Wednesday night’s latest installment of the ‘The Lionel Messi Show feat. Barcelona’ was one of the most incredible ever produced, even for a programme that has had impeccable script-writing ever since its inception.
Drama, intrigue, and another stellar performance from the leading actor.
It was incredible for two reasons, the first being Messi’s seemingly endless desire to come up with new ways to reach into someone’s chest and rip their soul out as he dribbles past them. Jerome Boateng wasn’t so much beaten as he was besmirched as Messi glided by him.
The second reason was more disheartening. Bayern, despite missing their two best attackers in Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery, more than held their own against Barcelona for 70 minutes. They are a really, really good team with fantastic tactical flexibility and Barcelona ripped them to shreds in the final 20 minutes.
After the game ended, all that I could think was ‘Barca just destroyed a very good team. Bayern are better than Arsenal. Christ, have we got a lot of catching up to do!’
Now, I can already hear the argument against this. Yes, we’re playing our best football in years, and yes, since the start of the year Arsenal have played 22 games and won 18 of them. But 22 games is not a big enough sample size to judge how good a team is, especially when there is one huge mitigating factor affecting football right now;
At the end of every season, players are pretty much exhausted from the efforts that 50+ games, thousands of miles of travelling and the constant conditioning needed to remain at as high a level of fitness. As anyone who has lost weight through exercise will tell you, the hard part isn’t losing the weight itself, it’s keeping it off that takes it out of you.
During the second half of every season, performances often tend to decline in quality because players aren’t able to put in the same effort as they could during the autumn. It’s accentuated this season because of the World Cup, which led to many important players not getting the required rest needed in order to prepare for the season ahead.
A key factor in Chelsea’s success this season was their ability to play all their key players more often than any of their rivals. Branislav Ivanovic, Gary Cahill, John Terry, Nemanja Matic, Cesc Fabregas and Eden Hazard all started over 30 Premier League games this season. For Arsenal, only Per Mertesacker and Alexis Sanchez have done the same.
But Chelsea have looked extremely jaded over the last few weeks, as the toll of what in essence was a 21-month long season with a three-week holiday jammed into the middle of it, finally kicked in. That’s why their desire to become less and less adventurous grew as winter turned into spring, because attacking football means more running. Jose Mourinho told his team to sit back, save their energy and counter only when it was clear that there was a chance to score. And it worked.
But why hasn’t the same happened to Arsenal? As mentioned previously, a record of 18 wins in 22 games is hardly an indication of declining performances, and they certainly aren’t sitting back and conserving energy like Chelsea had to. Hull City were comprehensively trounced last Monday, thanks in most part to some outstanding movement by the attacking players and some even better passes to find them.
The answer lies in another stat mentioned above, that only Mertesacker and Alexis have started over 30 Premier League games this season. For most of the first four months of the season, Arsenal were robbed of the services of Laurent Koscielny, Mesut Özil, Aaron Ramsey, Theo Walcott and Olivier Giroud, thanks to a myriad injuries.
But whilst it hindered us then, it also meant that those players were able to spend time resting, something everyone else was unable to do. Since they all came back, we look in fine form, but we also look like we’re fresher than other teams. That would make sense, seeing that the spine of our side didn’t play any football for ten weeks of the season.
Of course, putting our recent good form down to just having fitter players would being doing Arsenal a disservice. Alexis has been a beast all year, and now that he and Özil are finally having a chance to play a run of games together, the chemistry needed to play a passing style such as ours is at last starting to develop.
It’s the little things that are so crucial with how we play, like knowing which foot to pass the ball to, or knowing which shoulder to pass the ball over so that the attacking player can run onto it without breaking stride, or knowing that when a player plants his left foot in a certain way, he’ll always cut right and that’s where he’d like the ball passed to.
Knowledge like this can only be learned by playing over long periods of time, just like your local pub will only know what drink you always have if you keep showing up and ordering it repeatedly. There will come a time when you can just turn up, put your finger in the air, and the barman will turn up with what you wanted, but it won’t be for a while.
It’s possible that we are starting to the see the true potential of this team be realised, and a third place finish in the league along with retaining the F.A Cup would certainly be a sign that they were improving on last year. But is it enough of an improvement to warrant ‘massive changes‘ to Arsene Wenger’s transfer plans in the summer? I’m not so sure.
When fit, our first XI is a match for anyone in the Premier League. But we’re still trailing behind the likes of Barcelona and Bayern Munich. It may be that because of their superior financial might, we never have as good a squad as either of those, but we at least have to try. With the likes of Lukas Podolski, Joel Campbell, Tomas Rosicky and Mathieu Flamini all set to leave in the summer, the spaces needed to bring in reinforcements at both the defensive midfield position and at goalkeeper will be free, and the money needed to fill those spaces will be there.
It’s not like the Premier League will stand still during the summer either. Already, Manchester United have purchased Memphis Depay, a hugely promising winger from PSV. Chelsea and Man City are also going to bolster their squads as well. Tottenham will no doubt convince themselves that whoever they bring in will finally close that gap, and who knows what Liverpool will do.
That’s why it’s crucial that whatever Wenger thought was necessary to do in the summer, is still implemented. As good as we have been in the last four months, to think that the level we’re at now will be good enough to win in twelve months would be extremely shortsighted on Arsenal’s part.
The easy part is becoming as good as our rivals, it’s going to be far more difficult to be better than them.