Friday, May 25, 2012

Arsenal Season Review Part IV: Grading the Whole Season

So, it's time for the last part of my mammoth season review. Have a look round the site, and you'll find parts I, II, III, where I graded the defence, midfield and attack. Now it's time to grade the season as a whole.


I suppose this season was fundamentally one where we met lowered expectations.

For the first time during the Wenger era (to my knowledge) not only did we not mount a title challenge, I don't think one was ever really expected by the fans, or promised by the club's management. That's quite an epochal change, really.

It says a lot about the glacial nature of the club's recent decline. 7 years ago, we were not just a club that challenged for the league title - we actually won it. Now, after years of falling short, I think the whole perception of the club has changed.

A lot of people will point to last summer and say we did well to recover from it, which we did. But last summer happened because I don't think we are seen anymore as one of the club's that challenges for the very highest trophies - the Champions League and the Premier League. We can abuse Nasri all we want, and Clichy to a lesser extent, and, justifiably, say that money was a large factor in their decision to leave the club. But they also left because a club that has a greater chance of winning trophies was in for them, and players want to play for these teams. Both their moves were justified, ultimately, because, if they had stayed with us, they wouldn't have 2012 Premier League winners medals. Similarly, Cesc may not have won the league this year, but there is a much higher probability of him winning top trophies at Barca than at Arsenal.

Ultimately, last summer was a moment of true crisis for the club. A number of our best players stopped believing in the project that Wenger had devised, we were unable to secure top-level replacements for them, and we were unable to shift the enormous pile of overpaid deadwood that we had tied to long-term contracts in 2008-9.

So, whether or not you want to view these season as successful is largely based on your wider perception of events. If you think we did well to just compete with teams with greater resources than us, and to recover from a tumultuous summer, then so be it.

If you think like me, however, it's hard to be so sanguine. The crisis that befell the club last summer was due to an extended period of under-investment in proven talent that undermined the competitiveness of the club. The crisis was then mismanaged and exacerbated via our ridiculous transfer dealings. We then played largely in the way we have done over the last few seasons - a lot of good performances in the league, but not enough, and no real challenge for the Champions League and the FA Cup. Wenger will always produce teams that can sparkle on occasion, but the fireworks were too few and far between this year.

We were constantly 1-2 injuries away from disaster. Had van Persie sustained an injury, we would have finished 9th or 10th. Without Arteta, a player used to playing in a more disciplined side, none of our other midfielders showed any inclination to get involved in the dirty, boring midfield battles that win games. We continue to over-elaborate in possession; we continue to concede stupid, soft goals that turn too many games into an uphill struggle.

There is an overall sense, for me, that this is the best it's gonna get for the remainder of Wenger's time at the club. I think he will continue to deliver Champions League football, but not really mount much in the way of credible league or cup challenges. We will continue to lose top players, and replace them with others who will keep the overall squad's quality at a just about acceptable level.

And this is why I just can't really view the season positively. I think we could do more with what we have. Yes, we are fighting against club's with a huge financial advantage - but they can't buy everyone, and I wonder if we are really doing enough to actually elevate the squad we currently have.

Moreover, I've wondered on several occasions this season, for the first time, whether another coach might actually get more out of our players. When I see Vermaelen and Song strolling around the pitch, or going on attacking forays that leave us exposed, I wonder if another coach might actually do more to introduce a sense of tactical discipline to the side, or at least a reduction of the defensive naivety that sees us concede so many soft goals. I also wonder if another coach might think a bit harder about varying tactics and personnel to reflect the strengths and weaknesses of our opposition, rather than just continually attempting to play the same brand as football, regardless of who is available and who we are playing. Overall, I just wonder if another coach might give the team a greater amount of steel to complement its moments of skill

All I will say in that domain for now is that it can only be a positive that a George Graham-schooled defender, Steve Bould, is now Wenger's right-hand man. Surely this will improve the defensive stability of the team. But, if it doesn't, I will continue to wonder whether Arsene has just taken the club as far as he can. If he continues at the helm, it will obviously be no disaster - but this is the first time since he arrived that I've really wondered if it might be a good time for someone else to have a go. We've been promised the future for years now - I just wonder if someone else might be actually able to take us there.

Overall, therefore, this was a disappointing season. Great wins over Chelsea and Spurs don't make-up for the notably lowered expectations that now surround the club. Scraping into the Champions League just to be knocked out in the opening knockout rounds should be the absolute minimum expectations for a club like Arsenal, not, as it would seem at present, the new normal. Supporting a club should be about glory, or at least a bit of varied excitement - not just qualifying for a competition that we never win in order to keep the books ticking over. Maybe I'm a naive romantic, but I think the club can do more than it did last season.

Overall Season Grade: C-


If you just can't get enough of my rambling, incoherent opinions, you can find (basically) daily thoughts on Twitter. 

Lastly, thanks to everyone for reading this season. You've made it a pleasure to blog again.

1 comment:

Kay said...

I really do enjoy your posts and this was no exception. I just thought that your valuation is kinda harsh thougjh you are down-to-earth.
Probably a 'C' or even 'C+' is more appropiate.