The 1-2 loss against Tottenham has ended our title hopes. Our season's over. It's probably as good a time as any to reflect on the year. I had three thoughts about the Arsenal:
1. Wenger's still got a great eye for talent
When he's in the mood, Wenger still has the best eye for an outfield player in the world. I grumble that we should've bought in more players, but you can't deny the effectiveness of the players he's brought in this year. Off the top of my head, we've bought three players this season - Thomas Vermaelen, Sol Campbell and Wellington.
He swapped Toure for Vermaelen, made a £5m profit, and gained a future Arsenal captain. Vermaelen's not perfect - his tendency to wander upfield can lead to us getting caught out in defence - but his toughness, tackling, heading and leadership qualities have been a welcome addition to the Arsenal. Admittedly, we're still leaking goals like a sieve, but with Vermaelen in the side, we're doing it in style!
He brought in Sol Campbell on a free, and the effect was evident in every game he played in - we seemed so much more continent, almost like we were a team that practiced defence. It's extraordinary how great an impact a defensive defender can have on a side.
He bought Wellington, who won't be able to join us until he turns 18. Apparently he's one of the best 16 year olds in the world. I've only seen youTube videos of him, but he's the best youTube footballer I've seen - notwithstanding the dog who can bounce a ball off his nose. And I can see Kroenke releasing a range of Wellington gumboots in his Walmart stores in the near future, so it's a win-win for the Arsenal.
2. We're still working out how to play 4-3-3
In the beginning of the season, we switched from a 4-4-2 to a 4-3-3. Immediately, the goals started pouring in, from the midfield, from Vermaelen, and eventually from the strikers. At one point, we were on track to score 100 league goals in the season. Of course, the 4-3-3- has lead to a weaker defence and a worrying ability to concede goals at any time.
However, let's not overlook how important our new-found attacking prowess has been. In the previous 4 years, we've been caught out because opponents realised they could defend deep and narrow, concede the flanks, and we wouldn't be able to penetrate their defence. We would dominate possession, waste scoring opportunities, and concede weak goals. This season, we've been keeping possession, creating opportunities, and scoring regularly. The midfield's been chipping in with goals (Cesc in particular) and the link between midfield and attack is fairly strong. It's allowed us to play three central midfielders, which allows Song to sit back as our designated DM, frees Cesc to roam forward, and allows another link-up player like Denilson or Ramsey to keep possession. Going forward, the 4-3-3 has been good for us.
At the back, we keep getting caught out. Good sides know to wait for a counter-attack opportunity, hit us fast down the flanks, and watch our jittery defence fall apart. We field four attacking, ball-playing defenders, and we have a DM with an increasing fondness to roam forward to join the attack. The addition of Sol Campbell has showed how much improvement can be made if we just had more defensive discipline.
If we're modelling ourselves on the Barca 4-3-3, we're not there yet. It looks like Wenger's been concentrating on copying Barcelona's attacking style, but hasn't been bothered studying their defensive plans. Barcelona are probably the hardest working side in Europe. Guardiola said once that they're rubbish without the ball, so once they lose it, they've got to work hard to get it back. They press from the front to force a turnover. They press relentlessly until they get the ball. That match at the Emirates, where they choked us in the first 20 minutes, was an awesome display of intimidation without playing dirty.
We played like that in the first few matches this season. I remember being impressed by the way we kept pressure off the ball. We couldn't keep it up all season, but if we're going to keep playing a Barcelona-style 4-3-3, we're going to employ pressing into our game plan. Otherwise, we're going get caught out committing too many players forward.
However, we've been playing 4-4-2 for the past 13 or 14 years. It's difficult to switch to a new formation and have it click into place. And we don't have the personnel for a 4-3-3, either. For the past 4 or 5 years, we've been buying for a 4-4-2. It's sobering, but it's going to take a few years to adapt to the new formation. But we'll get there in the end.
3. We've got to get new medical staff
van Persie's injury-prone. Rosicky is injury-prone. Gallas keeps getting soft-tissue injuries that rule him out for months on end. Diaby and Eduardo are still suffering from injuries as a result of broken legs and subsequent long layoffs. At some point, you stop saying that this is all just bad luck, and start wondering why we always get these injury problems.
I don't think our medical staff is pulling its weight. They misdiagnosed van Persie and allowed him to see a Serbian quack physio. They allowed a match-unfit Gallas to rule himself available for the Barcelona game, only to see him limp off with a recurrence of his hamstring injury. It's negligence, and it's costing us points. If van Persie could've been diagnosed properly, he could've got back sooner and scored vital goals in the title run-in. If they'd put their foot down with Gallas, we would've had a competent defender against Tottenham last night.
You've got to wonder why we get these injuries. Is it a failure of conditioning? Is it a failure of diagnosis? Is it a failure of rehabilitation? Whatever it is, we've got to take a good, hard look at our approach to physical conditioning.
It didn't use to be like this. In the good old days, we had a thin squad, but our players lasted the whole season. Ljungberg, Pires, Vieira, Gilberto, Henry, Campbell, Toure, Cole…. these players could be counted upon to last a season, and not disappear for a few months each season with an injury.
I'm not sure, but I think it started going downhill once Gary Lewin left to work with the England squad full-time. We just never replaced his expertise. Instead, we probably recruited a promising 16 year-old kid with loads of talent and who just needs a little experience to be a world-class physio.