A fortnight ago I wrote that second place was still within Arsenal’s reach despite the points gap, and with one point from a possible nine, Tottenham made my optimism a reality.
In a season where the phrase ‘peak Arsenal’ was banded about with alarmingly justifiable regularity, Spurs managed to out-Spurs themselves in a way that would make all previous Spurs capitulations proud. Truly power-shift-tastic.
As the phrase goes, “Tell a man a joke and he’ll laugh for a minute; give him Tottenham Hotspur and he’ll laugh for a lifetime.”
However, as the interweb-beast has in the last 24 hours done such a truly complete job of Spurs trolling, that it would take the longest column in history to do justice to, I get to veer from my usual position of one-eye-blind optimism to a more sober perspective.
Despite the inherent gutlessness of the lot down the road, this year’s shadow is barely enough to cover the cockerel, and no matter how truly excellent Sunday was, it doesn’t hide the fact that they were closer to winning the league this year than we were.
Sure, their heads exploded at Chelsea in a way that provided perfect popcorn munching material, and all Daniel Levy’s horses and men couldn’t put them back together again, but we still pissed away our best chance at a title in a decade.
In many ways, 2007-2008 was a better opportunity, as the team was actually playing brilliantly, but for me, that team still gets a pass given that basically four of the front six got injured after the end of the transfer window, and the others got tapped-up in blatant and destabilising fashion.
Of course, as Petr Cech pointed out, this year we had long-term injuries to Cazorla, Coquelin, Rosicky and Jack that screwed our midfield balance, plus the first injury to the desperately unfortunate Welbeck, but we had transfer windows to bring in more bodies if needed, and to be honest, even when fresh, this team probably only put in 4 or 5 really convincing performances all season.
Now, obviously, there are two ways to read this. Perhaps the fact that we finished second despite such a tangible feeling of disappointment since Christmas only confirms the strength and depth of a squad that is only two or three pieces away, particularly as those departing (more on them later) had a truly negligible impact on the team this year.
The flip side of the coin is at the core of what has led to what from outside may appear a disproportionate level of fan unrest. The knowledge that this club has been ‘two or three pieces away’ for a decade or more (bar perhaps 2012-13), and that the manager has not yet shown the willingness to stick his neck out with an excess of resources as opposed to taking the risk of a shortfall.
So, as we find ourselves looking forward to the summer and next year, it’s hard to gauge whether optimism or pessimism is the appropriate feeling. As ever, much depends on summer transfer activity.
And that starts with departures.
We keep hearing rumours about Özil’s reluctance to stay (in direct contradiction to all public utterances from the player himself), and there is certainly plenty of smoke around the idea that Sanchez has his eye on the exit door. Those with a permanent agenda of criticising the manager take what they have heard as fact, but except for a very small number of people who are GENUINELY in the know, ignorance, optimism and fear are all we have.
Certainly, keeping both is key to the club’s ambitions in the short term, as both will likely be vital components to any title challenge next year.
Beyond our marquee men, there are plenty of whispers about the likes of Walcott, Gibbs and Oxlade-Chamberlain, and it’s not hard to see why all three might be considering a change. All players want to play, particularly with international careers to consider, but I think the desire to leave would have been stronger had they found themselves in their current situations a year ago, or do so again in twelve months time. Ultimately, none will be playing in this summer’s tournament, and a change of clubs wouldn’t make any difference.
We all know that Wenger hates large numbers of player turnover and is almost pathologically loyal to those who he feels have a good attitude, and no has ever criticised the aforementioned trio’s professionalism. So the only way that any of the three will be leaving this summer is if they push for a move in a major way.
Wenger has already been quite definitive that Walcott will be staying, and there has been little direct questioning about Gibbs or the Ox. Perhaps because Oxlade-Chamberlain is injured again, and because Gibbs is clearly an Arsenal man, as illustrated again by his celebrations at overtaking Spurs when we went 2-0 up on Sunday.
Of course, there are three players that we know are leaving. The most missed will be Rosicky, who’s final Arsenal season characterised so much of his career at the club. His cameo for the first team and appearance for the u21s showed that he still has the talent to be an impact player at this level, but fitness won’t allow him to show it. Flamini’s first spell was probably more missed than his second will be, but despite his limitations, he at least was able to get through 90 minutes on a number of occasions, and I’m sure Ozil will miss his BFF. As for Arteta, his post game comments suggest that he himself recognised that his legs have gone as much as the fan base.
“It is very hard to stop but I wanted to leave it,” he said in the Irish Independent “I wanted to decide, and I thought for the last few months that I wasn’t good enough to represent this club on the pitch.
“You have to accept it. It’s been a long time to be playing football and I didn’t want to cheat them or anyone. It is time.
“You have to be honest with yourself. That’s what I haven’t been upset with the manager, I have been upset with myself.
“When you can’t get it right and you have been through injuries and difficult moments at this level… for me to play at this club you have to be the best in your position.
“When you lose that, I think you should be away from this place. I have probably been here too long. In the last few months, I probably didn’t deserve to be here but at least I got the chance today to stay in touch with them and it has been amazing.
“For me, the standards you need to play for this club, it cannot be eight out of 10, it has to be 10 out of 10. When you cannot deliver that, it is not good enough.”
His other comments will go down very well as well:
“When you leave the club is when you see what you mean to people and how you feel about the club. My emotions and the way I feel about the people cannot be any better. I was very scared about this day because 99 percent, that was my last game as a professional footballer. I can’t even talk. I feel very honoured to play for this club and captain this place. This club is class and once you are here you never forget it.”
Sad to see three honest injuns and popular players go, but ultimately, three squad players with 15-20 appearances between them all year is a waste of limited squad space resources. Should all three be replaced, as the manager suggested in his pre-match press conference, the squad should be stronger and better balanced than it was this year.
The stories about Xhaka from Borussia Mönchengladbach don’t want to go away, and between him and Elneny, the roles performed by Arteta and Flamini would be taken care of at a higher level.
The next question is: who should fill the squad spot taken up by Rosicky?
In practical terms, it will probably be Alex Iwobi. But as a player whose tender years means he won’t count against the 25 man squad cap, there is room for one elsewhere.
And every one of us hopes it will be a striker.
This isn’t having a go at Giroud or Walcott or Welbeck. To varying degrees I like all three, and want to have them at the club next year. But hard facts show that a club can’t win the title without a striker who gets at least mid-20s goals a season.
Of course it is terribly frustrating that it has come at the cost of the next nine months of a resurgent Danny Welbeck, but it appears that the injury will force Wenger’s hand when it comes to bringing in an upgrade up front, which many of us felt should have been the case in August last year. The key difference now is availability.
And Wenger recognises this and has made recruiting another striker a summer priority.
“When you buy you want to buy top strikers,” he said. “[You do it] by finding the right person. We have targets, and hopefully we can do that.”
Fingers crossed that his hopes can become reality. An influx of pure goalscoring ability would do wonders for the confidence of the players and the supporters alike. And has to be our absolute top priority for the summer ahead.