compared to 41 last. The FA Cup win in 2014 represented the purging of a troop of baboons from our backs, which was lovely. But it was also meant to be a building block, a platform from which to deliver future success. Retaining the trophy suggests that that objective was at least partially achieved.

The experience of last season’s final served Arsenal well as they dismantled Villa at Wembley. With two deserved wins in Manchester also at their backs, the team played the game much like a league encounter, whilst Villa were blinded by the soda light of the watching world. There is less of a sense of imminent implosion in this team. Our options are undeniably better and more varied too. Lukas Podolski and Yaya Sanogo played an hour a piece of the 2014 Cup Final. Even if they had not been out on loan, neither would have made the bench this year.

Yet despite these acorns of progress, Arsenal failed in their two biggest objectives. They did not challenge for the Premier League in any serious way. Handicapped by a slow start, they allowed Chelsea to race clear of them well before Christmas. They also suffered another disappointing Champions League campaign. The European failure has been distilled to a catastrophic collapse at home to Monaco, but much of the Champions League campaign was challenging to watch as an Arsenal fan.

The team struggled past a very average Besiktas side in the qualifier, they performed poorly in both matches against group whipping boys Anderlecht and were thoroughly schooled in Dortmund. The upshot was that Arsenal finished behind a declining Dortmund side in the groups and were subsequently knocked out by functional Monaco. More than half of Arsenal’s European performances were a profound disappointment. This is probably explained by the fact that most of the fixtures occurred during our dicey early season period.

Compare and contrast to our victorious FA Cup campaign, which occurred in the second half of the season, when we saw something closer to the real Arsenal. Ultimately, the season has come full circle. A strong finish and another FA Cup win has restored us to the optimistic pedestal upon which we perched last summer. In real terms, our overall achievements in 2014-15 are very similar to last season. However, the feeling that we have made progress is informed by the fact that it feels as though Arsenal are in an even better position to push on than they were this time last year.

With no World Cup this summer, there are certainly fewer excuses for false starts next season and fewer obstacles in our way.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto

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