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.

2012/13

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2013/14

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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.

 

With every passing week, every Arsenal win, every dropped point by a rival strengthening our position at the top of the league, it becomes more curious that the North London title challenge is considered unworthy, temporary and liable to fall apart at any moment. Inconsistency, a poor defence, a friendly fixture list – these arguments have been crushed by impressive results in the most testing period of the season thus far – so instead the focus is placed on the fact we are yet to face our two most likely rivals – Chelsea and Manchester City.

It is a fair point – we haven’t played either team. But how much stock should really be put on the order of the fixture list, when we are only a handful of games from the halfway mark and the point at which everyone has played everyone else? Will the league really be determined by these clashes? It is one of a few myths laid forward by television coverage, which makes sense since they stand to gain the most from the belief that such matches are the ultimate deciders.

Time for a deconstruction.

Myth 1 – The ‘Top 4′ mini league is the deciding factor

In the 2008/09 season, the top four was the (at the time traditional) ‘Big Four’ – Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United. At the end of the season, their mini-league looked like this:

0809

Well, at least Liverpool have won *a* league in the last 20 years

Liverpool had an exceptional season, and we did pretty well too (except for our defensive record – we lost 4-1 at home to Chelsea and drew 4-4 with Liverpool that year). But who won the league? United, at a canter. Not only that, but they finished a mammoth 18 points ahead of us.

In case you think this is a statistical anomaly, and in that season United lost only against those rivals, think again. They dropped points to Everton, Villa and Spurs (5th, 6th and 8th), and lost to Fulham (7th). West Ham, in ninth, were the top team they did the double over.

So how on earth did they win the league? Simple. Their record against the top eight was appalling, but their record against the bottom twelve was nothing short of extraordinary. After drawing at (eventually relegated) Newcastle on the opening day, they went on to win all 23 of their remaining games against teams who finished 9th-20th. Against the bottom twelve, they picked up an ridiculous 70 points from 72.

I wonder if the pundits were writing off their chances that year, based on their inability to produce the goods in The Big Games™? If they did, they ended up with egg on their faces as United’s tally of 90 points hasn’t been matched since.

Consistency is the key. It doesn’t matter if your rivals beat you, if they drop points in matches you win. United and Arsenal are again the perfect example. Only a couple of weeks ago, United won at Old Trafford to close the gap from eight points to five. Fast forward two games, and both teams have played Cardiff and another team in the top half. Arsenal won both, United drew both and the gap is now an even wider nine points. Their victory is a hollow one, as the advantage gained has been eroded almost instantly. That is the most striking thing about United this season – in previous years they would ruthlessly dispatch the lesser lights, but now those teams don’t fear them, stand up to them, and take points from them.

Their malaise brings me neatly to the second myth…

Myth 2 – It is all about the unbeaten runs

You know what really kills title challenges? Too many draws.

I think most people would agree that United are struggling, but did you know that they are on a seven match league unbeaten run? Given our defeat to them just a few short weeks ago, we know that we cannot boast the same, yet our form is more effective because we are not drawing matches.

This was best highlighted a couple of years ago, during our annual “give Spurs a big lead, wait until they are sure it is Their Season™ and start to gloat, before watching them fold like diarrhetic origami as we surge past” trick. The sides played back to back on a Sunday afternoon, and Sky opened their analysis by looking at the form of the pair. The way they did it still sticks in my craw today. Richard Keys (yes, he was still there), said:

“Arsenal have lost three of their last seven, while Spurs are unbeaten in that time.”

I remember that sentence to this day. The implication was clear – their form was a lot better than ours, a conclusion that would be backed up with one look at the respective results. Right?

Wrong.

Spurs’ unbeaten run consisted of two wins and five draws (11 points), while our three losses were offset by four wins (12 points). We had a better points tally for the exact period Sky were talking about. Aside from the rather obvious slant on reality, it was a clear example of pundits not knowing (or not caring) about what actually matters.

It is all about the wins, wins, wins. Ahead of a pair of tough fixtures, I often hear fans declare that they would settle for a pair of draws. I wouldn’t. I’d much rather we won one and lost one, and took the extra point on offer for doing so. Occasional losses are perfectly acceptable when they merely punctuate a winning streak.

