GREAT EXPECTATIONS by TB
In recent weeks we have seen ugly scenes at Arsenal following the realisation that we were not going to win the Premier League title. The team and particularly the manager have been vilified by some fans and castigated by pundits and sections of the media. This has spilled over into some angry but small in-match protests directed at Arsene Wenger and occasional bouts of booing of the team. On a calmer but still frustrated level there was talk of the need for ‘change’ with much finger pointing at Arsene as manager being the object in need of change.
As a great admirer of Arsene Wenger and particularly his attractive and entertaining style of football, I instinctively felt very uneasy about all this hostility and finger pointing but I also shared greatly in our collective sense of disappointment. I felt the need to make sense of all this and in seeking to do this I decided to address the questions – should all our disappointment have been be directed at our manager – was it reasonable for fans to be so disappointed with our season and was it right to make such judgements so long before the season had ended? Whilst accepting that the manager should accept some of the blame – it is my contention that there were other causes of our disappointment and for this reason I believe that too much of the responsibility for our disappointment has been placed at the managers door. I believe that one significant cause of our disappointment has been our own expectations and it’s here that I want to begin my analysis of the season.
Expectations….Disappointment….Anger….Arsene must go.
Disappointment is expectation driven – Psychologists tell us that expectation is the leading cause of disappointment. Disappointment is defined as the psychological reaction to an outcome that does not match up to expectations. The greater the disparity between our expectations and the outcome, the greater is our disappointment. Over the course of this season our expectations as title winners went sky high only to see the outcomes – our results and league position – suddenly come crashing down in free fall. A huge disparity opened up between our expectations and our results and this created huge disappointment for us fans, which in turn led to huge criticism of the team and particularly of the manager. Yes, of course the team and the manager should be criticised for the dramatic collapse of our title bid but in addition I believe we should first examine our own expectations because they also played a part in the generation of our disappointment during the run-in.
Let’s look at how our level of expectations changed over the season.
August 2015: At the start of the season there was a fair bit of optimism around that we could mount a serious challenge for the title – we now had 3 world class players in Ozil, Alexis and new signing Cech – we had just won 2 back to back FA Cups and beaten Chelsea in the Community Shield at Wembley. Our hopes for our first title since 2003 were the highest they have been for at least a decade and this was reflected by the bookies with our odds for the title: Chelsea were red hot favourites at 13/8, Man City 5/2, Arsenal 7/2 (shortened from 10/1 quoted 4 months earlier in March 2015), Man Utd 5/1, Spurs 100/1, Leicester 5,000/1.
With the bookies we were therefore 3rd favourites for the title – a view confirmed by the Guardian panel of football writers in their pre-season review – although 2 tipped Arsenal and Manchester City for the title – by far the majority went for Chelsea with 7 votes. According to all the experts at the start of the season, we were expected to come 3rd in the League. But what about us fans? Hopes were very high for the title but it would be fair to say that anyone who actually expected us to win the title before the season would be getting a little carried away and setting themselves up for a disappointment – but how many of us already had at least one foot in the Great Expectation camp and believed that after all these years this would be our year? Indeed, there is some evidence of this – a poll of Guardian readers before the start of the 2015/16 season as to which team they expected to win the League yielded the following surprising results:
Man U 20%
Man C 9%
What percentage of these readers were Arsenal fans and how much of a London bias there is I don’t know but it certainly indicates a high degree of expectation for the Arsenal amongst the football readers – which differs somewhat from the views of the professionals – the bookies and the pundits.
January 2 2016: At the half way point of the season, we found ourselves top of the League with Leicester 2nd, Man City 3rd, Tottenham 4th and Man United 5th. We are now the bookies joint favourites: Arsenal 11/8, Man City at 11/8, Tottenham 8/1, Leicester 14/1 and Man United are 25/1. The media hype begins and it starts to feel that one hand is reaching out to take the trophy and it’s now that the Arsenal title ‘Great Expectations bubble’ starts to inflate as hope begins to get turned into real expectation.
