Let’s start with a bit of fun…

 

 

You see, kids? Bar charts can be fun! Live ticker clocks can also be fun. More of that kind of stuff to come later.

But first of all, let’s consider the season as a whole. For once there appears to be a fairly stable consensus among Gooners regarding the positives and negatives of 2013-14. While inevitably missing out lots of specific highs and lows, I would summarise as follows:

Positives:

  • WINNING THE FA CUP
  • Pursuing an unexpectedly strong league challenge up until February
  • Maintaining and nurturing a solid Mertesacker-Koscielny unit at the back
  • Winning three north London derbies without conceding a goal
  • Aaron Ramsey

Negatives:

  • Succumbing to some abysmal big-game embarrassments away from home
  • Falling apart in February / March, and thus slipping to fourth place
  • Being prey to injuries, and the failure to cope with these injuries
  • Suffering another 2nd-round CL exit, preceded (and partly caused) by the limp away loss at Napoli
  • Having insufficient options up front

All agreed? Splendid. Then hurry ye, for to the pub we must go!

 

 

Except that no G4L season review could be so wonderfully brief. You must stay, Patient Reader, as I sit here tapping away in the hope that my fingertips may scratch beneath the surface and somehow reveal facts that we have not hitherto considered. Right then…

 

Chapter 1: A case for the defence

Cast your mind back seven weeks. Lying in fifth place in the table, just four points above Spurs (seriously, go back and look it up), it was difficult to convince anyone that the team had made progress on previous seasons. Nine league games had produced just two wins, while 18 goals had been conceded at an average of two per game. Convincing anyone that this is the best defence we’ve had for years was, and perhaps still is, an extremely unforgiving task.

Yet our defensive displays – with the notable exceptions of certain visits to Manchester, Merseyside, and Fulham Broadway – had impressed me through much of the season. Prior to the start of the campaign, Carl Jenkinson explained to a group of bloggers how Steve Bould continued to do a lot of work with the team on its shape, and its tactics with and without the ball. This, I have long felt, has been notable ever since Bould was promoted to being Arsene’s right-hand man in 2012. The high defensive lines and scatter-gun pressing of previous campaigns appear to have been replaced with a growing level of tactical intelligence. Throughout the season, especially away from home, this was reflected in the side’s comfort in sitting back without the ball in the knowledge that they could be sharp and clinical when turning defence into attack. Cardiff away was a primary example.

The decision against deploying such tactics when facing bigger sides than Cardiff is not something that I will dwell on too much in this article, through fear of drifting onto a lengthy tangent. Suffice to say that Arsene Wenger has said on several occasions that the drubbings away at City, Liverpool et cetera will be studied intensely during the pre-season.

So rather than impose on you some long, drawling, pseud-y tactical stream of consciousness, I will instead turn to a few quick, hard, snappy facts:

 

  • Arsenal’s 17 clean sheets in the league were second only to Chelsea, who kept 18 clean sheets. Incidentally, Liverpool were in the bottom half of this makeshift table, with only 10 clean sheets.
  • This (17) is the joint-most clean sheets that Arsenal have kept in a league campaign since the start of the millennium.
  • The last time Arsenal kept more clean sheets during a Premier League season was 1998-99.

Observe the graph:

 

 

The outlier of 1998-99 (when, incidentally, we still had Bould in our squad – as well as Tony Adams, Lee Dixon, Martin Keown and Nigel Winterburn) sticks out. Incredibly, Arsenal kept 23 clean sheets out of 38 league games that season, conceding only 17 goals.

Yet focusing on the other less-exceptional years, it is notable that Arsenal’s ability to snuff out opponents has improved considerably over the last two seasons and is now at the kind of level that we can associate with title-challenging (or dare I say, winning?) teams.

Which leads us onto Chapter 2.

 

Chapter 2: Are we getting any better?

After the FA Cup final victory, resident club statto Josh James tweeted a rather pleasing fact:

 

Intrigued by this finding, and with a spot of Bank holiday time on my hands, I decided to crunch some numbers.

Apologies if you’re already bored of the Blue Peter-style graphs, but this is what I found:

 

 

As you can see, this was the first season for a long time during which the Arsenal have come even close to winning two-thirds of their competitive fixtures. The last time that we approached such peaks was back when the team-sheet was still adorned by beautiful words like Bergkamp, Vieira, Pires and Henry.

