How Did The Season Go?
Thousands of words have already been written about Arsenal’s season and, moreover, what it all means for Arsène Wenger. In short: it didn’t go to plan. The point of no return has been passed and a brutal and poisonous atmosphere, long since fermenting on social networks and the shoutiest, most annoying, least edifying YouTube channel in history, has engulfed the Emirates Stadium. Truthfully, it’s not hard to see why.
It’s gone wrong on so many fronts for Arsène Wenger it’s hard to believe. No step forward, nor giant leap, comes unaccompanied: there’s always another step back, or an embarrassing pratfall. Every time it looks like things are finally on the up, the Gunners come crashing back to Earth, and each impact hurts more and leaves a bigger mark than the last.
Having recovered their position as one of the Premier League’s powerhouse buying clubs, the Gunners have failed to establish a uniformly high level throughout the squad and now find themselves embroiled in a nervy and inevitably bitter battle to keep hold of Alexis Sánchez and Mesut Özil, a task that looks increasingly difficult now that they’ve failed to qualify for the Champions League, while Chelsea, Tottenham, Manchester City, Liverpool and Manchester United all did.
Having successfully integrated several promising youth products into the first team, Wenger finds himself wondering whether Theo Walcott, Aaron Ramsey, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Kieran Gibbs and Jack Wilshere are ever going to justify the hype with Premier League medals (spoiler: they don’t).
Having finished ahead of all of their traditional rivals last season only to be trumped by Leicester City (yes, that really happened), the Gunners have once again crumbled under the weight of tactical naivety, mental weakness and plain arrogance, and instead of mounting a title push as promised, their second half of the season has been dominated by the battle for fourth. Worst of all, they’ve finished below Tottenham for the first time since 1995.
While fans of lower league clubs will never see why Arsenal fans complain so much about literally everything, it’s undeniably frustrating to see the same mistakes made so many times in succession, with so much promise repeatedly squandered – if finishing second, third or fourth every year can be defined as ‘squandered’.
Looming large over absolutely every other issue at the club is the future of Arsène Wenger, whose contract expires this summer and who has yet to commit his future to the Gunners. Of course, the Wenger Out brigade has been steadily growing in number over the years and has arguably now reached critical mass, but noises from within the Emirates indicate that The Artist Formerly Known As The Professor intends to extend his contract for two more years.
While victory in this Cup final could help Wenger regain a small measure of goodwill from the fans, the reality is most of them are aware that for all the good he’s done, he’s yesterday’s man and a clean sweep from a new broom is needed. Of course, this is Arsenal and so no succession plan is in place, and any manager parachuted into Wenger’s job will find the task at hand close to impossible without the appropriate support structure. Doubts have correctly been raised about the club’s glaringly obvious failure to prepare for the future.
The intriguing subplot will be the contract negotiations, if there are to be any at all, between the Gunners and their marquee players: future PSG megastar Alexis Sánchez and future Bayern Munich tactical problem Mesut Özil will presumably have been evaluating their futures after every game, and presumably packing their bags and browsing TripAdvisor for recommendations in Paris and Bavaria respectively.
The rest of the squad has the opposite problem: they know this season was a total bust and that they have to prove that they deserve to be kept on. Not many seem to be winning the fans over – even the immensely popular future Barcelona right-back Héctor Bellerín has fallen foul of the Arsenal Fan TV brigade and long standing links between Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Liverpool have increasingly been treated with scoffs and indifference.
As anyone who’s ever watched football anywhere in the world knows, Arsenal are a sleek passing machine sloppily designed to score lots of extremely pretty goals and every so often concede equally embarrassing ones. They specialise in: dominating possession despite not having a coherent midfield; scoring lots of goals despite not having a great number nine; and getting done on the counter by Chelsea.
For the first time in what seems like a million years, however, Arsenal have sprung a tactical surprise in recent weeks. While it’s always possible Wenger will revert to type and use the loose, generic 4-2-3-1, Chelsea should prepare to face a 3-4-2-1, similar in type that Conte and Pochettino have pioneered this season, and which everyone else has copied.
