Monday, June 1, 2009

Season's end

Lisa: Maybe there is no moral, Mom?

Homer: Exactly. Its just a bunch of stuff that happens. 

Marge: But it certainly was a memorably few days.

Homer: Amen to that. 

- The Simpsons, Blood Feud

Season reviews are all the rage at the end of a season. There's something about the prospect of weeks and weeks of no club football that makes people want to sit back and reflect. I'm not sure why people try to divine meaning from the madness. Most of the time, it's just a bunch of stuff that happens. 

Still, I might as well join the fun. 

I think the story of the season begins and ends with the midfield, and the players we didn't buy. We replaced two experienced players in Hleb and Flamini with three inexperienced players in Nasri, Denilson and Song. Wenger gambled on the idea that Denilson and Song could replace Flamini work-rate. 

We slid from 3rd to 4th as a result. 

In retrospect, that ain't bad. The way the 07-08 Arsenal played was based on the understanding between Cesc, Hleb and Flamini. Breaking up that midfield and expecting the team to be stronger for it was always an impossibility. Even if we bought an experience DM to replace Flamini, he wouldn't have been a like-for-like replacement who could replicate Flamini's work-rate and pressing. And there's no way that the replacement would've forged the kind of understanding that Cesc and Flamini enjoyed. Of course, it would've been nice if we got ourselves someone like Alonso, but would Alonso have been the difference between 1st and 4th? 

There have been encouraging signs. Song's turned himself into a footballer who runs instead of jogs. He's played fairly well in the closing stages of the season, and if he can kick on next season, he's got a good chance of cementing that DM spot in the Arsenal midfield. And Denilson's turned himself into (statistically) the 16th best footballer in the Premier League. Which is (statistically) fantastic for Arsenal. If you treat this season as a transition year, you've got to say that it's been brilliant in terms of developing Song's game and Denilson's statistics. Next year, it's even possible that they'll be good players for the Arsenal. 

One player who will certainly shine like an incandescent ball of red-shoed brilliance next year is Arshavin. It took us the entire month to haggle over his transfer, but hasn't the Owl been amazing? The professionalism of the guy is a breath of fresh air. I admit I was one of the ones who questioned the wisdom of buying another tiny creative winger/attacking midfielder, but I'm glad I was wrong. Next season, we'll see a 4-2-3-1 with the Owl in the hole, Cesc and Song in midfield, and won't that be fun?

It's not going to take us to 1st next year, but at least we'll be back playing attractive football. Even without reinforcements, I think 4th is secure for next year. Villa and Everton will improve, but they don't have the capital to maintain a large enough squad to sustain a push for 4th. Man City have the capital, but in the short term they don't seem to be attracting the calibre of players needed. It's sad that the gap between 4th and 5th is so very large, but if it helps the Arsenal, it's for the greater good. 

There are other problems with the team, of course. Senior players (Adebayor and Gallas) are on their way out, and they won't be replaced with quality players. We're either unwilling or unable to pay the money to attract super players. We still can't defend a lead or defend set-pieces or defend against quality opposition. But these are issues that have been with the Arsenal for years, and they haven't been addressed previously. 

If we're being pragmatic, these are only issues if we were building a squad to win the Premier League next season. If we're being cynical, if we're still a club that's employing a "youth program", it's not going to matter. We can potter along the same track and still give the young players experience and play pretty passing football and still rake in gate receipts and Champions League money and finish 4th for the foreseeable future... 


Then again, Rafa Nadal just lost a match in the French Open. So you know, anything's possible. 

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