And most notable is the sudden uptick between the 2012-13 season (which itself was not even as bad as the horrific 2010-11 campaign) and the one just past. In short, we have progressed from being a team that wins just over half of its games – and loses to Bradford and Blackburn – to a team that wins nearly two in three games, and actually manages to lift some silverware. Hurrah!

Admittedly, one reason behind such a high win percentage was a particularly low proportion of draws. Indeed, last season produced the lowest ratio of draws (14.3%) out of all the 18 seasons during which Wenger has been in charge.

But even when you compare the proportion of games lost this season, it is still a distinct improvement on recent campaigns. As recently as 2011-12, the team was losing more than one in four of its games – whereas now, it is losing fewer than one in five.

 

 

Chapter 3: But are we keeping up with the crowd?

In recent seasons I have produced this graph to demonstrate, largely, Arsenal’s failure to keep up with the pace-setters at the top of the Premier League. Thus it would be unfair to omit an updated version following what is generally deemed to have been a more positive league campaign. So here goes…

 

 

Finishing on 79 points was, as you can see, Arsenal’s second highest points tally over the last nine years. The negative side is that this would not have been enough to win the league during any season since the turn of the millennium. However, ending “down” in fourth was a relatively harsh outcome compared to recent seasons. As Tim Stillman notes: “79 points would have been enough for 2nd place last year and in 2010-11. In fact, not since 2009 has that total not been sufficient for a top 3 berth.”

The main trend shown in the graph above, and previous examples such as the one measuring clean sheets, is a steady improvement over the last two or three seasons. Finally, Arsenal appear (touch wood) to have moved beyond the point where we constantly lose our best players during their prime years and then struggle to patch up the holes created by their departures.

When I argued a year ago that we were looking forward to the first summer for yonks without losing top players, some people scoffed that there no top players left to be poached. Twelve months on and such a statement would seem absurd, given the likely market value of Ramsey, Koscielny et cetera. Bacary Sagna may be edging ever closer to the fire exit, but losing a 31-year-old full back is simply not comparable to the departures of Fabregas, Nasri, Van Stapleton and so on. All top teams should be able to replace an ageing right-back relatively seamlessly, especially if the rest of the team is becoming stronger.

The club seems to have become better at pinning down key players on long-term contracts, as demonstrated by the recent extensions signed by Ramsey, Cazorla and Koscielny. The team, if core components are kept together, should continue to strengthen – a process that will be essential if, as I expect, sides such as Chelsea, United and even Man City improve their own performances next time around.

 

Chapter 4: Is the squad too thin?

It is tricky to evaluate the squad at this moment, given the unknown departures and arrivals that will presumably occur in the coming months. But looking at the current line-up, this does not seem like a squad that is particularly short on numbers.

Despite Sagna’s impending farewell, we had seven defenders last season all over the age of 22. We had nine senior midfielders / attacking midfielders (Diaby excluded, of course), plus Kallstrom, plus Zelalem. For the record, they are: Arteta, Flamini, Ramsey, Rosicky, AOC, Gnabry, Wilshere, Cazorla, Ozil.

Of course we were unacceptably weak in the centre-forward position, but even this was less a case of numbers and more a case of quality (or lack thereof) and tactical inflexibility. Technically we had three centre-forwards (all in their 20s), plus Podolski, plus Walcott.

The real problem, I feel, is not that the squad is too thin – but rather that we succumb to an excessive amount of injuries and have a manager/squad that has not been particularly adept at coping well when key players are missing.

This excellent article from back in September showed the extent of the club’s injury problems, a situation that was exposed particularly in the final five months of 2013-14. One difference between the season just past and some previous campaigns, for example, was the loss during the latter months of especially crucial first-team players. While a year earlier the team had benefited from an ever-present and rejuvenated Ramsey during the final months, not to mention the contributions of Walcott and Rosicky, this time around the opposite happened. Up until and including Boxing Day, Ramsey made 27 appearances for Arsenal and four for Wales (31 games in half a season) – before getting injured and missing the next three months. Wenger has admitted a few times that Ramsey was probably over-played.