February 14 2016: ‘Super Sunday’ – a big turning point in the season! After our great win at home to Leicester – we are joint 2nd in the league with Tottenham – still 2 points behind Leicester and 4 points in front of Man City and we are now clear favourites for the title with Odds: Arsenal 13/8, Spurs 5/2, Leicester 11/4, Man City 7/1, Man Utd 100/1.
At this point, it’s no longer hope – the ‘Great Expectations bubble’ gets bigger and bigger. We are now fully EXPECTED TO WIN the trophy and the media hype begins. We get the start of the tag ‘…if Arsenal can’t win the title now then they never will’. But would the great Leicester home win prove to have been a false dawn? In hindsight, it was…
February 23 2016: After our great win against Leicester, we had a miserable 0-0 with Hull at home in the FA Cup and then 3 days later we played Barcelona at home in the Champions League. I can identify the exact moment when our ‘Great Expectations bubble’ burst – a moment that was to define our season. In the 71st minute of the game with the score at 0-0, Barcelona cruelly and lethally broke and Messi surgically scored. Just before this, I had turned to my neighbours and without any thoughts of the kiss of death, I said with what I thought some justification: “Do you know what – I think we are better than Barcelona – we can win this”. Then Flamini came on at the end and gifted them a penalty that was that 0-2 – in the crowds silence, you could almost hear the air come gushing out of our expectation bubble to leave a shrunken, little balloon drifting aimlessly across the Emirates pitch. Players, manager and fans were all stunned and disconsolate.
March 4th 2016: After that unfortunate Barcelona moment and defeat something had changed. Basically, the stuffing had been knocked out of us – the teams self belief and confidence had been severely damaged – we were broken! 5 days later we lost away to Man U and then 3 days after that we lost at home to Swansea. That made 3 consecutive defeats in just 7 days! Our collapse was sudden and dramatic – as we went out of the title chase, out of the FA Cup and out of the European Cup. We had dropped down to 3rd place and to 3rd favourites behind Leicester and Spurs with odds now: Leicester 10/11, Spurs 5/2, Arsenal 9/2, Man City 10/1. For me that was that that as regards the title but the players and manager battled on, publicly at least, with talk of mathematical chances but it was not to be – from then on in we were playing for a place in the top 4 – again!
May 16th: As I sat here after the Aston Villa game and the end of the season party at the Emirates, there has been a mini revival in our fortunes. Leicester have easily won the title by 10 points, Arsenal are second, Spurs are 1 point behind in 3rd and Man City have hung on desperately for 4th place. Hilariously and amazingly on the very last day of the season, we have salvaged some north London and self pride by beating Spurs to second place and there was much joy and happiness at the final whistle on Sunday. Nevertheless whilst the pain has been greatly eased by this joyous day – we find ourselves still dazed and disappointed by our season and our failure to grasp what had been perceived as a golden opportunity to win the League title.
High Expectations and Low Outcomes leads to Big Disappointment
What sense do we make of this roller coaster, crazy season? Were our expectations of winning the League – at any stage ever fully justified? Yes, I for one fully believed it – I certainly did when I was walking up Hornsey Road on Super Sunday madly chanting ‘Der der der der, Danny Welbeck’. However now, with the benefit of hind-sight and armed with a more considered and realistic view of both our situation and the context in which we found ourselves at that time, I believe the answer is no. I believe that in February after the Leicester game, we reached a pivotal point in our season which saw our expectations become way over inflated and perversely, at that very same moment the team’s performances suddenly dipped and went into free fall. The scale of the disappointment that we all then experienced was therefore a product of BOTH our having such high (I believe over-inflated) expectations and the teams sudden dip in performance.