The only team that ever won the Premiership with a high number of draws was the Invincibles. Fun fact – eight of the nine winners since actually won more matches – Arsenal’s tally of 26 wins that season is a couple short of what it usually takes. Of course, that is a statistical anomaly because our draws replaced the losses of others, but you have to wonder if that squad could have set record tallies had they taken a few more risks, winning a few more games at the cost of also losing a few. However, had they done so, they wouldn’t have a remarkable and unprecedented (in the modern era) achievement, so it would be a bit churlish to complain.

I'm an optimist. What of it?

I’m an optimist. What of it?

So what are the keys?

  • Don’t settle for a draw – risk losing to give yourself the best chance of winning. Like him or loathe him, Alex Ferguson knew this better than most, and United would rarely settle for draws under him. A point a game saves you from relegation, a draw every other game makes you Everton. This point is why I think Man City are a bigger threat than Chelsea – City attack with abandon and won’t draw many games as a result.
  • Win your home games. I know I’ve mentioned United a lot in this post, but they feature in the perfect example of this. Three seasons ago, they won only five of their nineteen away games, a pretty pathetic record that Blackpool, who finished 19th that season and went down, matched. But they made up for it with a 18-1-0 record at home and won the league by nine points.
  • Keep concentrated at the back. Saturday was the perfect example of a game that could have ended in a disappointing draw, but Szczesny pulled off a remarkable save at 1-0, preserving our lead, and giving us the platform to finish off the game. Chelsea did the same thing under Mourinho (in his first spell) to the extent that teams lost the belief they could ever score. It is a handy trick to have.

Are Arsenal on course?

I’m not going to sit here and say that we are going to win the league. But I am going to say that we can. We aren’t drawing matches (just the one so far), we’ve won ten games already (two more than anyone else), and since that opening day false start against Villa we have an unblemished home record. We have the joint best defensive record and have just gone through an extremely testing month conceding only a single goal, and that from a set piece.

The puzzle is coming together. If the others continue to slip on every banana skin they come across, it won’t matter what they do when they play us. Those matches, like the opinions of Hansen, Shearer and the other bilge merchants out there, will have become an irrelevance.

 

I often find myself without the time to write regularly for this blog, to preview each match and review it afterwards, to analyse on a day-by-day basis and to react in a timely fashion to anything interesting going on. More often than not I find myself, as I do tonight, summing up a longer period of time, rather than an individual moment.

That can have its disadvantages – no-one really wants to read my take on the nuances of a game that happened a week ago, but it does also have the occasional benefit, such as the forcing of analysis over a longer period of time than ninety minutes.

The last ten days have been telling, both on and off the pitch. After the Man City game, an excellent performance in which we matched the champions stride for stride on their own turf, many believed us to be genuine title contenders. Fast forward a week to a home defeat against Chelsea, and the majority view was that we still have the same old problems and will challenge for nothing. But the ability and aptitude of the squad doesn’t change dramatically in seven days, so what gives?

The answer is simple – neither conclusion can be gleaned from a single match. Teams play badly and lose some weeks, yet raise their game on other occasions and pull out impressive victories. Both extremes are felt by every single team in the league, and neither sets the tone for the season or can be used as a barometer for overall success or failure. For the bigger picture, you have to look at a string of games to see whether the great or terrible performance was the oddity.

The defeat to Chelsea was only our first of the season, not that you necessarily would have known that from the reaction. Having already faced Man City, Liverpool, Stoke and Montpellier on our travels, that is actually quite impressive. Our ability to fight and come from behind has already been shown on a few occasions, while certain players, including new signings Podolski and Cazorla, have shone. There is also real evidence that from open play at least, our defensive stability is greatly improved.

On the flip side, our goalkeeping situation is still an issue, with the two incumbents being at fault for at least three goals already this campaign, and we haven’t yet found a way to effectively replace the goals of He Who Must Not Be Named. Giroud is taking the flak, which I think it unfair – if he manages fifteen goals this season then I think he has done his job, and it is also up to the likes of Gervinho, Walcott, Cazorla and Podolski to head towards double figures. Share the burden, and all that.

