It feels a little strange to set out on anything resembling a seasonal review when there remains the FA Cup Final looming next weekend, but yesterday’s 2-0 canter against Norwich wrapped up the league campaign for another year, and brought to a close one of the most difficult to assess in recent memory. Ultimately, we finished fourth again, but that is about where the similarities to previous domestic campaigns end. Over the last few years, we’ve been forced to accept dropping out of the title race as early as October or November, and playing catch up for fourth against Spurs (and one year, Villa). Strong finishes ensured that dreadful starts did not result in failure to qualify for the Champions League or a lack of St Totteringham’s Days, but early season form brought the lack of (or lateness of) summer action into question.
This season has been entirely different, more so than it appeared it would after the opening day, where a lack of summer activity contributed to a poisonous atmosphere in a home defeat to Villa. That would turn out to be our only league reverse at the Emirates, and a tremendous first half of the season saw us considered genuine title contenders by most, sitting pretty at the league summit for a long time. But huge reverses in big matches, coupled with some daft slip-ups, saw that dream fade a couple of months from the end, with Everton’s form even briefly threatening our top four berth. Five wins on the spin at the end of the season quelled that concern.
Which is better? Which is worse? Or, as one person put it to me, is reversing the ups and downs of the season just a different kind of stagnation? A difficult one to answer without directly comparing the last two seasons.
A six point gain and three more wins suggests clear improvement, as does the comparison of how close we came to those above and below us. In 2012/13, we finished a massive sixteen points behind champions United, and only one ahead of Spurs in fifth. This time, the margin to City was a deficit of only seven, with the same gap separating us from Everton. It isn’t all rosy though, as the goal columns attest – we scored fewer and conceded more than last season, evidence of both the improved ability to win close games and the tendency to lose big on occasion.
Turning to the cups, we had a repeat performance in the Champions League, where a tough group was successfully navigated before falling to Bayern in the first knockout phase, we fell earlier in the League Cup (sorry, I refuse to call it the Johnson’s Dry Cleaning Cup, or whatever it is named these days), but as we know, have reached the FA Cup Final, where we enter as strong favourites.
Put simply, this season will be judged almost entirely on that match. Win, and it has to be considered a successful season – for so many years people have pontificated which is more important – fourth place or a trophy – and we’d have both. But a defeat will consign this season to the ‘fourth but no trophy‘ description that blends it in with too many others. While Wenger’s future appears not to hang on the result as some expected, the summer mood does, and with a 3% ticket price rise being felt as the season ticket renewals are distributed, a painful defeat could bring that into sharp focus. It it big. Really big.
Fourth v Third
There is one other thing to note about coming fourth – the Champions League qualifier. While we have consistently navigated these when required, it has often had a lasting effect on our season. We know the club has had a decent bank balance for a while now, but just how healthy has often not been clear until that hurdle has been successfully cleared. This has had an effect on many of our transfer dealings (most notably the summer of Cesc/Nasri), and while there is a strong argument that it should not have made as much of a difference as it did, it has been an added complication.
It should not be a concern anymore, at least financially. With additional TV and commercial income guaranteed from elsewhere, the Champions League ‘proper’, while still lucrative, is not the be all and end all it has been. The line about us being financially strong even with a season out of Europe’s premier competition is now very much true, and there is absolutely no reason for the summer’s business to be affected by August’s unknown, something that is even more important in World Cup year, where the window for getting things done is so much shorter.
Speaking of the World Cup, it could actually be the biggest problem we face this summer. Our cup final appearance means that the players get one less week to recuperate before the tournament begins, and with the final on July 13th, that leaves precious little time to rest before pre-season and that crucial qualifier rolls around. There will be many clubs turning to non-internationals or early fallers as the domestic season restarts in August, while their triumphant summer stars get the rest they will desperately need.
Anyone playing the cup final, a few warm up games, and a long tournament in sweltering Brazilian conditions in going to need careful management on their return. That is by no means restricted to us – managers up and down the country will have to earn their stripes.
I’ll be back later in the week with a broken down assessment of the best and worst moments of the season, the players that stood out (a certain Welshman may feature…) and a look back at the league as a whole, and where our six point improvement sits against our rivals. Until then, I’m going to watch Ramsey’s stupendous volley once again. What a player.