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?

Saturday 12 May 2012

Please, no lasagne on Arsenal's menu

When I think back to how I felt at certain low points in this season, particularly in the first few months of the campaign, I realise how unexpected Arsenal’s current position is.

After the record hammering at Man U, the stupid 3-4 loss at Blackburn and the defeat at Tottenham, there seemed little hope of earning fourth place let alone third. Even as late as February when we stood in seventh place, five points off fourth, there was only a faint hope of keeping our place in the Champions League.

At those points, any Arsenal supporter would have settled for being in control of our destiny on the final day of the season, one win away from securing third place.

But in-keeping with the ‘one week is a long time in football’ cliché, now we have managed to get ourselves in exactly that position, it will feel like a huge failure if we mess up this second (or third? fourth? fifth?) chance we’ve been given.

I would hope the boys have learned their lesson from last week and will not buckle under the expectation of finishing with a flourish. Having spent the last few days saying their farewells to Pat Rice, it would certainly be fitting for them to play up to the standard he has set for the past half century.

Unfortunately no-one knows what we will get from this team tomorrow, or any match day. Will it spring out of the traps and roll the opponent over? Will it be fully focused and defensively sound for the full 90-plus minutes? Will the passing game click? Will it just rely on RVP to win for us? Or will it withdraw into its shell when the opponent shows it is up for a fight? Will it let in a sloppy set piece? Will it go two goals up, think the game is won and let it slip? Will a man get foolishly sent off and leave us fighting against the odds?

Every game is different for every team, of course, but until we get to a stage where we are at least 90 per cent sure how Arsenal will perform, we’ll not challenge for a title again.

The other worry is this is Roy Hodgson’s final game as WBA manager. He is hardly a legend at the club, admittedly, but he has done a fine job in keeping them in mid-table over the past couple of years and players and fans will no doubt want to send him off on a high. You sense we will need to quell the home support early on if it isn’t going to become an uncomfortable afternoon.

I confess I have a horrible sense of quasi-déjà vu, hailing back to the finale of the 2005/06 season when we were the chasers and Spurs were being chased. Let’s hope this time the team in front avoids the lasagne at the buffet and finishes the job.

Thursday 10 May 2012

A good appointment but don't expect any Bould decisions

Let’s start by paying tribute to the soon-to-depart Pat Rice. Obviously I’ve never been an Arsenal player so can’t vouch for how much he contributed to our success over the years but 44 years of service to the club as player and coach deserves wholesome praise, respect and thanks. In an age of global exposure and mega-million value, Arsenal relies on people like Rice to ensure it remains the same club at heart.

Continuing that theme, it’s encouraging that Steve Bould – someone else steeped in the Arsenal way – appears to have been chosen as Rice’s successor.

As well being familiar with the traditions of the club, the other two major positives are that he is a defender by nature and doesn’t look like a yes-man.

My fear was that Wenger would want one of ‘his men’, somebody like Grimandi or Henry, who you would struggle to imagine challenging his views. Bould has been taught to coach the Wenger way and won’t rock the boat, but equally he’s never appeared backwards at coming forwards.

And his defensive instincts could be a welcome check on the boss’ natural desire to attack and play without caution.

Having said that, Rice was a defender and it is questionable how much impact he had on curbing Wenger’s desire for his teams to play open, expansive football.

That is because, regardless of how good their coaches are, all great managers run things the way they want to run things.

As frustrating as it might sound, in practice it makes perfect sense – every player knows who is in charge, who to listen to and who they need to impress most. If managers give coaches too much power they risk diluting their own authority which quickly leads to chaos.

So as much as we might hope Bould will be the saviour, don’t expect him to cure our defensive frailties – he’ll be working to strict orders.

Sunday 6 May 2012

Letting it slip

Arsenal 3 Norwich City 3

In a way there’s no point reviewing this match until after Spurs and Newcastle play today. If they don’t win today, the point gained yesterday by Arsenal could look completely different.

But we shouldn’t be relying on the mishaps of others to gain a place in the Champions League by default and in isolation this performance was dreadful. Given the chance to win three points against a promoted team which has over-achieved and had nothing to play for, Arsenal gave them the freedom of the pitch for an hour and paid the price. The team showed guts to reverse the scoreline and take the lead, but even though there was less than 10 minutes remaining it didn’t have the defensive wherewithal to see the game out.

Let me single out Aaron Ramsey in assessing the game, not because I want to pick on him (he was one of several who struggled yesterday including Szczesny, Song and Rosicky in particular) but because he typified the team’s flaws.

Firstly, Ramsey’s reaction to the threat posed by Norwich reflected a desire to always put attack over defence regardless of the circumstances. Look back at Norwich’s second goal, the breakaway, and watch him put in a cursory jog towards his own goal. Then see Simeon Jackson through on goal early in the second half and watch Ramsey simply gave up the chase. Perhaps Ramsey wouldn’t have caught up with the attacker even if he’d really tried but he needs to really try in the first place.

Secondly, Ramsey, at a key position at the heart of midfield, was unable to adapt to Norwich exploiting gaps in the Arsenal team. There is one game plan and if someone finds a way of disrupting it Arsenal do not possess the brains, individually or collectively, of finding a solution. Hence Ramsey is far further forward than he should have been at the start of Norwich’s counter-attack that led to them taking the lead even though Norwich had been ripping us apart for the past 25 minutes. And that’s why you also get Sagna and Gervinho (who, incidentally, I thought had one of his better days) stood within yards of each other in the opposition penalty area at the start of the same move.

It reflects the Wengerian approach to making football the beautiful game by always trying to out-attack the opposition. Amazing when it works, a mess dictated by Russian-roulette fortune when it doesn’t.

Ramsey is taught day-in, day-out to think and act like he does. Passes going astray and missed tackles are errors on his part and down to form but being in the wrong place at the wrong time and reacting to danger in such a cursory manner are the result of years of training under a manager who wants the game played in this way. Ramsey knows no different.

It means Arsenal rely on players to bring the tactics to the team and Arteta’s absence yesterday and over recent weeks has highlighted it. Without the Spaniard’s tactical intelligence, we have looked much less assured and it is slowly costing us a place among Europe’s elite competition.

If I was Robin Van Persie, games like yesterday’s would make me think I need to move. Over the course of a season, or several seasons, that lack of defensive conditioning ultimately leads to frustration more often than glory for players and supporters. Forget the relative lack of resources the manager has compared to his rivals, on a basic tactical level his team has some basic tactical flaws ingrained within its psyche.

Even if both Spurs and Newcastle lose today, let alone get a draw, we still need to travel to West Brom on the final day of the season and, in all likelihood, win.

If we play like we have since returning from our last trip to the Black Country, when we beat Wolves easily, it won’t happen. Even if we turn our form around and get three points, it still may not be enough. For all the credit the team deserves for showing great character to overcome an awful start and turn-of-the-year blip to take charge of the race for the Champions League slot, not earning a place in the top four now would represent a real failure.