But overall, I think we’re doing okay. The ten days may only have gleaned one point, but there were the aforementioned excellent and poor performances, which could easily have resulted in a win and a loss, or two draws. Neither went or way. In between, we thumped Coventry in the Carling Capital One Cup. Add those mixed days to a start that has been highly encouraging and I don’t think we should be sounding the alarm just yet.

For me, our main issue is that we need to cut out the stupid goals. The only one we have conceded that didn’t feel daft was actually the consolation Coventry managed last week – every other one has either been the result of a goalkeeping howler or an avoidable free kick. That needs to improve, and that it can be identified so easily will hopefully lead to such improvement.

But in the immortal words of Douglas Adams, Don’t Panic. Losing at home to Chelsea is always painful, and it wasn’t a good performance, but it also doesn’t mean that your eyes were deceiving you on every other occasion this season. It is how we bounce back that counts.

Champions League tomorrow, and Sam Allardyce at the weekend. Time to focus on what is coming.

 

The transfer window has shut, and as many suspected, we were largely inactive in the final few days, managing only to shift Bendtner and Park out on loan, trimming players from the wage bill who did not feature in our plans for the season ahead. Since then, there has been quite the reaction, with many dismayed at the lack of arrivals, particularly following the departure of Alex Song. I’ll address this in a moment, because I’ve suspected for a while that Song’s replacement is not who you would expect, but first I want to remove a misconception that I’ve seen floating around, repeated by many.

Statistical warping

If you have been on Twitter over the last 24 hours, you may have seen the line ‘three in, thirteen out‘ bandied around. This is, no matter how you look at it, factually incorrect, indicating that we have ten less players than last season. The thirteen not only include players that were never going to make it at Arsenal, but players who were previously out on loan. For example, Bendtner was out last season as well as this – if you count loans in your ‘ins and outs’, then he is actually both. Alternatively, if you don’t, then he is neither. Similarly, Carlos Vela was out on loan last year and has now been sold. And if you are going to count the return of Benayoun to Chelsea, then you also have to include the return of Arshavin.

My point is simply that those 3-13 numbers are nothing more than a statistical lie. The reality is that we have lost two players who had anything to do with our first team squad, both of them key starters (Van Persie and Song), plus the bit-part loanee Benayoun. In return, we have gained three first team starters (Podolski, Giroud, Cazorla) and gained back a bit-part squad member in Arshavin. Whatever way you look at it, whether you include loans or not, we have a first team squad one member bigger than before.

Of course, the quality and the balance is the real question, and I will address that later in the week. Before then, I want to tackle the issue of Alex Song’s departure.

The midfield restructure

For a number of years, Wenger favoured a sole holding midfielder, tasked almost exclusively with shielding the back four and moving the ball forward to the playmakers in front of him. Gilberto is probably the most successful exponent of the role, with his ability to find the key destructive positions perfectly matched with his short passing accuracy, enabling him to locate the deadly talents that made up the forward line of the Invincibles.

When he made the switch to 4-3-3, he remained true to the concept of having a single ‘defensive’ midfielder, with the rest of the three man core being a two-pronged creative hub, sharing the responsibility of getting the wide men into dangerous positions and supporting the central striker on the goalscoring front. It would be fair to say that the new tactical layout has had mixed success, with us demonstrating a particular vulnerability to the counter attack, perhaps not surprising when five players (the front three plus the two creative central midfielders) do not have defensive responsibilities as a high priority.

Sometime in the last 18 months, Wenger decided to change approach. More and more we’ve seen the midfield triangle reversed – instead of one holder and two attacking players, two have sat with one further forward. This has two major effects:

a) It allows the two sitting midfielders to create more. While both still have defensive responsibilities, the sharing of these means that either or both can venture forward and look to add more to the creative side of the game. Alex Song has actually been one of the main beneficiaries here – with Arteta pairing him in the sitting role last season, he was allowed more creative freedom, leading to his impressive assists tally.

b) It adds more pressure to the man at the point of the midfield triangle. While the sitting pair gain support from their partner, the man further forward becomes the hub through which the team play and can become isolated if they aren’t up to it. This was a problem last season, with no-one able to dictate the play as we would want. Many were tried, but no-one really rose to the admittedly difficult task, which lead to the sitting two moving further forward to support their teammate, which in turn led to a big gap between defence and midfield, and to the overexposure of the back four. In my opinion, our defensive issues actually stemmed from a lot further up the field.

