By A Cultured Left Foot
When the final whistle blew at Wembley, there was something tangible to settle the argument. Third place in the Premier League and retaining the FA Cup was an improvement on fourth place and winning the trophy 12 months earlier.
Tangible is the crucial word, everything else is a feeling based on a viewpoint. In simple terms, progress was made. Whether that progress was enough is where the argument shifts to quicksand.
My view is that Arsenal stand on the cusp on something better and that surely is the over-riding view of last season. It started in a rut of mediocrity and blossomed after Christmas.
As it happened, hard work, effort and experience, sprinkled with some luck, brought about a transformation in the second half of the season. Imbued with the confidence that winning breeds, the next campaign can be looked at with an optimism which extends beyond the hope that a new season brings. Arsenal might genuinely be challenging for the title once again.
Yet we’ve been here before, in the not too distant past. Arsenal remain a half-season team at the moment. When there was an unbeaten run, optimism about the squad knew no bounds; this was the squad that could really kick on. In many senses, the surge of positive thought was emotional because when it ended, there was an air of deflation far deeper than you would normally expect. Possibly because the peak of reaching second went with it, almost like losing a final against a backdrop of scrambling into the Champions League more often than not.
Hope springs eternal and all that but we need a good summer. There’s no need for a signing just for the sake of it, we’ve had enough journeymen in the past to know we don’t need any in the future but we do need to strengthen the squad.
There’s a good depth across most positions, we just need it in every position which is a lot easier said than done. We don’t need to kill off youthful careers by blocking their path to the first team just for the sake of appeasing the fan base but you can kill the same career by throwing them in at the deep end and seeing criticism from all quarters wreck their confidence. It’s about finding the balance between the two.
And as usual, there is a cautionary note to add. Just as we can get too fixated on the mistakes which led to the torpor in the first half of the season, we can pin too much hope on the form post-Christmas which saw Arsenal claim one more point than champions Chelsea from the final 19 fixtures.
It’s a shame we gained 13 less in the opening 19. Don’t believe too much in one scenario just because it fits your view. Finishing third will be disappointing for the manager, especially since second was within Arsenal’s control until the home defeat to Swansea. Going into next season having been runners-up? The confidence in those circumstances, ought to be rock-solid. It should be high now, improving year-on-year is a step in the right direction.
It was a season of contradictions. The highs of the FA Cup, not just at Wembley and Old Trafford, are offset by the all too familiar home defeat in the first leg of Champions League last-16 to Monaco. An eminently winnable tie that was almost thrown away, only to be rescued by a late Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain goal before being lost by the decisive third goal.
Monaco weren’t that good a team as Arsenal found in the scant comfort of the two-goal away win in the second leg. For all the trumpeting of qualifying for the Champions League for nearly two decades, it doesn’t feel like we will ever progress in that competition.
Even the second half of the Premier League season wasn’t all plain sailing with the comprehensive victory at The Etihad in stark contrast to the abysmal efforts put in three weeks later in the north London Derby. How could a team switch so quickly between the extremes, especially as the five matches preceding the defeat at White Hart Lane had been comprehensive victories.
That scenario identifies the step that Arsenal have to overcome to become title challengers; they have to find consistency over the course of the season and not in five or six game spells – more of the 10-match unbeaten run that saw the climb from sixth to the eventual third-placed finish. It’s no easy task but becoming champions never is.
But the potential to do so is there with judicious strengthening. We saw the impact of having a third experienced centre back in the squad. Gabriel’s signing bred confidence when he was playing, there was no nervousness about an out of position full back or a youngster who had been on the receiving end of a torrid afternoon.
Had he been in situ during the opening half of the season, the impact of Per Mertesacker’s loss of motivation or Laurent Koscielny’s injury in October, might have been mitigated. No guarantees of that, of course, but the evidence suggests, the stumbling inconsistency could have been halted.
And signings have a two-fold impact; their ability and the boost they bring, none more so than the arrival of Alexis Sanchez. The Chilean had a phenomenal debut season in English football. He was the ‘go-to guy’ when things were going wrong in the first half of the season, when Olivier Giroud was absent and it was capped off with a stunning Wembley goal in the final. A marquee signing who produced the desired impact.
How his second season will turn out, who knows? More of the same or will he become the Marmite footballer that Mesut Ozil has. The master of the ‘pre-assist’, the pass before the eye-catching moment in a game, Ozil was outstanding at Wembley in a performance which typified his value to the team; Francis Coquelin won the ball, Santi Cazorla made the first distribution and the German passed and moved.
It wasn’t just against poor opponents, he did it week in, week out to varying degrees. He suffers from the FIFA Disease; a generation of supporters who, if a £42m-man isn’t scoring every week, condemn him as rubbish. It couldn’t be further from the truth.
But it depends on the formation. Arsène was forced into using a defensive shield by injury and the blinding necessity for the back four to be protected. Mathieu Flamini and Mikel Arteta couldn’t do it in the way needed, the latter’s combative style of yesteryear not working for the ageing midfielder whilst Arteta is not a naturally defensive player.
Step in Coquelin, a genuine success story whose path to the first is subject to revisionism. On loan, by his own admission waiting for his initial spell to be renewed, Coquelin was recalled as injuries struck.
He took his opportunity brilliantly, for the most part controlling his aggression and bringing a discipline to the role that served the XI well. It was this role in the side that provided the pivotal change of fortunes. Cazorla was liberated in the deeper role, his artistry creating attacking momentum on which the XI was able to build and exploit the pace and power of the forward line.
The likes of Giroud and Theo Walcott in the final two games – Danny Welbeck to a lesser extent – were able to thrive in this environment. It offered something different for opponents to deal with and for the most part, made Arsenal harder to beat, particularly as it allowed a rope-a-dope tactic to flourish.
When it worked, as at The Etihad and Old Trafford – it was astonishing. When it didn’t – White Hart Lane – it was abysmal. Like the squad, it’s a work in progress, almost there, a little refining and it can take the club back to the position of challengers and not fighting with the also-rans.
And that’s why I think we’re on the cusp. We have depth in most positions, some open to debate and Arsène will know where he feels we can be better. The confident Wojciech Szczesny of Wembley offers a path to redemption that didn’t seem likely after St Mary’s. We need depth in the forward line but I suspect that is Theo Walcott. Defensive midfield may well be this summers big money spend.
It’s not necessarily about replacing what we have, the squad needs competition so that playing levels continue to improve. It also depends on who leaves; what’s said in the media now has no bearing on the next three months. But it’s a summer that can be faced with a huge amount of optimism. Whether that gets eroded or not will be shaped not just at Arsenal but at other clubs. It isn’t just about what Arsène does that decides next season, it’s what the others do as well. But few of them have such a good starting point.