Friday, 5 June 2015

The Diary Of A Pessimistic Arsenal Fan - How Good Was Arsenal's Season?

By Shane Thomas

It's part of the post-match ritual of any final. The losing team's fans trudge off, disconsolate. The winning team's fans stay in their seats, vocalising their joy in the form of odes to the heroes of the occasion. For them, and the players, their work is done.

But for the media, theirs is just beginning. Print journalists are frantically filing copy on their first match reports, while T.V & radio rush onto the pitch, trying to get a soundbite from the players and managers, all desperate to be the one to capture the quote that will echo through the ages.

Of course, the post-match interviews are normally quite dull fare[1], and this year's FA Cup Final was little different. However, there was a running theme in the comments from Santi Cazorla, Theo Walcott, and Aaron Ramsey that shouldn't go unmentioned. While seemingly pleased with retaining the FA Cup, and securing Arsenal's second trophy in as many seasons, they all made a point of targeting the Premier League title for next season.

The fact they're explicitly verbalising this aim should bring a soupcon of cheer to Gooners. Combined with their comprehensive dismantling of Aston Villa last Saturday, it's been a while since the entire squad has been so unambiguous in their target for next season.

As one may have inferred from my preview of the match, I expected a better showing from Aston Villa. Not only did their formation play into Arsenal's hands, but the individual showings from their better players was uniformly woeful. Cazorla and Mesut Ozil had the freedom of Wembley, while Alexis Sanchez provided the decisive cutting edge, assisting the first goal with his underrated aerial ability, and blasting home the second.

I also mentioned that winning the FA Cup again held huge significance for Arsenal, as to be accepted as a serious threat in England - and further afield - they had to be a side that consistently put themselves in a place to win trophies.

While using Chelsea as a template is an emetic thought for many Gooners - me included - one should look to their achievements in the post-Carlo Ancelotti period up to the return of Jose Mourinho. They were never in serious contention for the Premier League, yet still won the FA Cup, the Europa League, and the Champions League. Not only did this keep fan discord to a minimum[2], but it kept a winning rhythm among a squad that was largely in transition.

What was pleasing from an Arsenal perspective wasn't just that they are on the cusp of turning open top bus parades into a regular occurrence at the Emirates, but also their manner of victory over Villa. Arsenal have a habit of making things unnecessarily arduous for themselves, so to trounce a side that they should be trouncing could be a liminal moment for the team. It showed an all too rarely demonstrated ruthlessness which is an attendant of success. They'll need the same mindset when entering the summer transfer market, because their rivals will come again. And Chelsea aren't the type of squad that make mistakes.

There's no doubt that Arsenal gradually improved throughout the season. From a point where Alexis was largely carrying a team lacking any coherent strategy, they became a more rounded squad with depth - in numbers, if not always in quality - for the first time in years. But there are still points of order for Arsene Wenger to address.

Wojciech Szczesny is talented, but flaky in goal. And while David Ospina is according to Wenger, the best keeper in the league, "if you look at the stats", the Colombian is little more than a competent keeper, not the type who wins you the requisite points needed to secure the Premier League.

Per Mertesacker is an underrated defensive general, and regained form in the second-half of the season. But he's already 30, and is less reliable without the superb Laurent Koscielny alongside him. The Frenchman has had lingering injury issues, and if the Brazilian, Gabriel (who has shown early promise) doesn't fully adjust to English football, Arsenal will concede too many goals to be competitive.

The Arsenal defensive quandary is linked to the setup of their midfield. Francis Coquelin was arguably the revelation of the season, and has proven himself to be an able midfield bulwark. Cazorla also altered his game as a deeper playmaker with surprising aplomb. But they still look short of the midfield power needed to reach the top of the Premier League summit.

Put simply, would an engine room of Coquelin and Cazorla be enough in a game at Stamford Bridge, Old Trafford, or the Camp Nou? In certain matches, the addition of a Morgan Schnederlin or Geoffrey Kondogbia may be crucial. It's this area which is the biggest hole in the current Arsenal squad.

In thanks partly to comments made by Thierry Henry, the presence of Olivier Giroud remains polarising. But I'm one who still thinks Giroud as a spearhead can fire Arsenal to the title - with caveats.

Giroud is probably a 15/20 goals a season man. It's not prolific, but what Giroud has behind him are a panoply of attacking midfielders and forwards - some with a huge upside - who are capable of picking up the goalscoring slack.

Ramsey, Walcott, Ozil, Danny Welbeck, maybe even Jack Wilshere and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. They are all players capable of scoring 10/15 goals in a campaign. With Alexis also in the mix, and Giroud doesn't need to be prolific. Added to the fact that he's an aerial boon in both boxes[3], and there is no good reason why the goals can't be shared around, given how well the Frenchman links with his midfield.

For the first time since 2010, Arsene Wenger has a squad with the potential to challenge for the Premier League and/or Champions League. If they are to fulfil that potential, then trophies can't be an intermittent treat. 2014/15 will go down as a good one for the Gunners. To finish in the top 4, and win a trophy is not to be sniffed at. But how it will be remembered depends largely on where the club go from here.

[1] - Unless you happen to catch Sir Alex Ferguson, of course.

[2] - Which is an ongoing issue at Arsenal.

[3] - And has helped Arsenal become less vulnerable defending set-pieces than they used to be.

This piece was first published on Think Football.

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