First of all this morning, a blatant and unashamed plug for an upcoming book written by Dave Seager on George Armstrong. Pre-orders are being taken at Legends Publishing for Geordie Armstrong On The Wing with publication to come in October. Those who sign up before the end of August will appear in the dedications section which is my birthday present to myself sorted and with the forthcoming book, The Ballad Of Paul Vaessen by Stewart Taylor from GCR Books in August, these are two Arsenal books to look forward to reading.
So to this morning. Well, it’s all a bit quiet, isn’t it?
I jest of course although I make no promise that you won’t regret the decision to continue but I’ll do so in the hope that something can be salvaged from the wreckage of this Wednesday morning. To be fair, it’s not looking promising but last night’s win in Munich put some perspective on Per Mertesacker’s honest assessment of the season. It was not Real Madrid’s victory – that’s so passé now that even the nouveau riche side of Manchester can do it – but the manner in which Bayern were dismantled that highlights just how far Arsenal’s performance levels have yo rise to become genuinely competitive on the Champions League stage.
The most successful club in the tournament’s recent history were hung, drawn and quartered by the most successful club in the tournament’s history. It was an object lesson in dismantling Bayern and whilst I understand the joy some took in their defeat, it is chastening to compare it to our own performances in two seasons against the Bundesliga champions. No doubt Wojciech Szczesny’s sending off impacted the outcome of this season’s first leg but if anyone truly believes Arsenal are currently capable of producing the performance level reached by Real Madrid last night, given the level of opposition, they are simply fooling themselves and ignoring the evidence of this season.
Mertesacker highlighted the squads failings in the away matches against five of the top seven team sum. He was entirely honest when he observed that,
The fans wanted us to finish further up, we were top of the league for a long time and everyone dreamt about getting the title, but it takes more than just staying at the top until the winter period. We couldn’t afford those away [defeats] against big teams so we didn’t deserve to be in the top three. That is something for next year that we have to manage better. I think the early away games killed us. Hopefully we can learn from that.
The defeats he referred to are nothing new in terms of win, lose, draw. I feel he is overly optimistic in suggesting we will learn lessons from those defeats, we haven’t over the past few years so why will next season produce that improvement? In the cold light of day, no-one can produce evidence that we will. Essentially, it falls into belief that we will and that goes to the core of being a football supporter; when the evidence isn’t there, we believe, we hope, to irrational lengths most of the time.
Eastlands was not unexpected given the performance in Naples during the preceding midweek. Anfield and Stamford Bridge followed the pattern of the conceding early goals but in truth we could have weathered those storms had we picked up points at Old Trafford and Goodison Park; four points there would have offset them but even then, the fifteen dropped there were not as costly as those dropped against Villa, West Brom, Southampton, Stoke, Swansea. Three wins in that grouping and the top of the table was in sight. Or can we put it down to such simplistic measures? The results are the tapestry of the season and no one point dropped was more costly than the other. Arguably not beating Chelsea, Everton, City and United at home was as costly, particularly since two of those teams would be within reach had we done so.
Back in the early-80′s, George Graham wrestled with a similar problem with a younger side. It took him a couple of years to get it right with his teams in 86/87 and 87/88 paving the way for the title the following season. Wenger’s teams of 1999/2000 and 2000/01 did the same, the latter season sitting in second place for almost the whole of the season, even if it was somewhat depressing knowing that not even being undefeated away from home was enough to land the Premier League title. In both those scenarios, it was easy to see that progress was being made, there was something tangible that you could see would lead to better. It’s harder for the manager now, the footballing landscape is different and both he and Graham only had one team to overcome. Now there are three or four; the trade-off to that is that below eighth, the teams seem to be below average in quality with a genuine interchangeability between the top of the Championship and mid-table in the Premier League. Despite some poor results, Arsenal have cracked that particular nut, taking 47 points so far from the bottom half of the table, equal with United as the best record in the Premier League. The problem is top half; we have the fifth best record with the points gap on this section of results far more damaging than the good done against lesser teams.
I want to believe that the lessons will be learned from this season, I genuinely believe the players want to do so but it is not a problem they can solve themselves. The performances in some of the matches was so at odds with form that a major contributing factor had to be that we were sent out with the wrong gameplan. Liverpool have overcome everyone at home who has gone with a plan to attack them; Chelsea sought to stifle and then take advantage of mistakes. Frequently, despising Abramovich’s money or Mourinho stands in the way of recognising that between their depot and our relatively open style of play, is a happy and successful balance. Arsenal used to have that balance, Wenger’s teams in the early part of his era at the club were rarely exposed so readily from the kick-off. Any team can have an off-day which we might have put the drubbing at City down to but when it happens three times in a season, there is a more fundamental problem.
That’s where the lesson has to be learned. Time will tell if it is.