Monday, 16 May 2016

This Too Shall Pass

Arsenal's season ended on notes both hilarious and sentimental. It was a Ronnie Corbett sort of ending. As Spurs managed to do what only Spurs can do, losing 5-1 against a 10-man Newcastle that had already been relegated, thereby allowing us to leapfrog them into second place, the Gunners bid a teary farewell to Tomas Rosicky, Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini. In truth, few of the tears were shed for the Flamster, which is probably how he'd want it, though I suspect Mesut Ozil may have baked him a cake. In a career that spanned Marseille, Arsenal, Milan and Arsenal again, the man who points furiously at clouds never commanded a transfer fee and is now off to save humanity through the appliance of science. Money has not yet wholly removed eccentricity from the game.

Rosicky and Arteta are lamented as what-ifs. The former's career was repeatedly interrupted by injuries while the latter suffered by taking the low road via Rangers and Everton. A harsher judgement would be that they were A- players (Arteta was kept out of the Barcelona and Spain teams by Xavi and Iniesta) whose quality was appreciated in a period when the club was reduced to a B+ transfer policy by the new stadium debt. There is a sense of an era drawing to a close, but not the Wenger era itself. The current squad is incomplete, notably in attack, but a plan does appear to be taking shape, albeit slowly, since the capture of Mesut Ozil in 2013. For all the criticism about the manager's stubbornness, I see no reason to doubt his claim that the problem has been the limited availability of suitable top players rather than an unwillingness to open the now swollen war-chest.

Wenger's commitment to buy 3 players this summer isn't a tough target, but in publicly stating this he is clearly not engaged in a windup that will see him shell out small change on a trio of French teenagers. While there are concerns that Petr Cech might actually be in decline (too many near-post shots have crept in), I doubt we'll see a new goalkeeper unless both David Ospina and Wojciech Szczesny decide to move on. An additional centre-back is likely, not least because Mertesacker and Koscielny are increasingly injury-prone and Gabriel remains gaffe-prone. An extra midfielder is a near-certainty, given the number of departures in that department, though the promise of Alex Iwobi (and possibly Jon Toral) suggests a single, marquee signing rather than two or three lesser players to make up the numbers.

Where we clearly need new bodies (and a fresh approach) is up-front, particularly now that Danny Welbeck is likely to miss most of next season through injury. The chief criticism of Arsenal's play this season is that it has been too laboured, which can be attributed in part (but not wholly) to Olivier Giroud's lack of pace. Wenger has usually preferred a more mobile striker, in the mould of Henry or van Persie (hence the attempt to buy Luis Suarez), who can drag defenders away to create channels for the midfield, but he hasn't been able to find one on the market and appears to have given up on the idea of converting Theo Walcott. Giroud is excellent at creating half-chances for others but doesn't create enough space to ensure they are nailed-on. Walcott is excellent at hitting space but doesn't work enough off the ball to aid the midfield. The result is our now infamously low conversion rate for chances in the penalty area.

I said Giroud was not wholly to blame because the other way of creating space is through dribbles into the penalty area. Arsenal's problem is that while Alexis Sanchez is a great dribbler, he tends to pick up the ball too deep and is then forced into the middle of the pitch. Cazorla is our most dangerous dribbler since Alexander Hleb, but his move to a deeper position since 2014 has limited his chances of getting into the opposition area, which explains the low number of penalties awarded to us - only 2 compared to Leicester's 13. Giroud ended up 9 goals behind Harry Kane in the scoring chart, but if you exclude penalties the gap is a less impressive 5 (and only 3 to Vardy). We still need an upgrade, but I doubt Giroud will leave and he may find it easier if the burden of expectation shifts elsewhere. An extra 9 goals might have translated into an extra 9 points, but that would still have left us short of Leicester City.