Talking of which – unprepared or unable to field anyone else up front, Wenger played Olivier Giroud 51 times last season. Compare this to the number of appearances made by some of Giroud’s peers:

  • Suarez – 37
  • Sturridge – 33
  • Rooney – 40
  • Lukaku – 36
  • Aguero – 34
  • Eto’o – 35
  • Van Stapleton – 28
  • Adebayor – 25
  • Soldado (stop laughing at the back) – 36
  • Welbeck – 36

To say that Arsenal could have been in with a shot at the title had Ramsey stayed fit is not to make an excuse for the team’s collapse in February, March and early April. Rather, it is an allusion to one of the most worrying traits of the manager and the current set-up – namely, an over-reliance on certain individuals and an apparent inability to utilise a large squad throughout the course of a season.

This is where Alex Ferguson succeeded in previous years, ultimately juggling four forwards (Rooney, Chicharito, Welbeck, the Other One) during 2012-13 in a way that for the most part worked tactically and also kept his squad fresh and competitive. Pellegrini’s title success is arguably due to his squad management; for example, how he adapted on the many occasions when Aguero was injured, and also when Silva was out. And how he rotated and rested players earlier in the season (eg. the full-backs) in order to give himself the best chance of having a strong run-in.

 

Chapter 5: Room for improvement

If Arsenal want to compete for the title next season and beyond, the challenge is three-fold.

Firstly, as Wenger has said, the inability to deal with games away from home against top Premier League opposition needs to be overcome. It is frankly absurd that, out of the 41 goals we conceded in the league this season, 20 (nearly HALF) came in just four matches away from home against the other top-5 sides.

If you make a league table from 2013-14 showing only results away from home against top-half teams, Arsenal are seventh – only narrowly above West Brom and Aston Villa.

A table only including games against bottom-half teams, home and away, puts us top. It’s fine to be flat-track bullies (it’s actually crucial for winning the league, as past experience shows), but you also have to do a tad better when faced with the odd uphill battle.

Secondly, progress has to be made on understanding why the squad is so afflicted by injuries. Renovations are due to be made at the training ground, with local officials visiting Colney earlier in May with a view to granting planning permission. It is hoped that the new facilities will augment efforts to get on top of the problem.

It is difficult to know what goes on behind the scenes, and where (if anywhere) the club is falling short. But one thing we can observe is the over-reliance on players who often pick up injuries on the back of a long and demanding sequence of games. Wilshere’s injury woes possibly started with him being played through “the red zone” at the end of the 2010-11 season.

In order to stop relying on certain names, Wenger must either have more faith in back-up players – or be ruthless in getting rid of them. Some (eg. Bendtner) are already on their way, but a major problem this season was a failure or reluctance to alter our tactics when forced into a change of personnel. One cannot replace Cazorla and/or Ozil in a starting XI with, say, Podolski, and expect to play in remotely the same manner. Even replacing Arteta with Flamini changes the style quite radically. And certainly switching from Arteta-Ramsey to Arteta-Flamini is a huge change, and not one that can be shrugged off with an “ah well, Ramsey’s out so let’s see how we cope” kind of approach.

 

Conclusion:

This season had an element of Groundhog Day about it, until the final few weeks. From 28th January to 6th April, we won just five out of 15 games (losing five, and drawing five) and a familiar late-season capitulation seemed to be on the cards.

After the defeat at Stoke, Wenger insisted that – contrary to popular opinion – Arsenal have been strong finishers in recent years. This was certainly true in 2012-13, but crunch-time wobbles (if you’ll excuse the mixed metaphor) quite reasonably linger in the back of our minds, despite the manager’s protestations.

In 2011-12 the team failed to win in four league games (losing at home to Wigan, drawing to Norwich and Stoke…) before the final-day mayhem at West Brom. In 2010-11, the final 15 games involved six draws, six defeats and only three wins. The 2009-10 season ended with four losses and three draws, and just a couple of wins.

Despite the heroic end to this season, richly-deserved following seven straight victories, it remains worrying that Arsenal are prone to such dramatic collapses in form.

But let us not be so downbeat. Prior to the 2012-13 season, I penned a complaint over the fact (and it was a fact) that Arsenal had gone into the campaign with absolutely no intention of competing for the title. I wrote:

“Who are we to demand glory every season? How can we expect the Arsenal to simply brush aside rivals who spend tens of millions more on their squads each season that we do? Well the truth is that we don’t. But… what we do expect is for the club to try. To make a go of it. To show ambition.”