I believe that in February our expectations became pitched too high because:
a) We got carried away by the euphoria of the Leicester home win and our position in the league – and this large sniff of possible title success, accompanied by much media hype, unleashed the full might of the massive, pent up hopes and frustrations of 12 long, long years of Arsenal coming in the top 4 but never once winning the trophy. We believed that we could actually win the League – it was our time – and who could blame us for doing that?
b) We completely wrote off the chances of our nearest competitors – Leicester and Spurs – because we believed that Leicester were bound to crack at some point and history tells us that we always finish above Spurs!
c) We could see that the usual culprits, for one reason or another, were out of the title hunt and we assumed that the path was now clear for us to walk to the title. As the Guardian put it:
“In a season when Chelsea have imploded, Manchester United are in chaos, Liverpool are rebuilding (again), Tottenham Hotspur are a young and developing team and Manchester City have been distracted by the appointment of Pep Guardiola, then Arsenal have never had a better opportunity to win the league for the first time since 2003-04.”
It should be noted that although Leicester were 2 points clear of us and leading the race, they were never given a serious chance of winning the title by anyone – notice how the Guardian journalist doesn’t even mention them in the above review of Arsenals prospects for the title. Even Leicester fans wrote off their own chances – Izzy Musset, the ex Leicester player posted:
“We won’t win it
Man City should win it
Spurs could win it
Arsenal will win it”
In mid February our title expectations went sky high – WE WERE NOW EXPECTED TO WIN THE LEAGUE – there could be no other outcome!
But this level of expectation was based on a blinkered and flawed view of our chances. It was flawed because it failed to reflect the full reality of our situation and in particular it failed to take into account the following:
a) The history of Arsenal – the number of years we have been in the top 4 or the number of years we have gone without winning the league title – can have no bearing on our chances of winning the title in the season 2015/16 or in any other season.
b) Leicester were in fact a very good team and should not have been written off solely because of prejudice or their history in the Premiership or the fact that we had beaten them twice.
c) Far from the path being clear for us to win the title, there were in fact many significant difficulties for us to overcome in the run in:
i) We were competing in the most competitive Premier League ever – some say it’s the toughest league to win in the world. The old predictable order of the top 4 clubs dominating opponents had gone and any team can beat anyone and they did every week. The level of competitive intensity throughout the whole season was unprecedented – every single game was tough and very demanding. In order to compete effectively the team had to be at the top of its game mentally and physically in every match. In the last few months every game for the Arsenal has seemed like a cup final, with our opponents fighting for either survival or a top 4/5 finish….over this last month….Man City, Norwich, Sunderland, West Brom, Crystal Palace, West Ham…you can go right back to Leicester on February the 14th and beyond. The level of physical and mental pressure on the players is relentless and it is no coincidence that all the old order top 4 teams came up short in both the Premier League title race and the European Cup. It’s the hardest it’s ever been to win the title.
ii) We were competing on 3 fronts (League, FA Cup and Europe) – contrast with Leicester run-in which was solely on the League. After our home victory against Leicester, they had two weeks without a fixture – Ranieri took advantage of their early elimination from the FA Cup and gave the players a week off training to get away and forget about football. Whilst Leicester players rested for 2 weeks, Arsenal had an FA Cup game and a European Cup game against Barcelona and then a difficult game away to Man United. When Leicester returned to the action the answer to whether losing against Arsenal had broken their spirit was emphatic. Leicester won six and drew one out of the next seven matches to take 19 points out of 21. In contrast, Arsenal, exhausted after their victory against Leicester had to compete on 3 fronts – and immediately lost 3 consecutive games beginning with the crushing defeat to Barcelona, and in so doing went out of both the FA and European Cups and collected only 9 league points to effectively drop out of, then lose, the title race! Vardy of Leicester cited this post Arsenal defeat ‘rest and recovery’ period as being an important factor in helping them to win the League.