Perhaps more important to the season's outcome was our goals against. We only conceded 11 at home, which was 7 fewer than the Foxes and only bettered by a very negative Man United (8 pending their final game). Our problem was conceding 25 away, which was the worst among the top 5 teams (Leicester conceded 18). This went hand-in-hand with a league-best tally of 34 goals scored on the road, which was the same as Spurs and 1 better than Leicester, so we were certainly entertaining. We failed to win the league because we shipped a total of 17 goals in the 6 away games at Southampton, Liverpool, Manure, Spurs, West Ham and Man City. Better results in those matches would have produced an extra 10 to 14 points and propelled us to the top. Our points breakdown by thirds (26, 22, 23) confirms that we were on target for 80 until we hit our traditional sticky patch in November. The problem was a further sticky patch in January. And then one in March. And then one in April.

That these setbacks all came after Christmas suggests our form took a knock with the midfield injuries in December, notably to Cazorla and Coquelin (and with Wilshere already out) but the bottom line is that we weren't clinical enough against other top-half sides, suggesting that the issue remains psychological as much as anything. Our aggregate score against Leicester City of 8-3 was fun, but a title winning team would have got the same points with an aggregate score of 2-0. That thought is surely reinforced by the two horror-shows against Chelsea, when we allowed ourselves to be suckered into red cards. Too many other teams assume, with some justification, that the Arsenal squad are vulnerable to pressure, whether by fair means or foul. One reason for bringing in some big names is to affect the mentality of the opposition as much as the Arsenal squad itself.

My predictions for the season were that we'd finish second (I assumed behind Man City) on 80 or so points, so I was half right. Our points total dropped from 75 to 71, but that downturn was typical of most of the "big" teams this season bar Spurs. They added 6 to finish on 70 points, though it's worth noting amid all the hype that this is 2 fewer than they got in 2012/13 when they finished 5th under AndrĂ© Villas-Boas. The league is more competitive than a few years ago and that's down to the increased money from TV rights improving mid-table squads, such as Stoke and West Ham. Spurs' problem is that the relative financial constraints of their new stadium project mean they'll do well to improve the squad over the next few years. Their young players provide a solid foundation, but I'm not convinced they're going to get much better as a unit (they may have peaked too soon), while individuals that do shine may well be attracted elsewhere.

One other prediction I got right was that Sam Allardyce would prove himself to be "the English league's current top specialist in failure", saving Sunderland from the drop. This gives me the excuse to mention that Jose Mourinho has been quiet of late. Long may it continue. This has been a season of much frustration, essentially because I, like many Arsenal fans, thought we might just nick the title when Chelski imploded and Citeh went AWOL, and was even deluded enough to believe that the great escape from the Champions' League group stage heralded a change of luck, till we drew Barcelona. Many have noted that this was our best finish since 2005, but I prefer to remember 2001 when we finished second on 70 points. The following season we won the double. At least we have something to keep chuckling about until the start of next season. Thankyou Tottenham.


  1. "The league is more competitive than a few years ago and that's down to the increased money from TV rights improving mid-table squads, such as Stoke and West Ham."

    It has certainly been more competitive, but I think that has been due to a drop in quality at the top rather than a strengthening of mid-table clubs. West Ham have improved, but your other example, Stoke, looked awful at times and don't really seem to have a better squad all-round (they seem to have gone for a couple of stars, ie. Shaqiri and Bojan). Southampton have struggled at times but still sneaked in to 6th place. I think more has been due to form and managerial acumen, as apart from Villa the clubs from about 7th place down look very similar in quality. Sunderland proved that, with Allardyce's organisation and astute acquisition of just a few players making us very difficult to beat at the end of the season, and Newcastle fans must be decidedly pissed off that Ashley didn't get Benitez in a bit earlier as their form improved as well.

    The surprise is that the teams at the top have really thrown away their financial advantages with poor buys and imbalanced squads. How any experienced manager, for example, could think that the likes of De Michaelis, Otamendi and Mangala belong in a team with pretensions to win the Premier League and Champions League is beyond me, and I think Guardiola and Conte are going to have their work cut out next season because both teams need some severe pruning. Tottenham bottled it completely at the end of the season, and I don't think that can just be put down to lack of experience as very few of Leicester's players were used to that kind of pressure yet kept their heads superbly.

    I'd given up hoping for this in the Premier League, but next season could be just as exciting!

    1. My point about Stoke is that they are now able to sign international-level players from elite clubs like Barcelona (Afellay as well as Bojan) and Inter (Shaqiri), even if they weren't first choice. In their first season in the EPL, in 2008/9, they brought in Dave Kitson from Reading and James Beattie from Sheffield United.

