A Season Of Failure For Arsenal?

In the latest of our Fight, Fight, Fight pieces Daniel Storey and Matthew Stanger go head to head (not literally) over those that are still criticising Arsenal's season...

Last Updated: 15/05/14 at 12:56 Post Comment

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The Defence
People have been wrong about Arsenal before and they will be wrong about Arsenal again. This is a club that has refused to over-commit financially on the recruitment of high-profile players (to the great annoyance of many supporters), and yet has guaranteed Champions League football for the 17th consecutive season, a record matched only by Real Madrid. Given that Madrid have spent £1.3billion on their playing squad in such a period should act as an indication of Arsenal's consistent achievement.

Seasons inevitably contain highs and lows (and Arsenal's 2013/14 perhaps more than most), but when the dust settles in May they can only reasonably be judged against pre-season expectations. Football365 are no barometer of successful forecasting, but looking back to our pre-season predictions saw five of our merry band of nine (myself included) omitting Arsenal from the top four entirely, with the other four choosing them to finish fourth. Even Matthew Stanger, an opinion now presumably altered to fit his narrative, predicted: 'Arsenal will sneak fourth again.'

It was a view backed up by the bookmakers. After a summer in which Manchester City had spent big, Chelsea had welcomed the return of Jose Mourinho and Spurs had spent over £100million on new players, fourth was the realistic ambition with the hopeful anticipation of success in a domestic cup competition. So it has proved.

Arsenal finished with 79 points in the Premier League, more than they have achieved for six years and enough to finish second last season. In the five campaigns previously Arsene Wenger's side had finished 18, 11,12,19 and 16 points behind the champions, and yet this time around they ended just seven points behind a Manchester City side that have spent £670million since 2008.

Of course there have been frustrations this season at Arsenal's inability to contain the biggest and the best sides, but these were born purely out of the feelings of hope that the early-season form, coupled with the arrival of Mesut Ozil, had injected - in the space of one season Arsenal became a victim of their own success. They started their league campaign in startling fashion, dropping just five points by mid-November, and still topped the table in February. Of course a run of 13 points in 11 matches at a crunch time of the season was disappointing, but City finished seven points clear of Arsenal despite having only dropped points in six matches since November 10.

But the most compelling reasons for offering Arsenal and Wenger congratulations rather than criticism for their achievements this season have been the numerous and notable injuries suffered by key players. Arsenal's first-choice midfield five behind Olivier Giroud as a lone striker would, many would agree, be comprised of Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey, Mesut Ozil, Santi Cazorla and Theo Walcott, a wonderful mix of creativity and pace.

Of the 190 league matches that those five players could have started in total, Wenger was only able to get 103. Cazorla started 30 games, Ozil 25, Ramsey 20, Wilshere 19 and Walcott just nine - only one of Arsenal's first-choice midfielders starting more than two-thirds of their matches. The key midfield trio of Ramsey, Wilshere and Walcott started just 48 PL games between them, and adding in the frequent absence of Kieran Gibbs and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (30 league starts in total) makes the end result evident - a constant battle to name a coherent attacking unit.

One only needs to look to the example of Ramsey to indicate just how unfortunate Arsenal were. Until sustaining a thigh strain on Boxing Day, the Welshman had contributed 13 goals and seven assists in 26 games - he was the epitome of the club's early-season form and would possibly have been named Player of the Year had he continued at such a pace. Two goals and two assists in his final four games after returning from his three-month lay-off simply offered a forlorn sense of 'what might have been'.

It is a wholly obvious statement, but having your best players increases the potential for success. Liverpool and Manchester City have been rightly praised for their fluidity and comprehension in attack, but Yaya Toure missed just three league matches, Jordan Henderson three and Steven Gerrard just four. Suddenly finishing seven points behind one team and five behind the other doesn't seem so bad.

It is now both fashionable and predictable to lambast Wenger and Arsenal for their flaws, and such blemishes evidently do exist. Nonetheless, to label this season as a failure simply because they did not maintain a performance level that had astonished even the most optimistic of spectators is a deeply revisionist stance to take, particularly when the club's substantial injury issues hampered realistic hopes of glory.

On Saturday Arsenal will have the chance to finally end their trophy drought, the obvious and damaging monkey on the back of Arsene Wenger. It should act as the cherry on top of a season that has tasted more sweet than sour. Arsenal remain a work in progress, but improvement beats inertia.


The Prosecution
I just think they could have done better.

Daniel Storey (Defence) and Matthew Stanger (Prosecution). One of them researched this more than the other.

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