Monday, 20 May 2013

Arsenal Do That Thing Again

And so we finished fourth. As predicted. And we won one-nil away from home, no less. Talk about retro. I've held off writing about Arsenal since the aftermath of our home defeat by Bayern Munich. Not because of any rabbit's-foot paranoia, but simply because it looked to me like the second half of the season was going to follow a familiar trajectory, though I confess the victory away to the new "best team in Europe" in the return leg almost had me attacking the keyboard, if only to wonder why we make a habit of doing this Jekyll and Hyde thing (see AC Milan in 2012 and Barcelona in 2011).

I admit that the away defeat to Spurs, shortly after the loss to Bayern, was a downer, but not wholly unexpected. Tottenham have put together a decent squad, while ours has been poorer than usual, which is why they ran us close. What I did expect was that we would gradually erode their points advantage. Andre Villas Boas's mistake, which he probably won't make again, was to think that a 7-point gap in early March was conclusive. As many a Spurs fan pointed out, they enjoyed the same gap after their 5-2 defeat at the Emirates at roughly the same point last season. Arsenal fans could feel confident because we usually out-point Tottenham over the closing straight. In the event, Spurs didn't implode in classic style. Over the last 12 games, they've been 3rd best in the form league. Unfortunately for them, Arsenal have been the top form team.

This last point highlights a frustration for many Gooners, namely that we could have made a decent tilt at the title had we been as effective earlier in the season. Of course, this ignores the salient fact that we had a lot of new players to integrate into the team, not to mention the need to re-engineer an attack previously reliant on Robin. As I suspected back in January, the increasing familiarity of the team produced a solid groove of decent results - i.e. getting points even when the performance was below par. It was also noticeable that we improved away from home, scoring more but crucially conceding very few - only 1 over the last 5 away games since White Hart Lane. Our home form was decent but not spectacular. Since defeat by Man City in mid-January, the only blemishes in the league were draws against Liverpool, Everton and Man Utd. Had we been in pole position, this would probably have been tolerable.

Attention now shifts to the summer. Given the amount of managerial change among the top four, I suspect we'll see a spike in "making a statement" signings (that rules out Loic Remy, unless the statement in question is being made to the police). In today's Football Focus fag-end, the main topic of debate was whether Gareth Bale will now sign for Manure (along with Baines, Fellaini and Jagielka, no doubt). I really wanted Martin Keown (who loyally insisted that Arsenal now have real money to spend, not just the legendary "war-chest") to innocently suggest that Wenger might make a bid, but his current schtick is the conventional "obdurate defenders make thoughtful pundits" one, so sarky humour must be suppressed until you've served your time and ascended to the 70s light entertainment nether-world of Hansen and Lawrenson. Keown is actually an intelligent observer (though alongside Garth Crooks and Robbie Savage the cast of Made in Chelsea would appear incisive), but much too diplomatic. His future at the BBC is assured (I suspect Lee Dixon parted ways because he could not always suppress his engagingly derisive laugh).

We obviously need another striker. Podolski has proven a useful specialist. If he can get over the injury he's been carrying, he could even hit 20 goals a season, but I doubt he'll ever be the main man. Giroud has been a lot better than his critics have generally allowed, but for all his good link-up play he remains too slow to be the pivot-cum-poacher that the modern game demands. This is why players like David Villa keep popping into the frame. Of course, this implies a possible reconfiguration of Arsenal's game-plan, assuming Wenger keeps Giroud in the starting eleven. Perhaps the most interesting development will be Wenger's decision on Rosicky, who is the closest we have to a central number 10 (Wiltshere and Cazorla tend to drift out towards the sides of the penalty area) and often the catalyst for upping our tempo. I suspect Le Prof will try to resolve this by acquiring a a mobile striker who can play wide, central or deep. Luis Suarez would appear to be tailor-made, despite the houndstooth.

The midfield has improved with every game. Arteta got the recognition he deserved early on, and has been consistently reliable since, while Ramsey has gone from the new Jon Sammels to the new Ray Parlour. Oxlade-Chamberlain looks ready to step up, while no one can deny that Walcott has matured, even if he remains a player of fits and starts. Cazorla has been the player of the season for me, if only because he has never been less than good in what is usually a variable first campaign (cf Giroud). I suspect he'll miss out on the usual "EPL team of the season" polls due to the eye-catching performances of Mata and Michu (and idiots voting for Giggs), but he's been a joy to watch and that promises much for next season.

The defence has been the key to recent results, hence the unwillingness of Wenger to let Vermaelen loose when Koscielny and Mertersacker have been so effective as a partnership. The Belgian has been unfortunate, perhaps suffering from being promoted captain, and I wouldn't be surprised if a move to Barca (who need recruits) isn't on his mind. With Squillaci and Djourou likely to move on, a new centre-back or two is presumably on the shopping list. The same may be true for goalkeepers. Fabianski must have figured by now that he's inherited Dan Lewis's 1927 jersey. As soon as he puts in a few decent performances, calamity (injury or a freak goal) strikes. While Szcsesny probably still has the manager's faith, an experienced backup looks like a prudent investment.

All in all, a bit of a "transition" season. We've got RvP out of our system, and even the (admittedly unlikely) Fabregas rebound is prompting more concern about Wilshere than anticipation about the return of the prodigal. The danger is that if Vermaelen, Rosicky and Sagna all move on, we could be faced with a further extension of that transition as we integrate more new players with insufficient seniors, even though the squad unquestionably needs to be augmented. Our success, as ever, may therefore be down to who doesn't leave as much as who comes in. In 1970-71, we used only 16 players over 64 games (42 in the league). That was unusually parsimonious even then. In the modern era of rotation and injury caution, a winning squad tends to have plenty of competition. Our squad is probably 3 or 4 quality players short of the ideal. More out of hope than expectation, I'm looking forward to a busy summer.

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