Sunday, May 18, 2014

Season Review - Trophies Matter

There was a moment during yesterday's game, I think after Cazorla had scored but before Koscielny had equalized, where I had my head in my hands and was mumbling to myself, in a near catatonic state - "please don't lose", "please don't lose". I'm surprised I wasn't asked to leave the pub I'd found myself in, as I probably represented someone on the edge of a full-on, falling down-esque collapse. Even after we've won, I still think about how I would have felt yesterday, today, and probably for a long time to come if we'd lost the match yesterday, and it isn't nice. It would have been some form of perma-gloom, a constant headache of how the club just can't win things anymore, an open sore of misery.

So, you know, I'm quite glad we won. Because this is what supporting a massive club like ours is all about - winning stuff. This is what it all comes downs to - winning - and this is why I moan so often. We are in a privileged position of being a club that expects to win trophies each year. There's probably only 3-4 clubs in England who can say the same, and maybe less than a dozen in all the major European leagues combined. I love the camaraderie of watching and following Arsenal, and I would happily do it even if we got relegated down to the conference, but we are a massive club and this is the pay-off we can, and even should, expect: trophies and open-top bus parades.

To go nine years without a trophy at a club like Arsenal: it's justifiable to question the position of senior management. And this season has been a rollercoaster ride that has, through luck as much as skill, thankfully ended with us not stuck upside down on one of the loops.

I am so happy for Arsene, for the players, for everyone associated with the club. Watching Arsene with the trophy yesterday, you know that he knows the "fourth place trophy" line is total rubbish, and he probably hates it just as much as we do. He is a phenomenal man, and manager, and has won us a trophy on a sustainable basis, while competing with clubs that are, to all intent and purposes, cheating. We can take the trophy we won yesterday and use it as a springboard for further success. The squad really only needs additions in a few key areas for us to compete for the title next season. And, overall, I consider this season a success, because we improved our league performance, and finished it with a trophy.

But....yes, there is a but. There have been times this season where I have felt as low as at any time of my twenty-plus years following the club. There have been times where Arsene's entire legacy was on the line. The epic thrashing at Stamford Bridge, the Etihad and Anfield rank among the worst performances I have ever seen from this football club. And, only about a month ago, we were staring down the barrel at Wembley, 1-0 down against a Championship club, and seemingly out of ideas. Per's equalizer that day saved us from humiliation, and, probably, saved Arsene his job.

I had written last summer that our squad seemed perilously light, and so it was, despite the last minute, and surely unplanned, capture of Ozil. With a squad that benefitted from no pre-season international tournaments, and which had a favourable run of league fixtures in the first half of the season, we came racing out of the blocks, and flew to the top of the table. This was, admittedly, unexpected. I have always been a fan of Aaron, but had never expected him to become quite so deadly in front of goal. Things were going so well that a 6-3 tonking at the Etihad was largely ignored as an aberration, and not a hint at how the second half of the season would be considerably more challenging than the first.

To maintain ourselves at the top of the table, Arsene stuck, as much as he could to a core of 13-14 top class players that we have in the squad. This led to him burning out several players - notably Ramsey and Walcott - who may have made a difference in the run-in. I don't actually buy the line that we were unlucky with injuries because we were fortunate in many respects. Sagna - a total warrior once again - didn't pick up a serious injury at all this year, meaning we thankfully didn't even have to rotate and rely on Jenkinson at all. Koscielny and Mertesacker were also fit for the vast majority of the season, meaning that exiled "club captain", and error machine, Vermaelen did not have to be called upon too frequently. Arteta, our only decent holding midfielder, got through most matches. And, up front, we relied on our only proven striker - Giroud - so frequently, that his performance finally fell off a cliff in February, and we were forced to give Yaya "competition winnner" Sanogo a chance.

So injuries were a mixed bag. Where we failed again was to build a squad that could challenge on all fronts in the two transfer windows. We have failed to sign a world class striker in four consecutive transfer windows. In January, when Giroud was on his last legs, we messed around with Draxler for a month, before signing an injured central midfielder on loan. This was total, inexcusable madness.

This was a season of change in the Premier League's top teams, and one we should have exploited. A bigger squad, rotated more frequently, might have been fresh for the big matches in the second half of the season. A more pragmatic tactical approach in the games against Chelsea and Liverpool might have seen us pick up a point, rather than a traumatic beating.

So this is why trophies matter. Because I think that while we showed progress in the league this season, it was ultimately an unsuccessful league campaign. But, when you've won the FA Cup, who cares? The inanity of caring whether you finish in the league other than first comes into focus when you win actual silverware. When you get to have the victory party with the oldest club competition cup in your hands. When you look at Arsene's face full of joy and it almost brings you to tears.

It's nice to qualify for the Champions League; it's much nicer to win things. That's why, ultimately, this season was a success. I remember reading a Wigan fan blog last year after they'd won the cup - "We got relegated but who cares - we won the cup". Well quite.

I may post a few more pieces this week because of my giddiness at winning the cup. But, if not, I'll hopefully see some of you in New York in July - hopefully with the cup on display, and a pint in hand.


ps - thank you for putting up with my moaning on twitter this year. i promise to do it less next year.

pps - that is a non-legally binding promise.