“We all ventured off, quite a few of us went to Dubai together as a team, and I think that moment, for him to even think about doing that, showed what he’d thought of us as a team and how much work we’d already put in. So to get those batteries recharged for that week and come back fighting stronger was a massive part [in winning the league].
iii) We were playing with a squad depleted by many long term injuries – we suffered the 5th most injuries (231 days lost) in the League – which prevented the rotation and resting of players (contrast with Leicester only 76 days lost). We lost key players like Wilshere, Cazorla, Walcott, Ramsey, Oxlade Chamberlain, Alexis, Coquelin and Welbeck for long periods which meant it was difficult to field our best XI when we most needed to and to establish some consistency in our line up and strategy – contrast again with Leicester who managed to play their best XI with much greater regularity. All this told in games like Man Utd away and Swansea at home – which crucially we lost in our dip in results following the Leicester game. At the end of the season, Peter Cech cited long term injuries to key players over the crucial run-in period as the main reason that we failed to win the league.
“I thought we did so well most of the time to be able to cope with that, but unfortunately in the end we lacked a bit of energy in February and March when we dropped points. This is where the difference was made.”
The case for a Winter break to allow the players a period of rest is strong but this issue of long term injuries is a problem that Arsenal have yet to resolve despite having deployed many additional resources to the subject in recent years.
iv) Our opponents adopted high intensity and sophisticated 10 man, defensive strategies particularly at the Emirates and sought to exploit our desire to play and entertain the supporters with positive, attacking football and to stoke up frustration in front of a fickle and high expecting Arsenal crowd. Every team does that at the Emirates now – even Barcelona. We struggle to deal with it. The process goes – it’s a home game and we are expected to win – we go out to play attacking football – the opposition seek to stop us playing and defend in depth and with vigour – tension mounts as the game goes on as we launch attack after attack – fear of not winning and crowd disappointment creeps in and, under the pressure, the away teams break late in the game and score. The resultant draw or loss creates great disappointment and anger with the team and manager…and the pressure builds up for the next home game. The more teams succeed in frustrating the Arsenal the more that teams seek to exploit the situation at the Emirates. Unfortunately, this pattern of play at home had a very damaging impact on our chase for trophies as I explain in v) below…
v) From February onwards in addition to the pressures I’ve outlined in i) to iv) above – we were now having to play every match with the burden of being expected to win the title (and the FA Cup) and being labelled chokers if we slipped up. Not surprisingly some players wilted under the combination of all these pressures and its effects were noticeably severe on the form and confidence of those at the sharp end of action – our 3 main strikers – Giroud, Walcott and Alexis – who suffered a sort of collective ED in front of goal and when a team can’t score goals – the pressure of all this got to them, and spread throughout the team, and affected our results particularly at home. In the 5 home games played between the 2nd of February (Southampton) and the 2nd of March (Swansea) – 460 minutes playing time – we only scored 3 goals! Southampton, Swansea and Palace at home in the League were all games that we really, really should have won – if only one of our strikers had shown even the slightest bit of form – but they didn’t and 8 points were frittered away in these games. Similarly in the FA Cup – with a place in the Semi Final at Wembley for a third consecutive year beckoning – we froze against Watford at home and went out of the Cup – triggering more disappointment and anger at the Emirates.
vi) The old maxim that the impact of referees decisions even themselves out over the season is not valid and did not help our cause in the title race. A forensic assessment of the filmed recordings by father and son team (Hypothetical Premier League) of every match played in the Premiership and the critical decisions made by referees shows that Arsenal would have finished top of the League (2 points more than they got) and Leicester should have been 2nd (9 points less than they got) – if the use of video evidence had been used to review important decisions.
