The fat lady has sung. Loud and clear.
A 2-1 reverse to Tottenham at White Hart Lane, our first North London Derby defeat in over a decade, has ended our hopes of winning the Premier League title.
It was always going to be difficult, it was always going to be unlikely and now, it is over. Six points and a significant amount of goal difference stand between us and Chelsea, a gap that is simply too large to bridge with just four games remaining. Stranger things have happened, of course, but they simply won’t be happening this season.
First things first I want to send my condolences to all the UK born and/or bred Arsenal supporters who will be copping flak from co-workers, friends and family for the loss to our local rivals. It’s going to be a long day for you and I hope you can make it through.
I can understand that there is a lot of frustration around the place at the moment. Heck, our season has just been ended at the hands of our most hated rivals. If there’s a time for being frustrated then this is it. However, I do feel we need to maintain a sense of perspective over what we have achieved this season and the very understandable factors that have prevented us from achieving more.
In many ways the reasons for our Tottenham defeat are representative of our season as a whole.
I know that using the excuse of injuries will be frowned upon by many but the quality and quantity of the players missing in this game, as well as the second-leg defeat to Barcelona a week ago, simply cannot be ignored.
All good teams have a host of key players that are ably supported by a larger group of support players. The key players are in effect the leaders of the group, players capable of combining consistency with brilliance and as a result inspiring confidence in the support group to play without fear and to the best of their limited ability.
This season has shown our key players to be Cesc Fabregas, Robin van Persie, William Gallas, Alex Song, Andrey Arshavin and Thomas Vermaelen. Only the latter started this game and for the period between his first-half injury and van Persie’s unexpected introduction, we played without any of them.
Under those circumstances, against a fired-up Tottenham team shooting for fourth place in the league, it was always going to be difficult. To put it another way: if you took Xavi, Lionel Messi, Carlos Pujol, Seydou Keita, Andres Iniesta and Gerard Pique out of Barcelona and forced them to play against Valencia in the Mestalla, would you expect them to win? It’s unlikely.
Without one of Cesc or Song in the middle the likes of Samir Nasri, Abou Diaby and Denilson look completely different players. They look timid and unsure of themselves. With Cesc and Song they look like world beaters, particularly Diaby. It is an example of why support players need the key players around to help the team function as a whole. Too often this season we have been denied that opportunity.
There will be people that say I am simply making excuses for another failed season, that I am avoiding the problems of squad depth and the manager’s inexcusable decision not purchase more players. However, the evidence suggests that Wenger has not only noted the areas where we lack depth but made steps to address them.
Sol Campbell’s signing in the summer transfer window was made to counter a unique problem involving both Johan Djourou and Philippe Senderos that left us short of defensive options on the very eve of the season. I have no doubt in my mind that Djourou was set for a big season with Arsenal, that he would have been rotated regularly with Gallas and Vermaelen and that the calf injuries to our first-choice pair, a result of poor man management and overplaying, would have been far less likely to occur.
However, after making it clear to Senderos that he was not wanted Djourou’s knee played up and both options were lost. It would have been unfair to make Senderos stay at a pivotal moment of his career and likewise, the proximity of Djourou’s injury to the first game of the season made a replacement impossible. In hindsight it was a horrible stroke of luck, yet one Wenger attempted to fix with the only player realistically happy to fill a short-term void; Campbell.
Likewise Wenger’s interest in Marouane Chamakh has indicated his understanding that for this team to function week-in, week-out with a 4-3-3 then at least three physical strikers are required to balance the load. Ideally having two in the front three gives us the best balance of strength, speed and skill and the inevitable signing of Chamakh means we will never have to see Arshavin play up front on his own again.
An argument can be made that Chamakh should have been brought in during the summer when both van Persie and Bendtner were sidelined but this simply wasn’t possible. The Moroccan’s current club Bordeaux were in the middle of their best ever season and were not happy to let Chamakh go for anything but big money. For a player in the last year of his contract who could be picked up on a free at the end of the season, it would have been foolish for a club so respected for its frugality to splash unreasonable cash.
Keen observers will note that in the early part of our season our 4-3-3 formation encouraged the two wingers to apply an immense amount of pressure on the opposition’s fullbacks, very similar to Barcelona’s approach. Arshavin and particularly Bendtner did this with aplomb but as the key options dropped off, so to did the ability for our players to provide that pressure and Chamakh’s arrival will certainly provide a solution to that problem.
The ridiculous injury to Aaron Ramsey has left us unfortunately short in the middle and this is an area that does require attention for the manager. Yet given that it occurred between the summer transfer window and the end of the season, no remedy could be found and therefore no blame could be attached to the manager.
Likewise Manuel Almunia’s bizarre fall from grace after a season that promised so much and Lukasz Fabianski’s inability to capitalise created a very difficult man-management problem for Wenger. It was not one he could sort out during the season but it is one he will have the opportunity to fix during the break.
I realise this has become a bit waffly but I suppose my point is this: there have been very understandable reasons for our inability to win silverware this season and they should be considered when judging the manager and the club’s performance.
Too many key players have been injured, a couple of very difficult man-management situations have prevented the opportunity to adequately cover the areas that have lacked depth and our goalkeepers have simply underperformed.
But on the positive side the squad appears to be playing with unity, showing a grit and togetherness that has not been apparent in previous season while the manager appears clued-in to the problems with his squad, as shown by the signings of Campbell and Chamakh. When you combine that with the solid state of our club, the development of a whole host of players – Song, Diaby, Bendtner, Gibbs and Eboue to name a few – and the fact that we have improved on last season’s league position there is much to remain optimistic about.
Extending our North London Derby record and winning the league title may have proved beyond us, but let’s not lose our perspective as to what has been achieved this season.
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