      I think the claim that there has been a general drop in quality is a little over-done, and is largely a reflection of Champions League angst. While there has been a noticeable decline in CL placings since 2009, it's worth remembering that was a peak that followed a rapid improvement over the preceding decade on the back of EPL money, particularly the TV rights deals of 1997 and 2001.

      The next big step up in cash was 2013, but that deal significantly increased the number of games and spread the largesse more evenly beyond the "top" teams. The next deal is 70% bigger, which suggests both greater competition in the EPL but also enough firepower for English clubs to improve in the CL as well. I doubt Leicester will emulate Forest, but I do think clubs like Arsenal and Man City can be more hopeful. That surely is what attracted Guardiola.

      Re Spurs vs Leicester. You're forgetting that the latter were bottom of the division and 7 points adrift in April last year. They then won 7 of their last 9 games, which suggests to me that they'd worked out how to handle pressure. In contrast, Spurs showed naivety in playing "hot" against Chelsea after the cock-up against West Brom. Basically, they cracked, whereas the Foxes had learnt the knack of playing tight and eking out results.

      I'm already looking forward to next season, though in no small part because of the fun we'll have when we host Spurs.

    2. I think Leicester's end of season run last year actually might have had something to do with an absence of pressure. As a newly-promoted club expectation was lower, for one thing. They were considered to be practically relegated, so their run was almost a romantic 'death or glory' mission, with the fans and media lapping up their impressive form rather than reacting with anger and ridicule like Newcastle and Villa.

      I reckon that the increased money might be part of the problem with the big clubs. They often spread it quite widely by broadening their squads in preparation for Champions League football, and this leaves them the difficulty of keeping established internationals happy but also giving in to the temptation of using the old 'tinkerman' strategy and resorting to constant changes in first XI. I think the former tinkerman's rejection of rotation was a major factor in Leicester's success, and I expect they will treat next year's CL campaign more as an experience and a bit of fun rather than acquiring a bigger squad. I can see them doing well again in the PL next season, unless the sharks manage to prise a few players away.

  2. Stoke benefit, presumably, from Hughes European connections and Premiership wages - which allows them to buy several decent players. The fact is that they ought to do better, but Hughes has always been a second-tier manager.

    Leicester and Spurs have shown that pace up front and wide, and a decent press, are still feasible alternatives to the tiki-taka-lite teams, of which Manure are the new epitome. Indeed the latter's better second half of the season was only achieved with the accidental discovery of Rashford, and a second chance for Lingard.

    Arsenal still need some solidity in midfield in front of the defence - the Busquets, and now Dier, role - that is mandatory if you're going to allow your full backs free passage wide. And, as you say, some reliable pace up front. Walcott, as we all know, is a long lost cause.

  3. Herbie Kills Children18 May 2016 at 18:19

    I think there is something in the argument that with the premier league being a world league this allows average clubs to punch abive their weight. Factor in that the weather is shit and great players do not want to play in a league where it is often cold and where referees are abysmal then, in theory, it does potentially narrow the gap.

    The problem is that before this season there was not much evidence to support this claim, so in 20 years time this season may be just a magnificent blip in the graph.

    None of this hides from Wenger's failure and his continued attempt to turn his repeated failures into some clever long term plan. In fact Leicester's victory destroys all the excuses that Wenger has previously come up with.

    Now we are told this Wenger master-plan is close to fruition.

    Let's face it the so called genius has been consistent in delivering below expectations. No amount of b=nice football can hide that fact. And no amount of success in the future can deny it.

    Though I will go out on a limb and predict Arsenal will just make the top four next season.

  4. Well the only bright point of that dire Cup Final was that Van Gaal might stay at Manure another year, which will hopefully consign them to another dismal year. Two pub sides.

    1. Well, the results might improve slightly, but Man Utd are not going to get any more exciting next season under Mourinho. We'll see if he's got the courage to get shot of Rooney and Carrick. Apart from one run by Rooney that led to Mata's goal, that pair seemed to be determined to slow the game down. I'm not sure what Carrick does that I couldn't do.