If I were to tell you at the start of this season, that Arsenal wouldn’t win the league BUT would give the league champions their biggest drubbing of the season, take four points off Manchester United, finish top of their Champions League group, thrash Stoke 4–1 away and beat Manchester City in a neutral venue in May, where would you assume Arsenal would finish in the table with a resumé like that?
Second? Maybe third?
The fact that Arsenal are fifth, eighteen points behind a Chelsea team that they walloped in September, should be more than enough to show just how much of a disappointment this season has been.
In patches, Arsenal have been excellent, yet in others they have been utterly abysmal.
It’s not something that can be linked to a single incident either.
A lot has been made about Arsene Wenger’s comments about other teams playing as if they’re on holiday, with the implication that Arsenal themselves didn’t start the season like a team that cared about winning, what with their overly cautious treatment of Mesut Özil and Laurent Koscielny, and picking a very inexperienced back–line to face a very dangerous Liverpool forward one.
It’s tempting to look at the Liverpool defeat and say ‘Well that was a six–pointer right there, if we’d picked a full strength team we’d be fourth now.’, but we deliberately rested Koscielny and Özil so that they’d be fit in May.
Koscielny can only play one game a week as it is now because of a troublesome Achilles injury, so rushing him back in August might have prevented him playing at all in the spring, and Özil is in the best patch of form he’s had all season.
There was short term pain, but overall long term gains.
Arsenal aren’t fifth because they lost at home to Liverpool in August. Arsenal are fifth because they lost at home to Watford, drew at home to Middlesbrough, and lost away to West Brom and Crystal Palace. Arsenal are fifth not because they have one more point than they had at this stage last year, but because they only have one more point than they have at this stage last year.
Arsenal spent £90m on a centre back, a centre midfielder and a striker in the summer, sold none of their key players and didn’t improve over the season.
This was the season that Wenger finally used the financial resources available to him, and it made virtually no difference to the team’s results.
This would have been fine if, like in previous years, more than one of our rival clubs who have similar finances available to them were to underperform, but this year, it has been only Manchester United that has failed to live up to expectations, and even then that can be put largely down to their insane fixture list this season. The Europa League final will be their SIXTY–FORTH game of the season!
Chelsea have won the title by implementing a system that Antonio Conte knew his players could play in, and had the players available to play in that system.
Arsenal are fifth because their best players require a team to be built around them in order to get the most out of them, but don’t possess the players to play in such a system. As much as moving to three/five at the back has helped Arsenal in recent weeks, there still remains the issue of shoe–horning players into positions they’re not comfortable in.
Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Özil are at their most dangerous when given license to roam the pitch, yet are currently deployed on the wings instead of through the middle because of the need to play Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey in midfield.
Alex Oxlade–Chamberlain is playing as a wing–back because there’s no opportunities for him to play in the middle. Theo Walcott is once again nailed to the substitutes’ bench because there’s a centre–midfielder playing on the right wing. Lucas Perez has disappeared from sight despite playing well during every appearance he’s made.
All of that is just from this season, it’s going to be a complete clusterf*ck when Santi Cazorla and Jack Wilshere emerge from the treatment room, covered in bandages from head to toe like a mummy from a Scooby–Doo cartoon, play well for three weeks and then get injured again, leaving us back to where we started, playing players out of position because we don’t want to buy replacements for our injured players in case they get fit and play well elsewhere.
Even if the Middlesbrough miracle happens at Anfield on Sunday, and Arsenal somehow scrape back into fourth, it is imperative that those who are in charge at Arsenal do not see this as a let–off.
They have to decide that this has been a season that warrants at least a two year contract extension for the manager, or it hasn’t and he needs to be replaced. Anything in between is merely a cop–out and an indication that nobody at the club is interested in the long–term future of the club.
A one year deal for Wenger at this point would be nothing more than the board accepting that they’d rather Wenger decided himself as to when he should go than sack him themselves.
It would put the club in such a weak negotiating position in regards to signing new players (would you move to a new workplace if you weren’t sure who your boss would be for three quarters of your contract?) that it would be of far better benefit to give him a longer deal as a sign of confidence in his abilities, as much as many of us would feel such a move would be misguided.
Sunday is going to be one of the most important days in Arsenal’s recent history.
It’ll either be the day that real change is initiated at the club, or the day that Arsenal resigned themselves to their own fate and went quietly into the night.