The Hypothetical Premier League table Week 36 (up to and including May 2)
Pos Club Pl W D L GF GA GD Pts PLPos (Pts)
1 Arsenal 38 23 6 9 70 38 32 75 2nd (71)
2 Leicester City 38 19 15 4 69 42 27 72 1st (81)
3 West Ham United 38 20 10 8 68 49 19 70 7th (62)
4 Tottenham 38 17 15 6 66 33 33 66 3rd (70)
5 Manchester City 38 19 8 11 70 43 27 65 4th (66)
6 Southampton 38 17 13 8 61 42 19 64 6th (63)
7 Manchester United 38 17 10 11 52 40 12 61 5th (66)
8 Liverpool 38 15 11 12 61 53 8 56 8th (60)
9 Chelsea 38 13 12 13 62 54 8 51 10th (50)
10 Everton 38 12 13 13 58 54 4 49 11th (47)
11 Stoke City 38 12 10 16 38 59 -21 46 9th (51)
12 Newcastle United 38 11 12 15 46 63 -17 45 18th (37)
13 Swansea City 38 12 8 18 42 49 -7 44 12th (47)
14 Watford 38 11 12 16 38 47 -9 44 13th (45)
15 Bournemouth 38 12 8 18 48 71 -23 44 16th (42)
16 Sunderland 38 10 13 15 48 60 -12 43 17th (39)
17 Crystal Palace 38 9 12 17 38 54 -16 39 15th (42)
18 West Brom 38 7 17 14 35 51 -16 38 14th (43)
19 Norwich City 38 9 11 18 45 64 -19 38 19th (34)
20 Aston Villa 38 4 7 27 28 78 -50 19 20th (17)
A review of the awarding of penalties in the Premier League this season shows that Leicester were awarded by far the most penalties in the League – 13, which is approximately 3 times the league average of 4.3 – whilst the Arsenal have been awarded only 2 penalties all season – the second least number in the league and are the only team in the League not to have been awarded a penalty at home! Given that we seem to spend most of our games in and around the opposition penalty area this seems a curious stat.
A recent review of referees decisions from a possibly biased Arsenal source (Untold Arsenal) reveals a huge bias against Arsenal with a staggering loss of 27 points and 29 penalties not awarded (we only got 2). Even if we assume some bias of the source and he was wrong on 50% of his judgements then the impact of referee’s decisions is highly significant in determining the title. It’s time for video evidence in the EPL and I don’t know why it is resisted.
The first conclusion I draw from this review of our season is that the scale of our disappointment was huge. It was huge because of the double whammy in mid February/early March of a sudden, dramatic rise in our expectations coinciding with an equally dramatic run of poor results.
I argue that much of the sudden rise in our expectations was under-pinned by false assumptions made at the time about our perceived prospects – our expectations – of winning the League and it therefore follows that whilst the major part of this disappointment was due to the teams dip in performance – my second conclusion is that at least some of our huge disappointment was undoubtedly down to us fans (aided and abetted by the media) getting carried away with our expectations.
Was it valid to blame Arsene for all our disappointment?
What further conclusions can be drawn from this analysis and what implications does all this have for understanding and evaluating the recent behaviour towards the team, and particularly towards Arsene Wenger? Was it justified?
Let’s begin by considering who should share the responsibility for our disappointment for failing to win the League? The above review (with the addition of some obvious candidates) tells us that the ‘blame’ for our disappointment should be shared between:
* The Leicester City FC – for beating us to the title.
*The Fans – for having unrealistic – too high – expectations.
*The Media – for ratcheting up our expectations.
*The Refs – for making mistakes.
*The FA and Premier League – who don’t allow a winter break.
*The Players – for not being stronger under pressure.
*The Manager – for not winning the title!
*The Board – for being greedy and un-democratic.
Here we have a whole bunch of different people groups who each played a role in creating our disappointment but who takes ALL the flack from the fans and the media for being the cause of our huge disappointment? Of course – it’s all Arsene Wenger’s fault! Sack the manager – off with his head!
Psychologists tell us that when we experience disappointment it is easier for us to protest with anger than it is to encounter our sadness about the course of events. Anger allows us to continue idealizing what could have been while consciously denigrating it, and we will hang onto it only because it’s what we needed at the time. When we are angry, we need someone to blame for causing our anger.
In Arsenal’s case, when we fans experienced the disappointment of failing to win the League (and the FA Cup) many fans protested with anger, or simply just called for a change of manager, and directed it all at the most obvious and softest target – Arsene Wenger. Was this fair?