All change in the midfield

This season, I think Wenger found his man – the player able to control the match from the front of the triangle, and cope with the pressure and responsibility that comes with that. That man is Santi Cazorla. Many believe him to be Cesc’s replacement, and while I can see the reasoning behind this, I’m not sure it is all that simple. By deploying Cazorla in the key position behind the front three, we can play with two sitting midfielders without lacking in creativity.

In turn, having two sitting midfielders alleviates the need for either of them to be a ‘true’ defensive player. Instead, both have the remit of good positional play, shielding the back four where necessary, but also they need a creative side to their play, most importantly a quick creative ability. What I mean by that is that they need to be able to take the ball from the defence and move it quickly forward, able to feed Cazorla or the wide players with razor-sharp passing. And once you make that the definition of the role, is Song the right man?

I don’t want you to think that I am rewriting history – Alex Song is a very good player and is certainly capable of playing that role. But we have other players equally able to sit with discipline and create at speed – Arteta is the obvious one, but Wilshere is the man I believe the role suits best. Rosicky also turns and moves forward quickly, and it is also Diaby’s best position for as long as he remains fit.

My perfect midfield trio is Arteta and Wilshere sitting behind Cazorla, and I don’t think Song could displace any of them as first choice. I think Wenger has taken a look at the squad, at how many players can play in that pair (where Song would be deployed) and considered that a player who is causing a few problems is not worth keeping when a decent offer comes in.

I don’t actually think Song will be missed – as I said, I think we have plenty of players for the sitting pair positions. My concern is further forward – when Cazorla doesn’t play, we have the same options as last season in the more advanced role – Ramsey, Chamberlain and Arshavin, assuming he sticks around. It is a lot to ask of the former pair to take on the responsibility currently on Cazorla’s shoulders, and I wouldn’t want to push Wilshere into the role just yet either. It is why the pursuit of Sahin made sense – sharing the advanced role with Cazorla would mean we are well covered in all areas.

That, of course, didn’t happen, but I still think we’ve got more numbers in there than people realise. And with Cazorla the new jewel in our crown, our midfield finally has the shape that I believe Wenger has been seeking. Now we just need them to click.

 

Our summers are nothing if not dramatic. I’ve been largely ignoring it for the past few weeks – ever since van Persie’s original statement I’ve felt a little jaded by the whole thing, and haven’t had the desire to track it, or write about it, on a daily basis. Kudos to those who manage to blog without a break – goodness knows I needed one.

But now, it has happened. Our captain, our best player, the talisman of our football club, has left. And not just anywhere – to one of our fiercest rivals, certainly the club with which our manager has had the strongest and most long-lasting rivalry. It is a momentous day, and not for the right reasons.

Despite all of that, I feel strangely cold about the whole situation. Since his dreadfully worded plea to get the fans on his side, I, along with many of you, had accepted that is was only a matter of time before he left. With Juventus the only destination that wouldn’t sting, it became about getting the best deal possible. When the Italian club dropped out of the running, it became clear that United were a more realistic prospect than we had guessed at the outset. I don’t know whether that preparation softened the blow, or whether the fee we’ve managed to extract has helped (it certainly seems that we have been compensated for where he is going) but somehow I’m shrugging and looking forward to Saturday.

That isn’t to say that this doesn’t hurt from a football point of view. It does – we’ve lost one of the world’s best players, who has been performing at the peak of his powers for eighteen months. Those who write him off based on his injury record are wrong on two counts – firstly he has been fit enough for long enough to suggest that he will be fine next season, and secondly, he actually isn’t injury prone. Yes, you read that correctly.

