Sunday, 25 May 2014

Season review: We've got that winning feeling

How different this season review would have felt had Alex Bruce’s header not been cleared off the line by Kieran Gibbs last week. Had we fallen 3-0 behind at Wembley, and presumably gone on to lose the FA Cup Final, no doubt my assessment would have been a lot less positive.

Such is the fickle nature of football supporters and the fine margins between success and failure. At least after nine years of waiting, we’ve managed to get on the right side of the divide.

Winning some silverware after, in Arsenal world, a pretty long wait surely seals Arsene Wenger’s future as manager for at least a couple of years more. As he had talked about the result against Hull having no bearing on his future on the club, I wonder whether he would have moved into a director role if we had lost.

It is pointless speculating and the main point to focus on is that, in the space of 120 minutes, the current group of players have gone from losers to winners. It should have happened in 2011 with the League Cup and it’s intriguing to think what impact taking that opportunity would have had. The hope should be that the injection of confidence and belief, and removing the pressure of not winning, will turn the side into a genuine title challenger.

Does the FA Cup win mean those who argued Wenger should stay have been proved right and those who wanted him out proved wrong? If only it were so clean cut…

Over the past few years I have increasingly fallen in to the latter camp – though not as vehemently as many fans – for a variety of reasons beyond a lack of silverware; namely the way transfer windows were handled, the unwillingness to consider tactical trickery to overcome stronger (and richer) opponents, rewarding players too early with big contract deals that seemed to stifle their desire rather than encourage it, the failure of new signings to contribute and the unwillingness of the manager to admit his mistakes at the cost of the team (ie retaining Almunia in goal for so, so long).

Even Wenger’s staunchest supporters should not now pretend the kind of questions raised over the past eight seasons have been answered with the FA Cup. Equally, it would have been wrong to judge Wenger on the outcome of one match, albeit an FA Cup Final.

We have improved overall this season and it would have been odd to boot him out now having put up with a lot worse in recent years. The key was achieving that Champions League spot again – had the woeful performance at Everton prompted a real collapse and missing out on fourth then there would have been a stronger justification for changing managers.

But instead we can see this as a season of progress. Even taking the hammerings received at Man City, Liverpool and Chelsea into account, doubts about the resolve of the team and its ability to see out a win appear to have been answered once and for all.

The signing of Özil elevated us to a new level and even if he did not consistently produce performances worthy of his £42m price tag (though I expect him to next season), I don’t think we would have achieved what we have without him. Would Ramsey have raised his game as much without working alongside someone like Özil? Would the rest of the team have felt the Club had any sort of ambition anymore if we hadn’t made such a ‘statement’ signing?

In his heart of hearts, though, Wenger must have known this team was not capable of becoming champions, or more specifically its front line was not up to the job. Giroud – at least in isolation – is not a strong enough striker to win a title with.

On days when things are not clicking, you need to rely on a striker who can conjure up a goal from nowhere. While Giroud can perform other roles pretty adequately, neither he or any other strikers in the squad could deliver that. Ramsey stepped up countless times from midfield but an even stronger cutting edge is needed. Wenger’s pursuit of Suarez last summer is proof he realised it was an area of weakness and it will surely be where he focuses most this close season too.

When I look back at my reviews of the past few seasons there have been far more negatives than positives. Whether it was doubts about the mental or physical fragility of the squad, retaining our best players or being able to secure deals for better players there was plenty to weigh on our minds.

Today it feels like those fundamental problems have been addressed and while some flaws still remain – particularly around the club’s injury record which is receiving increasing scrutiny – the outlook is far more positive.

What we (or maybe it’s just me) need to do is accept and embrace Wenger’s faults as much as his strengths for the remainder of his days leading Arsenal.

His philosophy of football and human nature generally mean he’ll never set a team out to deliberately stifle opponents and grind out a hard-earned point. He’ll never straitjacket his players into performing particular tasks. He’ll trust his players to express themselves and find solutions to problems on the pitch.

Forgiving the errors that approach leads to, and enjoying the benefits it brings, is far easier when you have a trophy in the cabinet to admire.

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