Another Saturday morning in the football season, the penultimate one and just as musicians refer to the ‘difficult second album’, Arsène and Steve Bruce have matches they would rather not face this weekend. Not because the opposition is hard, simply that to their left is deep blue sea and on the right, the devil laughing maniacally. What team to field, what players to risk and is it really necessary to test player x’s fitness? Such things can be pondered over this morning’s playlist, Contract Killers, found by clicking on the link or for those with a Spotify player, the right sidebar. No matter which division the match is played in, for the players and managers of the clubs involved in the FA Cup final, the last match of the league season has always been a distraction unless there was a title at stake or relegation to be fought.
Or more to the point, it is us, the supporters, who could do without this match. Arsène observed earlier this week that “in preparing for the FA Cup final, it’s important to feel that you play well in the game before“, preparing us instead for a strong line-up to fielded at Carrow Road tomorrow. Norwich need West Brom to lose heavily and to win by about seventeen goals themselves to prevent their relegation. Arsenal meanwhile, need a Chelsea defeat and an eighteen goal winning margin to secure third. The narrative for a goalless draw is set. At least Woijciech Szczesny will be happy with that, Petr Cech’s injury guarantees the Golden Gloves award for most clean sheets in a season if the Pole doesn’t concede a goal tomorrow. Personally, I’d be far happier if none of the Wembley XI were even considered for the trip to Norfolk but 79 points is the manager’s target, another tick in his boxes of improvement this season. The target for next year is a modest improvement, over 80 points which is anywhere between a two and twenty point improvement on this campaign. It would keep the seasonal tally gradually creeping up to its 2007/08 high of 83 making it sound like a rampant dose of inflation.
The headlines may scream that the gap will be closed by hard work, substantiating the view that there will not be much transfer activity this summer, Wenger’s words were not so closed and narrow. The interpretation depends on the narrative you want to follow, “We have hard work in the summer to achieve that” . Who has that work to do, the players, coaching staff, manager, the executive team working on Arsenal transfers? All of them, combined, will bring about the improvements desired; relying on one part of that is not planning to succeed, it isn’t planning at all.
If he had concerns about his squad, Wenger will be feeling happier this morning following the announcement of Laurent Koscielny’s contract extension. Whilst Bacary Sagna has procrastinated, stalled and is now refusing to talk about his future until after the World Cup, his compatriot has renewed with the minimum of fuss, entirely in keeping with his style of play. The stories of Barcelona and Madrileño interest came as no surprise with talks ongoing; just as Arsenal are used as interest by other players, the big clubs are used by our own. When you consider the trials and tribulations he suffered down the yearss – Wembley, early season dismissals, own goals – the way Koscielny bounces back and continues to improve as a player every season, is a testament to how hard he works at his game every day. Forming a solid partnership with Per Mertesacker – my Player of the Season – helps, drawing on the German’s experience but you sense it is a two-way street with the pair trusting the other’s judgement and views.
The settled nature of the back four is going to be disturbed when Sagna leaves and the importance of retaining Koscielny will be key in maintaining a sense of stability whilst helping a newcomer settle in to the club. Sagna is not discussing his future until his contract expires, as sure a sign as any that he is leaving. It is his choice and nobody can complain given his service to the club since joining seven years ago. In Premier League terms, that is perilously close to being given a gold watch such is the fluidity of player movement in the modern game. That view presumes anyone has offered the defender an acceptable deal, of course. The possibility exists that talk of Mancunian, French or Turkish interest is a negotiating ploy; if so, it’s a helluva game of chicken, Brian and leaving the feeling that The Sabrejets had it nailed: Sworn to fun, loyal to none.
Finally, at a time when FFP negotiations are giving the game even more of a bad name, not everything Manchester City does is wrong as this piece in this morning’s Independent shows. It doesn’t mean the way that they approach the game financially is right or justified but there is a sign that change in attitudes towards qualifications is moving in the right direction. You still sense that the likes of Heighway, Coppell or Le Saux are viewed suspiciously but are clubs finally ingraining a sense of social responsibility into their culture, ensuring that the scrap-heap has a more cushioned landing.
Enjoy your Saturday wherever you are spending it. Yes, dear, I’ve got my wallet…