Every year for the past 3 seasons, I have always hoped for Arsenal to be competitive in the League, to win a trophy and mount a decent challenge in the Champions League and play in the latter stages. Unfortunately this has not happened every year although we have had sweet back to back FA Cup victories.
I don’t think Arsenal have had the best squad in the last three seasons or in any season after the Invincibles. But I think the ingredients are at Arsenal and Arsene’s disposal but we have not been able to do the competitive thing. I have argued many times that the competitive thing is what wins you titles, not the mindless ‘Arsenal should be winning the league because Wenger is the only manager who has managed for 20 years’ or ‘Arsenal have £200m in the bank and didn’t buy a player’.
The draw at Sunderland today coupled with the Leicester win in the Swansea match means that Arsenal can now no longer overtake Leicester. I mourn my broken Casio calculator.
It will be difficult to finish 2nd even but let it be on record for whatever it is worth that Arsenal maintained something of a challenge up until late April. Even if it was a limp challenge, let the records reflect that fact.
Where did it go wrong? My view is that it started to go wrong on 13th January 2016 at Anfield when we drew 3 – 3 with Liverpool. Many might disagree with this narrative sighting many results like the 4 nil drubbing by Southampton on Boxing Day, the opening day of the season loss to West Ham, the Santi Cazorla slip leading to our loss at West Brom, the farcical loss to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, the draws at home to Liverpool and Spuds and the draw away at Norwich and conclude that the damage started way earlier. I however believe that irrespective of those results, we were handed a fully loaded armoury on December 28, 2015 and were top of the table even after the new year fixtures and its gone Pete Tong. We turned our weapons into bottling tools.
I was at Anfield that night and we should have won after leveling the scores twice and going ahead once. We surrendered two points because of our inability to manage games. This will repeat itself at West Ham & White Hart Lane.
In my opinion this inability to manage games has been our greatest draw back and greatest positive as a footballing club. This lack of game management nous is embedded in our footballing philosophy. Wenger is a moralist and refuses to play dirty while setting up a team that believes in “play your own and let me play my own”. Personally I think doing the dirty is sometimes called for. Against Liverpool at Anfield, West Ham at the Boleyn and Spurs at their dump, if I was the manager, once I notice the initiative is with my opponent, you wont believe how my players will start to roll on the floor for imaginary injuries. Also in games, where opponents were going to be very physical, I will actually deploy my brawnier players and ask them to take no prisoners too. Even if you went down to 10 men and lost, the result wont be different from when we play nice and lose.
After Anfield, a draw against Stoke while an improvement on last season’s result meant we conceded 4 points within 2 matches in the title race. While the game at Anfield was winnable by game management, a better striker could potentially have won Arsenal the game at the Britannia and potentially at the Emirates versus Southampton, Crystal Palace, Swansea City and today versus Sunderland at the Stadium of Light.
Losing to Chelsea at home was bizarre and in my opinion had nothing to do with having a man sent off. It was a set piece and should have been defended better whether we had 9 or 10 men on the pitch. This is also my view on Tottenham’s equaliser at the Lane. Coquelin’s departure was immaterial to allowing Toby Alderweireld’s goal.
By the time we played Bournemouth at home, the gap had started to widen and although we pegged the leaders back with that last minute Danny Wellbeck header, the manner of the loss to Barcelona in my opinion meant we went to Old Trafford feeling sorry for ourselves. It was either that or we expected to turn up and be handed the points.
So we arrive at today where the badly damaged Casio got crushed. After all said and done, the point at Sunderland was a good one. They gave us a proper chasing and looked hungrier and equally as likely to score. While watching I kept telling myself if they scored us first, I didn’t see where our equaliser was coming from.
By my own estimation, bar the Manchester United match at Old Trafford, the Southampton one at St Mary’s and probably the opening game of the season, we have not played badly / woefully. Results apart and that’s a major part of the problem, there has to be an end product to our good game.
We need to tune the game plan such that all that chances we create gets converted. I know the manager tried to pull all stops to achieve this by trying to sign a top level striker and he failed when Karim Benzema decided to stick with Real Madrid (right decision for Karim) and he refused to pay silly money for Edison Cavani (right decision by Wenger in my opinion).
Once we knew we were not getting the top level striker we wanted, I think we should have had a Plan B that didn’t rely on our main strikers performing at the same level as previous seasons, perhaps relying more on set pieces around the box by drawing deliberate fouls with our style of play knowing that we have potential dead ball specialists like Sanchez and Ozil.
One area that we don’t appear to have improved is the defence and this is despite the presence of Petr Cech. Our style of letting others play their games means Petr is way more exposed than most goal keepers. Anecdotally, I want to believe that we allow more pot shots at our goal than other teams. I have also seen us concede many times from nothing balls or cut apart by one pass from way inside the opponents half.
Despite all of the above, it is not doom and gloom for me. It is not about Wenger in or out. I am convinced we don’t have the best squad and we don’t have a squad of warriors and that necessary sprinkling of mad / devilish players who will play with one amputated limb and deadly pile sticking out of their nether region. What we have are a bunch of technical players who can beat the best team in the world on their day. Wenger out is not going to change any of that. The new man will need time to build his team except the club sticks with the same philosophy with a few tweaks.
I don’t believe Wenger does not want to spend money. I think Wenger has gone past the trolley dash in the transfer window where you need to buy to make up bodies. The emphasis is on affordable star players who can make a difference (Ozil, Sanchez, pursuit of Suarez and I believe Benzema and Cavani) or bargain players who can do a job for now (Elneny, Danny Wellbeck) or in the future (The Jeff, Bielik etc.). I don’t see anything wrong with this approach. What has missing out on Schneiderlin cost Arsenal? What is the point in buying players who are inferior to the ones in your squad?
I am totally relaxed with Wenger’s football philosophy. Yes, there are gaps that can be plugged going by what we observers think. But then it wont be Wenger’s philosophy again would it? I am comfortable for him to come to the same realization that brought us the Coquelin role in a modern day Arsene Wenger squad and hope things like game management and cynicism can be added to his style of play.
If I have one regret this season, it would be that Arsene should have blooded youngsters earlier. What difference would it have made if the group of youngsters had got tonked 4 nil by Southampton? Or lost to West Brom? We would still have been top on January 13th. Wenger in my opinion should have trusted the youths when the injuries piled up. Cut down Chuba Akpom’s loan deal at Hull and throw them in with some sort of tactical balance, maybe we would have been better off. I caught sight of Iwobi, Chuba and Jeff at the pre season competitions and I thought they were ready for the big time. But I think Wenger has played it safe this season by relying on the oldies.
Hopefully we can see out the last 3 matches of the season and get 3rd place at the minimum and prepare for next season. I want Wenger to stay and I am convinced Arsenal can be a competitive club under him. However I am aware he will go soon, as there is so much hate one man can take and there is an inevitability about the departure of anybody who has managed one club for almost 20 years.
Whoever Wenger’s successor is will not have it easy because the squad is in Wenger’s image. The new man will require time and patience to get Arsenal flying again. I hope the fans will give whoever it is the time and patience.