On the final match day of the Premier League season, one is liable to witness an enormous range of emotions. For a club whose older fans have not experienced a season without the Champions League in 20 years, and whose younger fans NEVER have, the day is a culmination of a lot of unfamiliar emotions. For Arsenal, a very talented team who disappointed the fans so severely throughout the winter, the end of the season was extremely important. Aside from the loss to Tottenham, the last month of the season has seen a marked improvement in both effort and results.
Arsenal showed up to play against Everton, ready to take their destiny by the horns should Liverpool have slipped up against Middlesbrough. Even an early sending off of acting captain Laurent Koscielny could not stop this Arsenal team, for whom the season is ending at the wrong time, as they have only just returned to their irresistible form from earlier in the season. Everton had lots of half opportunities, but it was Arsenal that looked the more threatening side for most of the match. It was a hard fought 3-1 victory for the Gunners, and now only Chelsea awaits in the FA Cup final for the in form but battered North Londoners.
Even though Arsenal will ultimately miss out on Champions League football next year, the way the team fought for the last month of the season was very encouraging for some. Here are my takeaways from the final match of the season at the Emirates Stadium.
Somewhat lost in all the commotion at the end of the season is the fact that it was around the first time Arsenal played Everton in December, a 2-1 loss at Goodison Park, where the team started to lose form. It took the Gunners until after Easter to recapture their confidence. It was difficult to determine how much Arsenal would have won by were it not for Laurent Koscielny’s flying tackle (far worse looking than it was) that left the Gunners a man down for three-quarters of the match. Even still, understanding the gravity of the match and brimmed with confidence, Arsenal surged forward in numbers on the break, essentially shifting to their traditional 4 man back line with the ball. Hector Bellerin scored almost immediately, whipping the crowd into a frenzy as it temporarily hoisted the team into 4th place. By the time Alexis Sanchez added his goal to the mix, the Gunners were paradoxically a man down and two goals to the good.
The second half was a war of attrition, with inconsistent refereeing preventing any predictable end to the match. As a bit of sweet consolation for a player who has worked so hard to get back in the team after a struggle with injury all season, Aaron Ramsey put a beautiful curled effort into the top corner in the dying moments of the match to assure the win was comfortable. Overall, it was a satisfying display of class for the club to put a short lived exclamation on the league season.
Blaming a referee for a loss is never a way to go about playing football. Players should only worry about the factors that they can control, and a referee’s decisions, despite some…creative acting, are not among them. The argument has always been that if you don’t want the ref to decide the match, don’t let it get that close.
That being said, this season, a troubling trend has developed further in the Premier League. Across the entire league, there are rampant inconsistencies in not only the way referees call fouls, but also in how they are called in relation to the teams.
Michael Oliver was yet another Premier League accredited match official to lose control of a match that he is supposed to be officiating. After deciding to send off Laurent Koscielny for a very vigorous (but not overly egregious) foul that probably should have only seen yellow, the rest of the match was spent botching every other foul call in some way. Both Morgan Schneiderlin and Ashley Williams were VERY fortunate not to receive their marching orders for a very cynical challenge and a last man foul, respectively. Even the commentators could be heard wondering about the consistency of the whistles. As a result, Koscielny will be forced to miss the FA Cup final to suspension.
These inconsistent whistles not only lead to questions about the outcome of the match and whether or not it was affected, but they also impinge on the mentality of the players as well. A defender may go into a challenge harder, perhaps not fearing being sent off as much as with a stricter referee, or perhaps a frustrated attacker goes to ground easy in search of a wake-up call of sorts.
Whatever the problem is, the FA and PGMO need to figure out a way to bring transparency and accountability to a group that, mounting evidence suggests, has struggled to maintain their effectiveness over the course of the entire season.
No Help from Middlesbrough
While the excitement in the crowd was almost palpable (getting dangerously close to a proper football ground atmosphere in the process) as the live table showed the Gunners in 4th place following Bellerin’s goal, their unlikely bid finally fell short for good as GiGi Wijnaldum broke the deadlock in Merseyside for good just before half, assuring Liverpool would beat Middlesbrough and take the final Champions League place. As news spread around the Emirates, the mass deflation of 60,000 hopeful fans could almost be felt. It was good fun for many Gunners to dream of Arsenal loanee, Callum Chambers, helping his parent club into the top 4 with some magic against Liverpool, it was never realistic to expect. With the end of the match came confusing emotions for players, fans and coaches alike, none too sure of how to respond to this new feeling- being a Europa League team. It remains to be seen how hard Arsenal play for European honours next season, or if they decide to pace themselves in Europe for an all out assault on the Premier League title.
