A Season In Review: Stepping Stones
Zimpaul steps Out of Africa onto your PC to give a global perspective to his personal view of last season
Let’s face it – we were all a little stunned by the sequence of events from Barca 2 onwards, the drama of it all sharpened by Cesc’s showpiece in the first leg, willing our fight-back. That second half at the Emirates first leg was the singular moment of the season – did you see the look in his eye as Cesc backed away from penalty spot? Moments later, the sublime artistry of a pass in the death that so nearly won us the game. We had them, we knew!
And then, that sense of “oh no …. no …. no, no, no”. Game by game, time stood still. At White Hart Lane we lost the race. We had believed. Capitulation at Wigan! Had we come this far, to bow out, like that? YW would say “time to put away our demons, renew our confidence” or words to that effect. We drew and lost again.
Amidst the almost laughable anguish of self-loathing that seethed and groaned, appeared a list (borrowed, thanks Muppet!). Called ‘WENGER’S CRIMES’ it went: world class training ground, world class stadium, world class academy, 2 doubles, 1 unbeaten season, 3 league titles, 4 FA Cups, 13 consecutive seasons in champions league (14 assured), 3 first places, 6 second places, 2 (now 3) third places, 2 fourth places, champions league runner-up (plus 1 semi, 2 quarter finals), net spend £32 million. He ends with “fantastic football”.
Kind of puts Ancelotti’s accomplishment, no mean feat, into a little perspective. I do not applaud Chelsea, can’t stand them, but in football it is good to be straight-forward. Chelsea had an excellent season, and – in contrast to us – a glorious run-in; a team at their peak of confidence.
Let’s talk about Arsenal shall we.
Muppet missed one: Arsenal’s global identity. Wenger’s ‘Invincibles’ opened that door; it remains ajar, fans pouring in. It must be perplexing for Arsenal locals to fathom the sheer scale of their home team as a worldwide football phenomenon. All that tradition, history, decades of players, now Emirates could be filled twice over every week with its African fans alone. They watch across the continent in bars, cafés, in every kind of gathering.
Do you not think it extraordinary, thinking of the voracious fan-hunger for accolades, that, having creating the greatest counter-attacking side ever seen, that beckoned a global fan-base, Wenger proceeded to dismantle the ‘Invincibles’, and did not seek to replicate the accomplishment?
How I would love to know the origins of the current long-term strategy, so remarkable in its ambition. Does it even have a name, this plan that divides football, its fans, our fans, all the cheapened punditry and media, into pro-and anti-Arsenal? It is the story behind all the stories.
So what is it really? It seems to me it is not one thing at all, but a circle of inter-woven strategies that depend on each other for each to attain its objective. (1) Build a new stadium, increase long-term income flows, consolidate Arsenal’s football identity in ‘bricks and mortar’ so to speak (2) Investing heavily in youth, in their future, free the club entirely from investor-speculator methods of incurring debt to purchase players to attain success to repay the debt – an irrational sham (3) Create and embed a football ethos rooted in a style of play – exhilarating, free-scoring, passionate – rather than the traditional method of ‘territorial’ home support. In broad terms – create the identity that defines the club around a style of play, renewal without debt, and sustainability – in football as in money.
How can one review a season, except – firstly – in relation to objectives? As supporters we should acknowledge that the club, and its manager, are working to a plan. In a thousand ways Wenger has revealed it. By definition, the plan is long-term, profound in its implications for the future of football. As it unfolds, we ask – how is it going? I leave the reader to ponder the answers, because all I can say is in terms of 1, 2 and emphatically 3 above, we appear to have succeeded brilliantly, beyond expectations. Think about it. Just five years to commit ALL these heinous new crimes?
And so, the season.
3rd is respectable, but disappointing. The team feels so. By his comments, Wenger had grounds to consider we would win the EPL; that the big plan had ripened sufficiently for such victories. It is foolish to believe that Wenger isn’t hungry for this, or is ‘soft’. He has shown his ruthless side often enough. While I don’t agree that injuries have been the sole source of difficulties, with just van Persie fit, we could have won. We had the momentum. He is that kind of player.
The statistics relating to defensive frailties are damning and, ominously, not new. The purchase of a player of the craft and calibre of Vermaelen shows how Wenger had intended to turn this around. I love the 4-3-3 that becomes 4-5-1 system, so flexible. It requires, however, a method of ‘total defence’ that may look easy, but is a collective skill to be learnt. It seems this is where Wenger is heading, but we are not there yet; that when the team fulfilled this in perhaps a third of matches, we were watertight. The Arsenal ‘leaky goal’ syndrome is illusory.
No one was happy that we failed to gain results against top sides, although we mesmerised Man United early in the season and Neville was gracious enough to say so. The answer to that conundrum lies in resolving this defensive inconsistency, because good teams, like us, know how to attack.
As to purchases, anyone can see Wenger buys two good players every year; it’s planned, and hard to argue that purchases have been ill-conceived. Obviously, we will focus defensively. The midfield is already a powerhouse. Arshavin’s second season, as is the norm, will reveal his talent. Chamakh will add depth. The rest everyone knows. Bendtner, so young, is class.
Of far greater importance is the ‘youth league’ and the individuals that, from 2007-08, have made steady trajectory through the ranks. We are brimful of extravagant talent. I predict that, at Arsenal first, then nothing, then nothing, and then painfully slowly at some other clubs as they follow our path, the gossip, innuendo and wild speculation today showered on flashy purchases will change to fiery debate around which favourite young players will make the grade. And why? It’s the future.
This season, virtually all the first team younger players progressed. I include Theo. There is no valid reason why the ‘Song-effect’ – just cast your minds back 2 years – will not be repeated, joyously. He is now a model of sorts we anticipate in a dozen others as they realise their potential.
My sense is that Wenger more than any of us knows how close we were this season, and there is no way he will let this slip next season, and not because of a few impatient fans, much less a tawdry media, but because first is exactly where we should be.
Somehow, the teams Wenger produces – or is it football in general? – are ‘confidence teams’. When self-belief is high, we are unbeatable, we know it. You can’t believe the brittle passing, the defensive naivety, in some games, knowing the quality of our movement and passing. Diaby, one of the best players in this team, personifies this. My own belief is that, with all the irony an English team managed by a French intellectual could possibly muster, and our oh-so-dismal run-in, in this of all seasons, we crossed our mental barrier. We are a team of winners, a brave team.
It’s just an intuitive hunch, that’s all. Call it ‘the look in his eye’.