24 hours later and it still doesn’t make any sense. This team, without Fabregas, Nasri and Wilshere, with the worst start to a season in living memory, without fullbacks for much of the winter period, with the most goals conceded from ridiculous individual errors in the league, has somehow finished in a higher position and with more points than the team that challenged for the title for much of the previous campaign.
I’m one of his biggest critics, and would still argue he is not necessarily the man to take us forward, but enormous credit must go to Arsene Wenger for producing something of a miracle this year. Okay, it’s pretty modest in comparison to some of his other work and indeed other great tales of football folklore, but a miracle nonetheless. Football is a results business and, as close as it was in the end, over the course of the season we got more points than Spurs, won more games and scored more goals. They say the table doesn’t lie, and if that’s true then we are where we deserve to be.
However, while the table may not lie, it doesn’t always tell the whole truth. For instance, while we were only one league position behind Manchester United in 2nd, we were actually closer in points to Fulham in 9th place. The fact that we were only one point ahead of Spurs meant that on the last day of the season we were depending on one game to decide whether we finished 3rd, 4th or even 5th. In the end, it was two goalkeeping howlers from Marton Fulop that helped us get the win we needed.
Now, of course, I don’t mean to say that yesterday’s game alone got us 3rd place – we will now obviously look back to big wins at Stamford Bridge, Anfield, Goodison and our mauling of Spurs at a crucial time and say that these were the games that truly made the difference. But it’s weird to think that without Fulop’s help yesterday we might have been looking back regretfully at defeats at Blackburn, Fulham, Swansea or, more recently, the shockingly poor results at home to Wigan and Norwich and pointing out how stupidly we dropped points on so many occasions this season.
What I mean to say is, while celebrating 3rd place, automatic Champions League qualification and yet another St Totteringham’s Day was a lot of fun yesterday, we have to remember how close it was to going very differently.
Chelsea and Spurs implode
For instance, could we seriously have predicted Chelsea would have such a bad season? Sixth in the league is their lowest finish since 2002, and a lot of that is down to the bizarre AVB saga that dominated more than half the season. Whether you choose to believe he simply did a bad job or was forced out by senior players at Chelsea, it was certainly a big surprise and, one would imagine, a one-off. Di Matteo has made them into a solid team again and they could still win the Champions League. If he does, they will surely be a force again next season. In fact, another thing the league table won’t show is that for many of the last few games, Chelsea did not field their best side, and so dropped even more points. If they hadn’t made the Champions League final, their push for 4th would have been more important and they might well have done it. We’ll never know.
And could we really have predicted Spurs’ downfall? If John Terry hadn’t allegedly racially abused Anton Ferdinand, Capello would probably still be England manager and the distraction of the England job wouldn’t have crept into Harry’s head and derailed Spurs’ season. It does seem strange to say that something like that can have such a big effect on a team’s on-field performances, but we’ve seen it before. And once it causes one bad result, it can cause more as the confidence goes. Just as the table last season shows Chelsea and Man City above us and not that we were United’s only real challengers that year, this season’s table does not show that for half the season or more, Spurs were looking like title challengers while we never did at any point.
As happy as I am to finish 3rd after what has been a crazy season, the overwhelming feeling is a sense of relief – that we well and truly got away with it this year. Spurs have really improved and if they finish above us next year, we can’t say we didn’t see it coming. If Chelsea lose the Champions League final, Spurs will presumably qualify for the tournament next season and that will help them keep their best players and attract more. I’m glad we’ve signed Podolski, but more work will need to be done to ensure we can hold off Spurs and a rejuvenated Chelsea next season.
Start of City domination?
Now, a word of congratulations to Manchester City for winning the title yesterday. As much as I hate to see Chel$ki 2.0 buy themselves success, it’s nice that it came at the expense of Manchester United, their horrible manager, cheating players, and their referees.
Many are now worried that after this first league title, City will go on to dominate and spend beyond anyone’s control. This, of course, was the worry when Chelsea first started buying their trophies, but it didn’t really work out for them. At the end of the day, you can only field eleven players at once, and while buying players certainly helps you win games, it also helps to have continuity and a squad that gels well. It was a close-run thing this year and there have been teams with far less in the way of resources such as Newcastle, Everton, Swansea and Norwich who have done incredibly well and produced some surprising results. I think we’d be kidding ourselves if we put Arsenal’s lack of silverware purely down to money; teams who have spent much less than us boast better defensive records than we do and that has to be the absolute priority this summer. We conceded 49 league goals this season, more than a team like Sunderland in 13th place, and the most since the 94/95 season.
Steve Bould effect
With the defenders and goalkeeper we have, we should be doing better. We could perhaps do with a bit more strength in depth as our luck with injuries is always awful, but in general they just need better coaching. Many thanks to the legendary Pat Rice for his services to the club, but I think a shake-up is needed and I’m glad it will be Steve Bould being promoted to Wenger’s assistant. Bould played under George Graham and was part of our best ever back four; he should be able to bring something a bit different to the way our players are drilled.
It’s hard to know how much influence he will be allowed to have, but football is more about coaching than it is about players. I always point to the back four that got us to the Champions League final and set a new record for clean sheets in the competition. If you look at the players in that backline you couldn’t possibly say they are better than our current first choice defence, but the influence of Martin Keown coaching them that season meant that they were, for a long time, unbreakable. Eboue never played that well again and ended up being a laughing stock, ditto Senderos, and Flamini had never played left-back before and never did since. If Bould can come in and do a similar job, then there’s no reason a back four of Sagna, Vermaelen/Mertesacker, Koscielny and Gibbs/Santos can’t go some way to replicating that.
Will 3rd place be enough to keep Robin van Persie? That is the other crucial question that will determine how our next season goes. We might not know for a while, but 3rd place won’t have done us any harm in that respect.