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.

A week of reflection

Deep breath… Go! I’m back and I’m sporting – against my better judgement – a positive hat at a jaunty angle. I think it looks rather dapper.

I might be the only one though. The groans – resignation, anger – around the ground and the introspection amongst Arsenal fans since Saturday tell you all you need to know about the state of play. I’ve digested much of the opinion and I’ve blasted my way through several braces of podcasts. I can’t remember things ever being this gloomy in the Wenger era. I certainly didn’t fancy writing about it on Sunday. After all, I’ve written about it before, many times. All the words are below here somewhere, perhaps in a slightly different order, but here nevertheless.

A neutral putting their head round the door might wonder what all the fuss is about. We have an abundance of talented footballers, and we are second in the league. As a snapshot, you can see their point. But the bubbling frustration is very real. It’s borne of seeing the same mistakes, or omissions, or deficiencies, again and again and again.

But things are what they and I for one need to change the record. I’ve had enough being miserable. I just can’t do it anymore.

At the moment, I don’t want to guess who we might sign in the summer, think about what close season changes Wenger needs to make or debate his own future.

I just want a performance on Sunday. Not a scraped win after 15 minutes of late pressure, but a 90-minute passion play. Tactically sharp, high in tempo, fast, unpredictable. Is that possible, after a month-long slump? Well why not? Somewhere, deep in the recesses of history, we’ve seen them do it.

The pressure’s really on Wenger – he’s clearly feeling bruised by his players and he can’t be immune to the wider dissatisfaction – and how he tackles this latest malaise will be very, very interesting.

Some early thoughts

We’re not scoring enough goals, and goals are the raw currency of form. But at least Wenger has started to throw strikers on, and earlier than he ordinarily would. By the time Arshavin scored against WBA in the 70th minute, we had had three strikers on the pitch for nearly a quarter of an hour. And against Blackburn we had the same three strikers – van Persie, Chamakh and Bendtner – for the last 15 minutes. They spurned their half chances but at least van Persie didn’t look so isolated.

So I know it’s not fashionable these days, but how two strikers from the start? We need goals and we have strikers. Our five-man midfield relies on Song and Fabregas being in top form, and neither are.

At the moment, it’s not about a lack of first-choice personnel. Against Blackburn, we had as good a team out as we could have. They just didn’t play, looked down, lethargic, flat. This is Wenger’s biggest puzzler. Does he read the riot act? Does he need to be more subtle? If the chance of staying with the league leaders wasn’t motivation enough, what will be?

Overall Honestly: I’ve not enjoyed watching us since Barcelona at home. But I don’t subscribe to the theory that this team is a busted flush or a failed experiment. It’s never that black and white. We’ve hit a dismal rut of form and need to drag ourselves from it. Yes, something’s gone awry, the team needs changes – some new players in and some underperforming ones out – and Wenger needs to look at himself too, but we have the nucleus of an excellent side and we are second in the league. We shouldn’t forget that.

Was that positive enough? I am giving this glass-half-full stuff a good go.