Chelsea’s demolition of QPR was expected but their encounter with Newcastle is tricky. Everything seems rosey for the
Ant Hill Mob Stamford Bridge outfit with even Fernando Torres scoring, albeit ably assisted by the absentee defence employed by Mark Hughes. As much as I would find solace in Alex McLeish dropping two Birmingham clubs into the Championship in consecutive seasons, the thought of a Premier League without Mark Hughes and Joey Barton is just too glorious to resist.
For Arsenal the formula is simple; six points and third place is secured. Had they beaten Wigan, that might have been less pressurised but they did not and that is that. The three points could equally be applied to Blackburn or any other side which should have been put to the sword but were not. It is too simplistic to see the season’s end as down to one result when others have contributed no more.
The goal by Robin van Persie at Stoke was his first in seven from open play apparently. Our results in that spell have not been bad, perhaps could have been better but as the manager succinctly noted,
He can push us over the line. There are two games to go. We have been a bit over-reliant on him, I concede that. But it is difficult to change that before the end of the season.
The feeling of being reliant upon a single striker is nothing new. When Ian Wright joined, the emphasis shifted to him away from the more egalitarian phase of George Graham’s managerial reign. Wright was followed by Henry – we’ll ignore Anelka – and so on. It is not that Arsenal need to change the strike balance in the forward, more shift the mentalities of others to accept their responsibilities in goalscoring.
In particular, the midfielders do not contribute enough goals. Arguably, if Arshavin had scored ten goals he might not be winning league titles with Zenit. A look at the scoring records indicates the point; van Persie stands proudly at the top with 35. The next top scorer is Walcott on 11, 46 between the two. The remaining twelve goalscorers manage 40 goals between them. It is not a healthy balance behind the Dutchman.
Previous seasons have seen a much more even spread, partly out of the Dutchman being missing through injury but also with midfielders who have possessed more of an eye for goal. It is this aspect that has been noticeable by its absence this campaign and one that the manager will seek to redress this summer.
Unintentionally, the dominance of van Persie was emphasised by Yossi Benayoun. Comparing the Dutchman to a pre-Chelsea Fernando Torres merely serves to underline the mental approach of the players; look for van Persie first when in the final third. That inhibits some players, stopping nascent runs when they know that the teammate in possession is not looking in their direction immediately. I don’t know if it happens (frequently) but there seems some logic in it.
That van Persie continues to score is testament to his abilities; it also highlights how much of his career has been blighted by injury, certainly in the ‘mature’ years. The failings of the midfield in this sense is nothing new though. Other campaigns have faltered since The Invincibles on similar grounds; this time I sense more of a will from the manager to identify recruits who can solve that problem.
Equally he needs to enhance Theo Walcott’s improvements. Too many of his detractors highlight his inconsistent performances without recognising his improved productivity. That would increase with consistency but Walcott is often underappreciated. A balance to me, would be three or four players hitting double figures as well as Theo and van Persie.
Saturday’s match against Norwich brings back memories of the first Premier League game at Highbury, one Arsenal were expected to win but ended up on the wrong end of a 2 – 4 scoreline. Their aim that day was as wayward as the parachutist who ended up in the North Bank building site. That sprang to mind because of the Arsenal On This Day posts which are upcoming. Today too is about beginnings and endings of an era, this time in 1974.
Why relevant? This squad is the beginning; last summer was a watershed moment, the squad assembled now feels like an important corner is being turned. One where a strong foundation exists, with experience at the club mixing well with the youth. Not wasting the opportunity to finish third is as important as a strong summer for the manager, pruning and reinforcing. Secateurs allowing more subtle adjustments.