As Arsenal try to fight end of season drift and secure a top-three trophy (see what I did there?) ahead of a recovering Manchester City, it’s been a week of encouragement in some quarters and frustration in others.
As anticipated, the team’s final visit to Upton Park was a testing one, with the Hammers happier than they have been in a long time, and even without their push for European football, both the players and fans in east London are always well up for the visit of the Gunners.
The game itself was wonderfully microcosmic of not only this season, but in a greater sense, the last decade. The Arsenal roller-coaster cycle of uncertainty, exhilaration, distraction, capitulation and redemption was in full effect, in what was a pulsating game that any truly neutral fan must have loved.
The football played by Arsenal for the majority of the first half was excellent, and both goals with excellently constructed (perfect assists on both for the rapidly developing Iwobi), with the attacking threat of recent weeks in full evidence. Sadly, equally evident was complacency and defensive frailties. The continued reluctance of Alexis to track back was always likely to be a factor at some point given the power in the air of both Carroll and Kouyate arriving from deeper, and so it proved on West Ham’s opener. Time and again the giant Geordie pulled to the back post behind decoy runners, and predictably had our full-backs on toast with the ball in the air.
After much early promise, Gabriel is looking less up to the challenge of the Premier League at present, and early theories about him being as comfortable alongside either Mertesacker or Koscielny are looking less credible. The defensive conundrum for Arsenal remains as it has been. Mertesacker is not in the best form, and when exposed to runners is perhaps our weakest centre-half, but ultimately the German seems to make those around him a little better, perhaps due to possessing qualities they lack.
If Koscielny is the David O’Leary of the modern Arsenal defence, we are still looking for our Tony Adams, as indeed the club did with O’Leary for most of his prime. Gabriel shows some Keown-like tendencies, but without the same physicality, size and power. The Brazilian should not be written off yet though, as the number of goals deflecting in off him in recent weeks suggests that his instincts are right, it is just that his positioning or reacting to situations is that crucial small percentage off. As things stand, however, it’s hard to see him justifiably being first choice.
Clearly, West Ham dropping Diafra Sakho in favour of Carroll took Wenger by surprise (as it did Sakho himself by all accounts), otherwise you’d have to assume that he would have started with Mertesacker. Certainly expecting a back four of Koscielny, Gabriel, Monreal and Bellerin to compete in the air with a combination of Carroll and Kouyate is optimistic or reliant on stopping the delivery at the source. That said, it was an unusually hard-working and intelligent performance by Carroll, who invariably spends too much time backing into defenders and battling with them at close quarters, but in each case against Arsenal he found space and attacked the ball from deep. With a running jump Carroll would beat 95% of top-level centre-halves in the air as often as not, so for all our frailty at the back, some credit needs to go to the striker.
Having gone from 2-0 up to 3-2 down in such a short space of time, and fortunate not to be further behind (a rare thanks to the match officials on that one), Arsene belatedly made intelligent tactical switches in response to a canny defensive one from Bilic.
With Carroll’s aerial dominance having made a mockery at our attempts to sit deep and counter, and the Hammers having dropped into a slightly more defensive shape, Wenger realised that the only way to salvage this game was to take it to the opposition.
Bar Payet, West Ham lacked effective pace in attacking areas, so defensive insurance could be sacrificed in favour of creativity and an increased presence in the opposition box. With Ramsey and Giroud replacing Coquelin and Elneny, we increasingly hemmed West Ham back in their own half, and ultimately were rewarded with an equaliser from Koscielny that I doubt any of our strikers would have been capable of. From then on, Arsenal looked the only team likely to win it, but bar a few half-chances, couldn’t breach what became a deep and well structured West Ham defence.
The pattern of the game echoed the pattern of the season. From the position the team got itself into with 2/5 of the contest gone, the end result has to be seen as a major disappointment, despite a show of character and re-finding our feet and early performance level late on. For the 43rd to 53rd minute read late January to mid-March this year.
It’s hard to know what to say that doesn’t feel like endless repetition.
With the title having realistically dropped off the agenda a few weeks ago, the thoughts of many have moved on to summer clearouts and shopping lists. Some of our positional targets remain the same as the past two or three years, others have come more to the fore of late. There a few key things that definitely need to be achieved: That as many come in as depart, and that the quality of those arriving exceeds that of the departing. In an ideal scenario those arrivals would include a striker and a centre-half of real quality, but of course almost every other team wants one or the other, if not both.
Though the FA Youth Cup semi-final and Friday’s u21s game showed a few players with a lot of promise, the vast majority of standouts are in positions that are already fairly well catered for. With Bellerin last year and Iwobi this, it’s extremely unlikely that more than one revelatory find will graduate next year, particularly as the standout players at those levels are the 17 and 18-year-olds.
So ultimately, ‘internal solutions’ is not where this club needs to be looking over the summer.
For the last decade, this Arsenal team has been performing at a level that lies in the limbo between success and failure. Wenger has mislaid his magic hat, but equally has never done badly enough to warrant the sack when one looks at the bigger picture. It’s frustrating, it can be boring, and it sure as hell has been repetitive, but it’s never been disastrous. Which is what it would take for the board to take the decision about his tenure out of Arsené’s hands.
The real question is how much Wenger wants to go out with a bang rather than a whimper. With one year left on his contract, and the natives restless, both the club and he will want to see more before an extension can be seriously considered.
While temperance in financial matters is his calling card, there are sufficient resources to make at least one really significant splash in the transfer market without negatively affecting the financial ‘legacy’ that he seems pre-occupied by, assuming Champions League football is indeed secured for another year. With the new TV deal kicking in, the greatest competition is likely to come from domestic rivals rather than those on the continent, and not too many can offer that much more than Arsenal in a concrete sense.
Man City will have Pep, Aguero and a lot of attacking talent, but also an ageing core group. Man United are even more Jekyll and Hyde than us, and have even more uncertainty about their direction and the manager. Spurs have had a great year, and look a good side, but are not established at the top table and will be limited by their (albeit publicly assisted) stadium build. Liverpool are moving in the right direction, but are still behind us in terms of recent prestige and current consistency. Chelsea will splash the cash, but have an identity crisis and no continental football. As for Leicester City, even if they do hold onto top spot, it all unchartered territory for them, and their wage limitations will be significant in comparison.
My point is, this year may have been a missed opportunity in a big way, but despite all the defeatism about ‘our only chance’, next year will be an opportunity too. Will the club and the manager at least try to grab it?