Sunday 20 May 2012

Arsenal 2011/12: Exceeding lowered expectations

It’s a week now since the season ended and overall my feeling is one of relative satisfaction, if only because at the outset, and many times since, it felt like this campaign would end far worse than it did.

Like many people, I was critical of the way Arsenal handled the transfer window last summer but if we leave the whys and wherefores aside for a moment and consider the bald facts third place was a real achievement. We sold our captain and most talented player in Fabregas and Nasri, the man who was arguably our best player in 10/11. Any club would be hard pressed to improve – or at least not get worse – in those circumstances.

But, in the league at least, that’s what we did, accruing more points and finishing a position higher. Yes, the gap to top spot widened but that has more to do with the merits of the champions than us. The only competitions where we made less progress were the FA and League cups; we reached the same round of the Champions League as last season.

The major gap in that summary is the whys and wherefores I mentioned earlier. Nobody really knows why the last close season was so badly handled and how much of it was Arsenal’s fault or whether it was, basically, shafted by it owns players or transfer targets.

But it followed a familiar pattern of us being unable to complete deals, presumably because of concerns over money, and having its destiny controlled by players and agents. Questions have to be asked about how a club of Arsenal’s wealth and magnitude can get in to these positions and end up lowering rather than raising our expectations year-on-year. Every club has fights with players over contracts but other clubs seem able to get on with their lives regardless. Arsenal are so obsessed with the bottom line that it holds itself back from potentially improving.

The major concern is history already appears to be repeating itself with Robin Van Persie not signing a contract extension and apparently waiting to see whether better offers come in. Lukas Podolski has been signed up early but keeping our captain will have a major impact on both our plans for next season and our ability to attract new signings. Without clarity on his position we could be in for another summer clouded by uncertainty.

Wenger has to take his share of the blame but those faults lay more with the likes of Ivan Gazidis and Richard Law, who by all accounts lead most transfer negotiations, than the boss. Wenger’s position is far more secure in my eyes than it was this time last year and at moments throughout this campaign. My equivalent season review for 2010/11 basically said Wenger hadn’t addressed the team’s on-the-field weaknesses and that things wouldn’t change until he was replaced. That conclusion still applies but this year, at least, we have looked broadly a better team. RVP having his best season ever obviously helped but (ignoring the 8-2) overall the team has looked more solid and reliable than it did. That’s not to say it is solid and reliable yet but progress is progress and it would be churlish to call for a manager that had made a team better and achieved the number one priority of getting into the Champions League to be sacked.

There is no reason why, if the summer transfer window is handled properly, we shouldn’t make further progress next year. If Arsenal get themselves into another transfer mess, though, and remain just as far away from major silverware, the shadow of Pep Guardiola will start to loom larger. Every club knows he is out there waiting for the right phone call. If he avoids being wooed by certain lesser lights, Arsenal seems a natural home for him. That prospect is off the agenda now after a season which turned out far better than it promised. But if the team fails to reach the same heights, why rule it out?

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