Norwich City 0 – 2 Arsenal
0 – 1 Ramsey (53)
0 – 2 Jenkinson (64)
So that’s it then. The painful familiarity of someone else being crowned Premier League champions, the comfort blanket of fourth for Arsenal. A season pockmarked with improvement and pricked by the deflation occasioned by the impact of heavy defeats. Closer to the title has rarely felt so far away.
As it was, Arsenal emerged from Carrow Road with the points thanks to Aaron Ramsey’s sumptuous volley and Carl Jenkinson’s maiden goal for the club, celebrated with exuberant ecstasy of a terrace loon, at once wholly appropriate and out of kilter with the afternoon. The match may have been played with the intensity of a pre-season friendly but that didn’t matter, Arsenal’s objective was to get three points, avoid injury and gain match sharpness for those who needed it. It didn’t have to be in that order and it’s safe to say that Arsène wouldn’t have cared so long as all three were achieved.
Beyond the goals there was little of note to talk about from the match. Abou Diaby returned to action, Jack Wilshere too; Fabianski got a clean sheet under his belt ahead of the final. Bacary Sagna seemingly played his last match in an Arsenal shirt and at centre back, Wenger’s options have run out and the task of replacing such versatility emphasised.
Wembley seems to be beckoning for as strong a squad as Arsène can field. Perhaps strengthened if Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain comes through the first training sessions from Wednesday. Yet that captures the significant factor for the same end product come May; a squad that suffered from the omnishambles of the previous summer, one where the grand plan floundered and ended with the club’s record transfer fee being spent in the exquisite flair of Mesut Özil. And missed depth in crucial areas, opportunities spurned for the signing that might have made the difference.
Somewhat fittingly, the German wandered instinctively through the Norwich defence all afternoon, enjoying a trip through the footballing Norfolk Broads but it was the sorely missed Aaron Ramsey who broke the deadlock, finishing with a volley that brought romantic comparisons with Dennis Bergkamp. It’s the end of the season and minds are allowed to wander. So long as the players are focused at next weekend’s FA Cup final, there will be few complaints – and I am sure – more florid exultations in the event of victory.
To finish seven points from top spot is, on the face of it, a vast improvement on previous seasons. A season where 128 days were spent at the top of the table. A season which if it had been based on calendar years, Arsenal were worthy champions; a new trophy to be collected but will anyone challenge for it come the end of 2014?
A season when the champions scored exactly 50% more goals – the runners-up almost the same – underlining where the difference between the two this season; one of them anyway. It’s an area Arsène has previously highlighted as needing some of the summers’ hard work he spoke of last week. It’s not just down to Olivier Giroud, he did well enough but he needs support, a partner on the pitch so that…no, it’s a cheap gag and I will not stoop that low this early in the morning. Arsenal scored their lowest number of goals in six seasons, falling short of two goals per game on average. But we had the best home record in five seasons. Shame we took the same number of points on the road as last time around, despite losing more games.
So was it an improvement, a stepping stone along the road of progress? The problem with more points, being closer to the champions, it’s tangible but meaningless. No two seasons are the same and with City not reaching the same total as United last season, we could have finished with two points less than 2012-13 and still remained closer to first place. We still finished fourth and whichever way you cut it, that’s the same as last season, the sixth time in the decade since The Invincibles. Our goal difference was worse because we scored fewer goals yet the back four is being lauded for so many clean sheets. How distorting were four away games, how pointless are such isolated comparisons.
Has this season been better in the Champions League? No, same frailties in the group phase, same exit in the knockout stage, put into sharper perspective by Real Madrid’s demolition of Bayern in the second leg. Counter-attacking genius by Ancelotti or just one of those nights? Their domestic form suggests the latter but it highlights the ruthlessness Arsenal need to find in the home matches, to give themselves a chance of progress and not be constantly on the back foot in the knockout stage. The problem is that the group stage is only getting harder and in truth Arsenal are perilously close to not being a top seed. Mind you, being in the second pot of eight is where the club sits in Europe’s premier competition if we are honest with ourselves and if we pay heed to our record.
I know your impatience is growing; was it an improvement? It’s a mixed bunch of pluses and minuses that leave the answer subjective. It’s folly to say the campaign has not been better than last time but is it as good as some claim? No, not by a long shot. It was a stepping stone, a step forward. How big that stride was and whether it is followed by two back depends entirely on this summer being organised and executed an awful lot better than last.
Does the prospect of an FA Cup win make the season feel any better? Of course it does, such silverware is always welcome and has the bonus of making the players feel that they are making progress, that they are winners. It’s why much of the coming week will be spent spinning the question of which XI to start with against Hull City. Loyalty against practicality; the present against the future. Arsène claims that he has not decided on his line-up for the final. That’s probably true but I bet he is only pondering two positions; right back and goalkeeper. He will know the rest or be clear that if everyone is fit, who the other nine will be. Maybe he is clear already about all positions, maybe his cup side is where his loyalties lie. The practicality of it all comes at the final whistle, where decisions are vindicated or not.