Van Persie isn’t injury prone. He has been the victim of a number of poor challenges, which have caused a variety of impact injuries. Crucially, it hasn’t been the same body part each time – he isn’t a Michael Owen, who is only a few games away from twanging what remains of his hamstring. I’d actually compare him to Gael Clichy, who suffered a myriad of bad injuries early in his career, all through sheer dumb luck. Once that luck turned, his availability became constant, and the same is true of the Dutchman. So prepare yourself to see him play plenty of matches next season.

I’m sure many of you are angry right now. But frankly, if your ire isn’t aimed squarely at the player, it is misdirected. All his claims to be ‘always Arsenal’ are laughable – he has merrily gone to a hated rival, something a true Gunner would never do. I can understand his reasons, perhaps you can too. But he isn’t a Gunner.

My advice? Move on. We’ve signed three very exciting players this summer, and I think two more will come in before the end of August, especially if Alex Song does boost the coffers further with a move to Spain. We’ve survived big name departures before. We will again. I know we seem to be saying that a lot (which is an entirely different discussion), but we always survive.

As for van Persie? Could have been a legend, but is no more. Was a good player for us, a good captain too, but ultimately chose to throw loyalty back in the faces of those who showed it to him in spades.

Season preview

Time to move on from all that. We are tantalisingly close to the start of a new season, and despite the events of this week, I am more optimistic than I have been in years. Every year, I make a few predictions at this time, and last year‘s actually turned out to be pretty decent. So here we go again:

League Position – 3rd

I think we’ll finish behind the same two sides again this season – both Manchester clubs. However, there is a big difference – I think we’ll be closer to them, and further ahead of the rest. I’d go as far as to say we’ll be in the title hunt until March at the earliest, but ultimately fall short, perhaps by 7-9 points. I’m going with City to retain, with Spurs (yes, Spurs) finishing fourth. Chelsea are my tip to struggle this time around – I don’t think Di Matteo is the man to lead them over a whole season. Liverpool will take time to adapt to Rodgers.

Arsenal Players to Watch

Vermaelen – it might seem strange to pick one of our best players as one to watch this year, but I really think Vermaelen, complete with armband, will step up in a big way. Outshone by Koscielny last season, I fully expect him to take to leadership like a duck to water, and be one of the very best around.

Ramsey – this time last season, young Ramsey was placed under ridiculous pressure. Only a matter of months after recovering from a career threatening injury, he was asked to do too much in the absence of our missing midfield, and never really recovered. By the end of the season, physical fatigue had added to emotional strain, factors that too few fans accounted for. But his character is strong, he never stops trying and he never hides. Unless less scrutiny, I expect him to resume the giant strides he was making before that Stoke oaf came along.

Cazorla – seriously, just watch the guy, enjoy, and try to work out exactly how we got him on the cheap.

Gervinho – talent isn’t a problem, confidence is. But Gervinho has been showing great signs in pre-season, and is another I expect to raise his level this year.

Concerned about

Wilshere – this time last season I predicted a tricky campaign for Wilshere. Expectations were insanely high, such is the talent of the kid, and his nationality meant the pressure would be intensified. I said at the time that his first dip in form would be greeted with derision from the areas of the press who believed he had been hyped up far enough. This all still stands, but his long term injury almost guarantees that his early form will be patchy. He also doesn’t have the benefit of pre-season, and will return in the Autumn a step or two behind the rest. Keep expectations reasonable.

Diaby – such a talent when fit. Never fit for long enough. I would love nothing more than to see Diaby string 20 games together, to remind us how good he can be as much as anything. But I just don’t think he will – he has practically had to relearn how to walk after the consistent problems caused by that Dan Smith ‘tackle’, and that doesn’t lend itself to staying healthy under pressure.

Other titbits

Can we win a trophy this season? Yes, if luck falls our way. It will be a domestic cup if we get one, and you always need a little bit of luck to capture one of those.

Our defence will be much improved. Vermaelen + Koscielny + Mertesacker + Sagna + Gibbs + Santos + Bould. I like that.

Overall, I’m really quite optimistic. I’m sure many will consider that misguided, but for some reason I just think we’ll surprise people this year. What do you think?

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