Season overboard

Fulham 2-2 Arsenal

So that’s finished then, and as books go, I didn’t much like the ending. I had high hopes there’d be a satisfying twist three quarters of the way through – we were hoping for one – but it finished rather predictably and it was heavy going to boot. I should have just read the last page back at the beginning of March and spared myself the effort.

Despite some fine team performances, overall I’ve found this particular team tough going at times this season. It’s been littered with groundhog days. Our tactical approach, too, has come under more scrutiny than it has ever done. I keep thinking back to Philippe Auclair’s comment on the Arsecast about how the tempo of the side has been wrong for so much of the season: slow build-up, lack of pace, an inability to change tack, predictability. It’s nice when it works as it’s meant to (so in that sense, a bit like my back. I don’t notice it when it’s working but I start grunting when it doesn’t).

That said, there have been positives, particularly in players bursting through, and at the end of the day and despite all the gloom we have a shot at the Champions League as some kind of reward. It’s not a trophy but consider the horror of the alternative: The Europa League. Several teams spent most of Sunday actively trying not to qualify for that.

Wenger is trotting out the usual line about the team being augmented where possible, within the constraints of our budget, and only if players are available, and is urging people not to ‘go overboard’ (twice in his recent email), but infuriating though it is to hear that, there are good reasons for him to give nothing new away and he’s right about the overboard bit.

There’ll be a fine balancing act going on behind the scenes already, you suspect, trying to keep the nucleus of the side together, so he’s hardly going to come out rattling his sabre. Persuading Cesc, Nasri, Clichy et al to stay on the one hand, while also nudging a few of the non-playing, under-performing malcontents through the door in a timely way on the other requires some diplomacy. Not to mention opening negotiations with potential newcomers.

So from a PR perspective the boss isn’t saying exactly what we want to hear, but he rarely has.

Anyway, I can see the squad changing quite substantially if the public mutterings of Bendtner, Denilson &c are anything to go by. In the cold light of the last two months it’s easy to think the whole thing’s gone to pot, but in the grand scheme of things it hasn’t. We have a nucleus of excellent players, most of whom will stay. But a blast of fresh air will open up a few eyes and clear out a few cobwebs. I’m all for it and it needs to happen.

Moans aside, I’ll be pounding the credit card to renew my season ticket. Despite impending joblessness, it’s something I would find it very hard to ditch, I sit with a good circle of mates and after 17 years as a season ticket holder the habits and routines are weaved into the fabric of my year. I do however – like many – have real concerns about the affordability of football in general. The upward pressure of player salaries carries on regardless and rather than the club finding different ways to manage that – smaller squad, renegotiating commercial deals, or just saying no to players – it’s the fans who pay the price. Any increase is particularly acute at Arsenal where prices are already among the highest – they may even be the highest – in Europe.

Missing a wedge of those games is unavoidable though – time and small children dictate it – and I will be cutting back on all other aspects of football spending, partly in protest and partly to save a bit of money. No merchandise, no programmes, no food at the ground. Enough is enough.

Take a moment, too, to look over at the ‘autocratic owner’ model pursued by some clubs to see how different things could be. Chelsea won the double, but sacked their manager a year later. They’ve had 6 managers in 8 years. Trophy signings come in over the manager’s head. No patience, no long-term building. True, they’ve been very successful in that time and we have not, but for all the downsides of the way Arsenal goes about its business, I’m glad it isn’t run that way.

Finally, Wenger. The tide has turned against him in many quarters. And it’s clear he has a big job on his hands to convince the doubters that his latest Arsenal side can be better than perennially third or fourth. Last year, I thought that he deserved patience to get it right. In hindsight, the hoped-for progress has not happened.

However, even though things are more acute this summer I’m still behind him. I sense that changes – of personnel, of approach, ideally of both – are afoot. Wenger cannot live on past glories forever but I would love to see him – rather than someone else – turn this group round and polish the disparate parts into a more consistent, hungrier and more ruthless side. What is success though? It doesn’t have to be a trophy, but it does have to be progress. Properly addressing problem areas. Getting rid of the underachievers. Bringing in a few experienced and hungry players, who are in their prime and could make a palpable difference. All this stuff has been written time and again, this season, the last one, and the one before that, but it’s truer and more urgent now than it has ever been.

The pressure is on him like never before. Over to you, Arsène.

Limping over the finish line

‘Forward’, urges the new Arsenal crest. After Sunday’s reprisal of the now well-honed Collaps-o-Arsenal, perhaps ‘Sideways’ would have been more apt. Some would argue ‘Backwards’. Harsh? Of couse it is. I’m just not in a particularly generous mood at the moment. But we do continue to live up to our billing as a yo-yo team. One step forward, one step back. Turn it on, switch it off. From afar, it probably looks as if we’re jigging up and down on the spot.

Are we looking ahead at a bigger summer than the Fox-in-the-Box summer of 2001? That close season, we signed five new players (one a huge success, one a moderate success, and three failures, for what it’s worth), and since then – before then, for that matter – I don’t recall such a summer influx. For some of those proceeding years, there’s been little need. For others, there’s not been the wherewithal and for others, the doctrine has been largely to build from within.

This summer, the need is most definitely there to properly put our weaknesses to bed. The wherewithal too, or so we’re told. And as for the doctrine – well if Wenger doesn’t realise we need a new approach, however subtle, then it’s a case of Stewart Houston: We have a problem.

I’m not suggesting for a second that the solution to our infuriating bungeeing between sublime and ridiculous is players alone. I agree that it’s in no small part a mental thing – noticed how even Wenger has stopped trotting out the ‘my players have great mental strength and I am convinced they will show it’ line.

But if the manager is struggling to get his players to treat every game as if it’s Barcelona at home – a worrying thought in its own right – then one way to deal with it is of course to spice things up on the pitch. Inject some new, proven faces, and some competition.

The trouble is, when I take this argument to its logical conclusion in my own head, I get a bit giddy and see myself waving enthusiastic goodbyes to about seven players. Seven in, seven out would be one hell of a spring clean. You’d need an enormous pair of marigolds. But how cathartic would it be?

To my mind, the 6.5% ticket hike has only served to shorten people’s fuses. Many, probably most of us will cough up again, because going to Arsenal is simply something we do.

But it’s fair to ask: What are we going to get in return?

In the meantime, we have the final home game of the season, complete with the lap of appreciation. It’s going to be a seminal dad moment for me: I’m taking my 5-year-old. It’ll be his first game.

Magnificent timing to get into Arsenal, eh?

Then again, when’s it ever bad timing?