Of course the manager is the one who is responsible for the team’s performance but as I have explained above there were many others who played a role in creating our disappointment and he should not be made solely responsible for our disappointment. He should be subjected to scrutiny and criticism but the reaction we have seen these last few weeks goes way beyond criticism. The huge disappointment and anger that fans experienced came crashing down on the manager’s head like a bolt of lightening to a conductor! In this process, there was little room for rational thought or awareness of the reality of just how difficult it was for us to win the League this year.
Arsene is the obvious target for criticism indeed he often puts himself in that role in order to protect the players. The high incidence of fans disappointment at home games during February, March and April where he is a very visible target for anger leaves him vulnerable to match day attack but I believe that much of our disappointment as well as the performance of the team and manager would be better served if our disappointment were to turn into mere frustration or even sadness about our situation rather than into anger that is publicly displayed towards the manager and the team. Perhaps fans should also wait till the end of the season to make their judgements but maybe the amount of expectation and hence disappointment was too great a feeling to keep bottled up for long.
My third conclusion is that the blame – if that’s the right word – for the scale of our huge disappointment should be shared between a number of parties and not solely laid at the manager’s door.
Judgement Time and is coming 2nd a failure?
I now turn my attention to the timing of the outbreak of this disappointment and anger. All this blew up in March and April and resulted in protests and calls for a new manager. As Arsene wisely commented at the time – the fans should wait till the end of the season to draw conclusions about the team and managers performance. He called for solidarity and getting behind the team, and warned that turning against the team in the run-in with boos and protests during the game could have a negative impact. Was he right about that? Possibly, yes. Clearly it can’t be argued that it helped our cause because it undoubtedly added to the tension in the ground on match days and at a time when all our players need our support rather than our disapproval.
Whilst I am a regular participant in political protests and demonstrations – I believe it is right to protest against something you see as being wrong, but I think people need to remember that when players are struggling with form and confidence and the team is under great pressure, then as a supporter of your team it is more appropriate to get behind the team during the match. I think judgements or protests should await the end of the season when a fair and proper assessment can be made as to the team and manager’s performance. After the final whistle on Sunday – how many of us still felt that same strength of disappointment that we experienced a few weeks ago? I believe that most of us would have been happy if someone had told us last August that we would be leap-frog over Spurs on the last day to secure 2nd place – our highest position since 2004/5 in the League. If that someone also threw in that Chelsea would sack Mourinho after 3 months and would finish up 10th in the division – we would have snapped their hands off! There is so much more to life and happiness than merely winning the League!
Talking of Mourinho, on a recent Good Morning Britain TV chat show the guests were Piers Morgan and Jeremy Corbyn – both Arsenal supporters – and the subject of discussion was the need for a new manager. Morgan was saying ‘get Mourinho in’ whilst Jezza was saying ‘get behind the team’. Jezza, like Arsene – a man of principle, integrity and decency – won the day and in the subsequent vote by viewers Arsene secured 75% of the votes. Morgan like Mourinho – a man of X,X and X – got 25%!
Ok, much of our disappointment earlier in the season was offset by the joy and hilarity of the Spurs League position reversal but what about comparing our final League position of 2nd place with the position at the start of the season where every book-maker and media pundit expected us to finish – in 3rd place. In that context – we have exceeded all expectations and we should therefore be happy! Fourth in 2013/14, Third in 2014/15, Second in 2015/16 – is this progress or failure? As my mate Dick from Huddersfield Town FC emailed me to say after the match:
“Nice end to the season for your chaps today. How finishing second in the world’s best league can be regarded as failure I cannot imagine. But there are many miserable f&%$&ers in the world.”
My fourth conclusion is therefore that a proper judgement of a team and manager’s performance should be made at the end of the season and not before.
What of the call for a change of a manager?
It’s always difficult to separate out the contribution of the manager from that of the players in assessing a clubs performance but let’s have a go. Let’s deal with the ‘we’ (players and manager) first. How did we get on?