So Hard to Say Goodbye?
As the players took their final lap of the season around the Emirates to thank the fans in attendance, it was natural to wonder whether which of them would still be here to debut for the team next season, with summer changes expected. The view from this talking head is that Arsenal need supplementation, not a whole new squad. The team was able to overcome its severe mid-season struggles to bounce back and play with real pride in the last month.
With players like Nacho Monreal, Santi Cazorla, Per Mertesacker, Petr Cech and Laurent Koscielny all on the wrong side of 30, those positions may need some attention in the shape of either fresh backup squad players, or even outright replacement this summer. On the contract side of things, Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez, Aaron Ramsey, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jack Wilshere, and Kieran Gibbs among others, are all winding down contracts into their final years. In the case of Sanchez, Ozil, and perhaps Ramsey, there must be priority assigned to their retention. For others, such as Monreal and Mertesacker, replacement is probably more prudent at this stage.
Regardless of which players come and go in what promises to be an exciting summer in the hotly contested Transfer Market, there will inevitably be some new faces at the Emirates next season. The first order of business that the club must attend to now is who will be managing the team next season. Transfer business cannot possibly commence without a coherent strategy between the team and manager, so Arsenal fans should expect to hear some real movement on that front for the first time in months.
Wenger Out, Kroenke Out
After the final whistle blew on the victory over Everton, and the team was taking a thank you lap around the stadium, Arsene Wenger took some heavy flak for not joining his players by certain vocal members of the club’s support. He doesn’t respect the fans some said.
This is not true.
Arsene Wenger, far from a petty man, decided to not join his players for the lap simply to allow them to enjoy the appreciation of the fans, and not have it turn to catcalls, expletives, and boos toward the boss. It was the Frenchman at his usual understated best: do what you believe is best for the club and its players, paying no mind to how a vocal minority might interpret his actions.
There is a lot to be said about the middle third of this season, and frankly not much is very positive. The team looked totally lost for the majority of winter. However, in the last month of the season, whether it was Mesut Ozil increasing his effort and playing some defence or Aaron Ramsey shining next to Granit Xhaka in the redefined central midfield roles, this team fought back together, and in a way not befitting of a team that has tuned its tired old manager out. Wenger’s tactical decision to shift the formation into a back 3 set up rejuvenated his players, giving them fresh roles and challenges in which to stamp their signature on the match. Wenger deserves great credit for the way that he has grafted the Arsenal style of play to a much more defensively astute formation.
Perhaps tired of belittling the defeated looking Wenger in the second half , large pieces of the crowd turned on principal owner, and American businessman Stan Kroenke. Perplexingly singing “We want our club back” to the man who owns the team, the vocal supporters made their anger at a perceived lack of investment and ambition known. That Kroenke has overseen an era of record growth in terms of the club’s valuation is apparently not a factor.
That Kroenke chooses to run the club like a business, in which investments into the club are made from profits generated, as opposed to relying on inconsistent revenue streams like outside investment or huge personal investment by the owner, out of pocket. The perception that this is somehow indicative of a lack of competitive fire is ludicrous. Unlike Roman Abramovich, some owners are not comfortable carrying about £1bn in loans to field a championship winner. In fact, were it not for the near limitless outside investments made in clubs like Chelsea and Manchester City, the Arsenal model would be just about the only way forward for most clubs, especially since FFP regulations prohibit clubs from haemorrhaging money year on year, just for the sake of victories.
Victoria Concordia Crescit. To some within the club, Arsene Wenger, and fans like myself, these are not just words. The Arsenal are a club that, yes, seek victory as much as any other club, but that is not the only thing that matters to the club. Arsenal under Arsene Wenger and owned by Stan Kroenke choose to chase victory in honourable ways- to a man, the club culture is one of respect for all, from the owner to the crew that cleans the showers. In a modern football world that sees children exploited, familial sacrifices, blood, sweat, tears, more money and far less loyalty than ever, a club Arsenal should still be celebrated, win, lose or draw.