The system has got the best out of lots of Arsenal’s players: Gabriel, Laurent Koscielny and Nacho Monreal look much better in a back three, with less space to cover and fewer decisions to make; Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has been reborn as a marauding, Dani Alves-style wing-back; Granit Xhaka and Francis Coquelin look more assured with three central defenders behind them; Mesut Özil and Alexis Sánchez both get to play in their favoured free roles behind the striker.
The pace of Arsenal’s attackers is always their most obvious threat and even after the recent tactical change this is still the case. Alexis Sánchez, Theo Walcott, Héctor Bellerín and Oxlade-Chamberlain are capable of covering the length of the pitch in no time, and Chelsea will never be able to be truly comfortable, regardless of how far from their goal the ball is.
It looks like this new system will have to be shelved in favour of a return to the previous 4-2-3-1, given the frankly insane defensive crisis afflicting the Gunners just when they least need it: Gabriel and Shkrodan Mustafi are out injured, while Koscielny is suspended after a brainless final day red card. This leaves Rob Holding, aged 12, and Per Mertesacker, last seen in public in December 1972, as the likely central defensive partnership.
Although everyone knows they’ll probably never win the league under Wenger again, there’s no denying that, as long as they’re not crumbling under the slightest hint of pressure or naively walking straight into a Chelsea counterattack trap, Arsenal remain generally excellent at what they do.
They still know how to hog the ball for great lengths of time and they’re still generally very creative with it, recording a commendable 56.5% possession average, 12.1 successful dribbles per game and making an average of 0.6 chances per game with a throughball, all among the Premier League’s highest figures.
They know how to pin teams back and pick them apart: no team averages more possession in the opposition third of the pitch and no team takes a higher proportion of their shots from inside the box. They’re very dangerous when transitioning from defence to attack, and can cut through opposition sides in a few seconds: only four teams have created more chances on the counter this season. They even know how to mix it up and use height and aerial power to score goals: no Premier League team scored more headed goals this season – not even West Brom.
As well as knowing what to do when they have the ball, they know what to do without it: 17.7 tackles per game, 14.2 interceptions, 10.5 fouls per game and 8.1 passes blocked per game are very decent figures indeed for a team which usually has the lion’s share of the ball and has seemingly no defensive structure.
Also, to reiterate, they’re almost all absolutely rapid.
Their most obvious weakness is increasingly a part of Arsenal’s identity. Just when it’s most inconvenient, the Gunners suffer the most humiliating of pratfalls and go to pieces, destroying their confidence in one fell swoop and derailing months of good work. In the immediate aftermath everyone shakes their heads and mutters “oh, Arsenal” for the millionth time, while the more unhinged fans seek out the Arsenal Fan TV crew and scream insanities into a microphone for the whole world to see.
Too often, when the chips go down, their opponents don’t have to beat Arsenal – Arsenal will simply beat themselves. The annual defeats at Stamford Bridge and OId Trafford or the Etihad are accepted, but the more catastrophic results like home defeats to Watford and thrashings away to Crystal Palace have left the Gunners deflated and even more psychologically fragile than usual. Meekly losing to Spurs in the final White Hart Lane derby was just about the perfect illustration of how the tides have turned in North London, and the fact that they’ve lost almost all of their senior centre-backs in Cup final week says everything about how things always go to pieces for Arsenal.
Finally, as much as their new 3-4-2-1 look seems to fit with many of their players, there are others who don’t look too at home. Theo Walcott is neither a striker nor a floating number ten type and isn’t an intelligent enough player to adapt quickly enough to shine in either role. On the left flank, Kieran Gibbs is not Roberto Carlos and never will be. Meanwhile, the sense that any one of their defenders is on the verge of doing something unpardonably reckless is never far away.
To reiterate, Koscielny and Gabriel are definitely out, while Mustafi is concussed and a strong doubt, leaving Holding and Mertesacker to get destroyed by Eden Hazard and Diego Costa. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Kieran Gibbs are also doubts with muscular problems, meaning the 3-4-2-1 system is almost impossible to use. A return to the imbalanced and flimsy 4-2-3-1 should be expected.
You already know the Chelsea XI.
It may be a Cup final but it’s still Chelsea vs Arsenal. There’s only one possible outcome here: Blues fans should expect to be celebrating the double on Saturday night.