I still have concerns about the current team, sure. But last season, I feel, largely satisfied the expectation that the club should “make a go of it”. Mikel Arteta said back in August, “The club is very ambitious for this year”, and it’s difficult to argue that the ambition was not evident – both in the signing of Mesut Ozil, and in many of the displays throughout the year. We may have fallen short in the league, but the manager and the team undeniably made an effort to win the title. And, as hopefully explained earlier in this post, there are tangible signs of progress.

But for all these details, for all the ups, downs, victories, defeats, delights and disappointments, our season will ultimately be remembered for the result of the final game.

 

Arsenal – 2014 FA Cup winners

 

It’s good to be back.

Arsene Wenger is famously – some would say infamously – reluctant to make too many changes to a squad during the summer transfer window. Last August he commented as follows, after a certain Other North London Club spent more than £100m on new signings:

“There is a technical risk when you buy more than three players as you unbalance a bit the stability of your squad. It’s always difficult when you bring so many players in to predict how well they’ll do. You have to find a way to integrate them.”

Despite the usual predictions that them lot would finish above our lot, the boss was of course proven right by Spurs’ mediocre season and the abject failure of Lamela, Soldado, Chadli & co. to push their new team onwards.

This, of course, is not to justify or excuse Arsenal’s often unfruitful and parsimonious transfer windows over recent seasons. But ahead of our trip to Carrow Road, it is worth dwelling on Wenger’s warning – if only because Norwich City, and Chris Hughton in particular, have been culpable of breaking a couple of key Arsene adages.

The last time Arsenal visited Norfolk, back in October 2012, Hughton was in a bit of a pickle. He had brought in seven first-team players during the previous transfer window, four of whom started that day (with one on the bench). But with the new team-mates struggling to blend together, Norwich were second from bottom in the Premier League, having not won a single game.

That particular statistic was quickly demolished, of course, with Norwich beating our boys 1-0. The result appeared to be a genuine turning point in their campaign; a fortnight later they defeated eventual-champions Manchester United, and by mid-December they were up to seventh in the league.

(Yes, seventh.)

Ending the season comfortably in mid-table, Hughton appeared to have demonstrated that he could successfully blend together a big group of summer signings – and perhaps this is what gave the club the confidence of allowing him to splash between £20m and £30m on another eight players last summer (albeit that one, Garrido, was already there on loan).

Seven of those eight (Van Wolfswinkel, Garrido, Redmond, Olsson, Fer, Hooper, Elmander) can reasonably be described as first-team candidates, incidentally – a point that we’ll return to later in this post.

This time around, however, there was no turning point for Norwich. Their team has failed to win any back-to-back league games all season, and Hughton was sacked last month. Bar a final-day miracle, the Canaries will be relegated and some of last summer’s signings (Leroy Fer, maybe Nathan Redmond) will be eyed up by teams in superior positions.

The reason I’m going into this is that Norwich have broken a couple of rules that I feel all clubs need to observe if they are to be successful – and certainly if they want to stay up. The first is to achieve a degree of consistency that allows a team to develop into something that is greater than the sum of its parts. And, secondly, to have a clear and visible purpose in the way they play – a factor that is also necessary in order for a side to perform better than you would expect if you merely observed the starting XI on paper.

“In a club you need a philosophy,” said Wenger just last week. With Hughton’s Norwich (and with Cardiff, and with Fulham) it has been extremely unclear what that philosophy, or even game-plan, might be. This is not a problem that has been experienced at clubs such as Swansea, or – and we must be fair – under managers such as Sam Allardyce and Tony Pulis. Think what you will about the latter two (and my thoughts on both are often unprintable) but their teams will typically have a clear and consistent plan for achieving the season’s goals. Such teams, and such managers, rarely get relegated.

Norwich’s lack of consistency in terms of results has mirrored a lack of consistency on the pitch, as Hughton constantly tinkered with what is a pretty large squad. One statistic in particular illustrates this point rather starkly:

Only one outfield Norwich player (Olsson) has started 30 or more league games this season. Compare this to Arsenal, where five outfield players (ie. half the side) have started 30 or more league games. And Norwich have not had the so-called “distraction” of cup games that one would expect to enforce more squad rotation – the Canaries have played five non-PL games this season, compared to Arsenal’s 17 (and soon to be 18).

Comparing Norwich to Arsenal may seem a little odd, but other teams (Hull, Everton, Stoke) can also name five players who have started 30 or more league games this season. The vast majority of teams in the top flight can name three, four or five players to have started this many games.

