The dust has just settled on the league season so while acknowledging we still have a Cup Final to play on Saturday, let’s consider whether we have improved compared to last year.
We are better than Man U and Liverpool
Let’s start by pointing out that we finished a place higher than last year, despite the smaller points tally. The difference between one position might sound trivial but it is one less opponent to be better than next year in the race for the title. By that I mean Man U, who finished fourth, will need to improve even more than we do if they want to be champions and of course Liverpool, who fell four spots to sixth, will have to do even more than that.
It is worth remembering, though, that we finished third in 2012, 2010 and 2008 so this isn’t some major breakthrough. And in the seasons following those, we fell back to fourth so there is no trend of us using the higher finishing position as a catalyst for greater things.
Slow starts to blame, in more ways than one
We fell short of Chelsea in two key areas. First, as Wenger himself has highlighted, the awful start to the season, where we took 11 points from a possible 24 in the opening eight games, including draws away at Leicester and home to Hull, and then 17 from 36 after 12 games.
We slipped behind Chelsea after the second round of games and never got close to them again, even extending their lead to 17 points in November.
Secondly, we didn’t win enough games at home. It is something that is rarely highlighted as a big factor in deciding the outcome of titles but since 2003/04 (and probably longer, I just haven’t done the maths further back), the champions have won a mean and median average of 51 points at home (Chelsea won 49).
This season Arsenal won 41 points at home and that difference needs rectifying if they we want to mount a serious championship challenge. If you exclude the Invincibles season from both calculations, our average home points tally has been 42 compared to the champions’ 51, and has peaked at 47 (twice). Fifty-one points equates to 17 wins from 19 games – can you imagine this Arsenal team achieving that?
There needs to be a change in how games at the Emirates are approached. Too rarely do Arsenal start at a tempo that makes it clear to the opponent and supporters that they intend to dominate the game, that they are up for not only winning but tearing the visitors apart. As a result, matches often become a bit of a chore for everyone involved.
Of course it is easy to suggest the manager and players can flick a switch to turn the style on from kick-off. But equally, we can all remember how matches at Highbury would be over within the first 20 minutes and it isn’t crazy given the personnel available to think that Arsenal can do something similar today.
By the way, our away points tally is a lot more healthy compared to the champions – on average the title winners claim 37 points on their travels and this season we amassed 34.
We need to do more than ‘exist’ in the big games
Not getting thrashed in most of the matches against the other big four made for a pleasant change this season. Wenger has described it as us managing to ‘exist’ in those fixtures. Presumably the next step is to compete in them, and following that, win them. When you consider my last point about our home points, it is crucial we take that step if we want to challenge. Over the past three seasons we have won one home game against the other top four sides and taken a total of six points from the potential 27. Champions will invariably win at least two home games against the other top four.
We now have a long-term defensive core
Since last season we have seen the arrival or emergence of Bellerin, Monreal, Chambers, Debuchy, Gabriel and Coquelin. All of them have strengthened our squad and should provide a stable foundation for a good few years to come.
Compare our current selection of defensive players (including Koscielny, Mertesacker, and probably Arteta) to the crop in 2009: Gallas, Toure, Silvestre, Djourou, Eboue, Sagna, Clichy, Gibbs, Song. You can make an argument that the first choice defences are on a equal footing but surely nobody can question that the back-ups are far, far stronger. Anyone who thinks Song is a better choice as a defensive shield compared to Coquelin has a very selective memory.
Why pick 2009? For me, it was typical of the early Emirates years which, with the exclusion of a short time in 2008 when we looked like a force to be reckoned with, we have had to field economy class players to pay for a first class stadium.
Which leads me nicely on to my next point…
Supporters were misled for years
Compare quotes from Arsene from a couple of weeks ago with one from countless interviews since leaving Highbury and you will see a revisionist version of the truth.
Today he says that for years ‘we had no chance to compete for the championship because we had restricted finances’. In 2009 there was a very different slant on things: ‘I know people have no patience any more but I agreed on a structure at the club that I believed could work, and we are at the period now when we will see whether I was right. To talk of winning the league is an audacious statement but I built this team and I want to deliver.’
We were fed the line that we could remain genuinely competitive despite having less cash to use as a result of the move to the Emirates. It might have been naïve to believe it, but everyone from Arsenal was adamant that was the case, at least in public. In reality there was no way we could have competed at that time so it was a lie, or at least a half-truth, from the Club as the position Wenger takes on that era now makes clear.
It was done for understandable reasons – to suggest we were realistically only competing to get in the Champions League rather than the title would send all the wrong signals to supporters and players. But it was misleading and I would have preferred to hear Arsene acknowledge a little more candidly that we had our backs against the wall rather than claiming we were aiming for top spot. I suspect the thousands of season ticket holders will believe that even more passionately.
Walcott v Sterling
As an example of our changed financial fortunes, you only have to consider the current speculation about Raheem Sterling joining us, potentially with Theo Walcott going in the other direction. I’ve always thought Theo was wasted on the right wing and his hat-trick on Saturday shows what a dangerous player he is when he works on instinct alone. He could thrive in place of Giroud but perhaps Sterling would thrive even more, as well as give you greater threat as an attacking midfielder.
Sanchez should be our number nine
While Walcott could be a contender for the centre forward position, I think the answer should lie in Alexis Sanchez. He’s had a wonderful first season and having a superstar so clearly give his all every minute of every game is a real pleasure to see. Sometimes he tries too hard and his efforts to dribble his way out of a problem only makes matters worse but he has shown all the tenacity, agility and skill to thrive as a striker in England. I look at Sergio Aguero at Man City, the top scorer this season and comfortably the best forward in the Premier League, and think Sanchez can do the same for us but it doesn’t look like he’ll be given that chance.
Highs in one cup, lows in another
Beating Man U at Old Trafford in the Cup quarter final was one of the highlights of the season (so far at least, with the final itself still around the corner). It was a controlled performance and showed we can beat the big four on their own turf. Some might say the league win at Man City had already shown that but City were in the middle of such a poor run of form that hindsight takes the gloss off what was otherwise an outstanding performance.
The low-point of the season in terms of things only getting better after it was the away defeat to Swansea but in isolation the loss to Monaco (another poor home performance, see a recurring theme?) in the Champions League was much more disheartening. The players looked to have taken Monaco too lightly which is unforgiveable, while the inability to close the game down after reducing the deficit to one goal was embarrassing.
So are we worse or better this season?
It is displays like that against Monaco which make it harder than it should be to judge where Arsenal stands today.
The squad is stronger than 12 months ago, it looks more of a resolute unit and in Sanchez and Özil possesses two of European football’s biggest talents.
And yet we claimed fewer points in the league, never looked like overhauling Chelsea or beating them when we met and went out of Europe at the same stage as last season following the type of meltdown that had appeared to be confined to the history books.
But the deep down gut feeling is we are closing the gap to the champions, even if the evidence is debateable either way.
There will be plenty of supporters who think we would close it a lot quicker if Wenger was not the manager but it is a non-argument as he is going nowhere for at least the next two years.
In the meantime, let’s hope that Wenger’s admission that we were never going to be contenders in the years directly after the move from Highbury is a sign that we are ready to reach the summit again.