We did well against the 4 top teams – not losing to any of the main competitors to come top of the mini league:
1 Arsenal 6 3 3 0 14 9 +5 12
2 Tottenham 6 2 3 1 10 7 +3 9
3 Leicester 6 2 2 2 6 9 -3 8
4 Man City 6 0 2 4 6 13 -7 2
Peter Cech won the Golden Glove award for keeping the most clean sheets in the League and Ozil broke the League record for the most chances created in a season. Defence and mid-field alright then but what about attack? A poor Conversion Ratio of goals scored from shots taken puts us at a lowly 5th position in the League and gives us a clue to what is our main weakness and why we came up short in the title race.
Squawka – puts Arsenal way on top 0f the League in terms of team performance as defined by the aggregate of their measures of a team’s attack, defence and possession. The Hypothetical Premier League based on how the League would look with the use of video technology to check key referee decisions – makes us top of the League and we came top of the Fair Play League too – which is great but unfortunately in the real world where it really matters – in the real Premier League – we came second – 10 points behind Leicester.
Leicester lost only 3 games (2 to us) but we lost 7 – West Ham, Swansea, Man United, West Brom, Southampton and Chelsea twice. Of these 7 losses – 3 were at home. Match their number of losses and we would have won the title.
On paper, our home record was better than our away record – where we gathered 8 points less than Leicester. Paradoxically, I believe that the main cause of our failure to win the League was not our away performances but rather the failure at home of our strikers from February through to April – when because of fatigue, injuries and a collective loss of confidence – the players just weren’t strong enough to deal with it. Whilst Ozil was on his way to breaking the Chances Created League record, we squandered chance after chance – confirmed by our poor conversion ratio of goals scored from shots taken (16% – 5th in the League stats table) – hardly the stuff of title seekers.
Arsene as team motivator and squad selector as well as the players must take responsibility for that fundamental and critical shortcoming. In addition, the manager put his head on the block before a ball was kicked and was roundly criticised for only making one signing Cech and not a single outfield player before the summer transfer deadline and later got Elneny in the January window. Both of these players were very good signings but the one single glaring shortcoming that all of us could see before the season started was our lack of a new top quality striker signing. If I and every other Arsenal fan knew this then I am certain that Arsene was fully aware of that shortcoming – he referred to frustrated attempts to sign such a person – do you remember his earlier attempts to sign that bloke Suarez – whatever happened to him? Oh god, with him we surely would have walked the League! This season, I don’t believe the failure to sign a good striker was because of a lack of awareness or an unwillingness to spend big but was rather down to the appropriate, top, top quality target(s) just not being available. I wonder how much the Board regret not getting the Suarez deal done properly when they had the chance! Oh dear…what might have been!
How much Arsene is responsible for our failure to sign such a person I do not know – we will have to await his biography to learn about that one. I certainly know that it is not through a lack of interest from top players to join the Arsenal and I’m sure that when they sign – they do so mainly because of the chance to work with Arsene Wenger – just ask Ozil, Alexis and Cech (and Suarez seemed keen too). Let’s hope a top, top quality striker out there feels the need to spend some time with Arsene before the great man goes.
Which brings me on to the final question – is now the time for a change of manager? Well of course it’s going to have to happen soon – most probably after next season when his current contract runs out. Personally, despite all the disappointment of this season, I for one will greatly lament his going. I believe it has been a strange season and yes, it did seem back in February that we had a great opportunity and we should have done better than we did. Given all this, I still don’t subscribe to the view that this failure to win the League this year warrants a change of management.
You can see from my analysis that the causes of our failure to win the title fundamentally boiled down to a failure to win the race between ourselves and Leicester in the run-in from February to May. We came second to Leicester mainly because of the much greater demands on the squad from our competing intensely on 3 fronts, playing 2 tough games every week without any respite – whilst Leicester had only the League to focus on, with only one game a week and crucially were given 2 weeks off to rest and recover their energy levels – over a period in which we were handicapped by many injuries, loss of form and confidence to key players whilst Leicester had no such handicaps. In addition, Leicester were never expected to win the League and their manager did brilliantly to eliminate that expectation whilst Arsenal carried and felt the full and very heavy weight of history and 12 years of expectation on their backs particularly at the Emirates which no-one could shield them from. Once Leicester opened up a big lead it was very difficult to chase them down. You could also point to the influence of refereeing decisions in the outcome which greatly favoured Leicester and with the use of video technology Arsenal would apparently have won the race according to the Hypothetical Premier League – but let’s leave that to one side.