Just three other teams share Norwich’s record of only having a single player with 30+ league starts – Man United, Spurs and Sunderland. The latter were hit by the instability of the Di Canio regime, while United and Spurs have also suffered from a visible lack of consistency on the pitch. United’s season has arguably been even worse than Norwich’s, relative to expectations, with David Moyes failing to settle on a more regular line-up and also failing to instil any obvious tactical plan.

Some 18 players at Norwich have made 15 or more appearances this season, as the side has been chopped and changed. Allowing one more comparison with the Arsenal, there are only 15 players in our squad to have featured so frequently in the league – despite the long injuries of Ramsey, Walcott et cetera, and the enforced rotation that ensued.

In some ways Norwich’s situation is the polar opposite of Arsenal’s, for example in the centre-forward position. Hughton failed to settle on a first-choice striker (the wolf bloke has played 24 times, scoring only once, while Hooper has played 31 times; and even the hapless Elmander has appeared 28 times, again scoring just once). This contrasts with Wenger’s over-reliance on Olivier Giroud, who will make his 50th (fiftieth) appearance of the season if he plays at Carrow Road.

Yet despite the over-reliance on Giroud and the frustrating lack of viable alternatives, our return to Carrow Road should remind us of the team’s improvement over the last 18 months to two years – a point I made on the Arseblog Arsecast this week.

It’s a dangerous argument to make, amid all the annoyance of another fourth-place finish, but seriously – take a look at our starting XI the last time we faced Norwich away. It included Mannone, Jenkinson, Santos, and Vermaelen at the back. Up front we had a trio of Gervinho, Podolski, and Giroud, who spent most of the evening acting as if they’d never met each other. Arshavin came off the bench. Gnabry came off the bench. Djourou and Coquelin were unused subs. It was a terrible performance.

But back to the point about squad size and transfer windows. Norwich, as well as many larger clubs over the years, have shown the danger of indulging in too much churn at any one time. This may seem daunting for us Gooners, given how many senior (in terms of age) players could leave in the coming weeks. Fabianski, Sagna, Park, and Bendtner can all be assumed as good as gone, while Vermaelen and even Podolski could be slightly more surprising exits. Yet, returning to the earlier theme of Premier League starts, these shouldn’t pose too much of a problem for our first-team stability. Fabianksi, Park and Bendtner have made one league start between them, with the latter two certainly falling into the #deadwood category. Vermaelen has only made seven starts.

The squad requires additions, no doubt about it, yet I feel it is more a case of fine-tuning than overhauling. Refining a nearly-made-it team into a title-winning team is a tough business, as recounted by Jamie Carragher this morning (warning: link opens the Daily Mail). Arsenal are currently seven points behind Manchester City – the same gap that separated our double-winning team of 2002 from Gerard Houllier’s Liverpool. That summer, attempting to bridge the gap, Houllier splashed over £20m on El-Hadji Diouf, Salif Diao, and Bruno Cheyrou. Needless to say, the team went backwards.

Equally, in 2009 Liverpool finished just four points off the top. Yet that pre-season they lost Xabi Alonso (yes, I remember which penny-pinching club missed out on him) and brought in Alberto Aquilani and Sotirios Kyrgiakos. Fast-forward 12 months and they had finished seventh, leading to Rafa Benitez being sacked that summer.

I have long felt that getting a team to the very peak of football’s pyramid (and keeping them there) is the most difficult of all managerial tasks – far harder, for example, than keeping a small team in the division, or hitting the top seven with a middle-spending side, or gaining promotion from lower divisions. A key challenge in this is keeping your best players, and ensuring that any expensive signings push the team up even more notches. As technical boffin-genius Adrian Newey repeatedly proves for Red Bull’s Formula One team, often the cleverest of minor tweaks can make all the difference.

Whatever happens at Norwich, it goes without saying that the real challenges for Arsene come thereafter – is he still capable of winning trophies (starting against Hull), and is he still capable of spending a summer fine-tuning a team into being genuine title contenders during the following campaign? With his contract almost certain to be extended, it won’t be long before we find out.

I talk to Andrew Mangan – founder of Arseblog, about today’s match, the season’s end and what’s going to happen when we do all this again.

You can tweet us @HayleyWright @Arseblog and you can also get Diary of a Season as an audio podcast from iTunes or at: http://diaryofaseason.com

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