Did we lose the title race to Leicester because we were the inferior team or was it because we were more handicapped in the race by: long term injuries, mental and physical fatigue, had to play more games, got no rest or respite, and received less favours from the refs? Well we certainly weren’t inferior because we beat them home and away – so the answer lies with a look at the greater handicaps we carried. It was never an even race between two similarly handicapped teams – whilst not denigrating their amazing achievement the ground over the run-in was always in Leicester’s favour. Ok, Arsenal is a much bigger club but Leicester were more rested and carried much less weight than Arsenal and had far fewer hurdles to jump over in the final gruelling furlongs of the race. Plus Leicester had the support of Buddhist monks whilst all we had was John Bercow – who although he looks like a Buddhist monk and is the Speaker of the House of Commons – he is a Tory – and therefore doesn’t have quite the same powers of wisdom and influence. But we do have Jezza on our books – Jez we can!
Given all this we should not have been too surprised that Leicester finished 10 points clear but I believe we still should and could have done better and that includes Arsene. This week, Mesut Ozil summed up why we didn’t do better:
“I think we dropped a lot of points that we shouldn’t have dropped like against smaller teams and I think that was the point in the season where as a team we weren’t strong enough to take just a point and go ahead. Especially after the Barcelona game we lost some points. That was a time when we weren’t good enough to just take points and go.
It’s a long season and a lot of things must go right in the season. One of the things is players getting injured which is one factor definitely. On the other hand we just have to focus more and with stronger players maybe coming in be competitive for next season and we will see where we end up at the end.”
He uses the phrases ‘not strong enough’ and ‘not good enough’ and identifies injuries as an important factor. He refers to the need for a greater focus and stronger players to come in. The squad’s fitness, focus and quality are Arsene’s responsibility and I think he failed to add sufficient players to the squad last summer – definitely a striker and a mid fielder – would have helped but he was unlucky with the number of injuries which remains an ongoing problem.
As to the team’s mental fitness – that was a tough one to address especially after the mental car crash experience in the 76th minute against Barcelona. It’s a difficult thing to solve – even Barcelona experienced a mental car crash this season after their dramatic defeat by their arch enemies Real Madrid – having gone 39 games undefeated – they lost 3 league games on the trot and went out of the European Cup! In Barcelona’s case the pundits put it down to bad luck but when it happens to Arsenal – it’s the team choking and its all Arsenals fault! When it happens to Spurs – it’s hilarious!
My fifth conclusion is that all this does not add up to enough to say its time for a change of manager – that in my opinion would be an ill-advised step. I don’t think we are far away from the title – we need to make sure we get a top, top quality striker in, maybe a tricky winger and another couple of mid-fielders too, sort out the injuries, get a fair crack from the referees and let’s give Arsene another go. We’ve gone 4th in 2013/14, 3rd in 2014/15, and 2nd in 2015/16 – let’s complete the sequence and get that 1st in 2016/17. Bring it on – I can’t wait!
For next season’s title – the bookies have us second favourites to Man City at 6/1 – get your money on – it might just be our year next season and what better way for Arsene to say farewell to his amazing time at the Arsenal?
Which brings me to my final conclusion – for next season let’s all live in hope and not expect too much from Arsene and the team otherwise these wise words of Samuel Johnson and disappointment will haunt us Arsenal fans for ever more:
“Hope is itself a species of happiness, and, perhaps, the chief happiness which this world affords: but, like all other pleasures immoderately enjoyed, the excesses of hope must be expiated by pain; and expectations improperly indulged must end in disappointment.”
By Terry Barry