For all that’s been said and written about Arsenal over the past couple of months, ever since the fateful day at St Andrews back in February, it is worth noting that this side is still a season ahead of schedule in terms of it’s performance in this campaign. If you look at the squads and their respective positions in the league table, Arsenal have punched above their weight once again. Forget all of the pre-season hyperbole about Tottenham and the ‘shift in power’ in North London, and all the rubbish about Arsenal ‘struggling to finish in the top 6’. Any real Arsenal fan, nay, any real FOOTBALL fan would’ve told you that this was a hugely over-exaggerated view of Arsenal’s problems, and that they would always expect Arsenal to be in the top 4 as a minimum. The other clubs in the league are, frankly, not good enough to challenge that position.
So what did Arsenal fans expect from their club this season? Well, all of them would’ve been hoping for a good start to set up a top 4 finish, and a decent run in the cups. Deep down, only the most wildly optimistic of souls would’ve been expecting a sustained title challenge. Had anybody offered them 3rd place, 6 points off top spot with 5 games remaining, they’d have probably been delighted with that. So why the moaning and booing now you ask? Well, it’s the manner in which we find ourselves in this position, and the knowledge that some minor tweaks could’ve made all the difference. Our performances up to December were nothing short of outstanding, and we hit our peak in an exquisite first half against Aston Villa. But, after Hleb (whose sumptuous early season form I have written on before), was scythed out of the equation by Carew, everything changed. Our performances suffered, the vibrancy and confidence started to ebb slowly away, yet we still did enough to win football matches – a positive sign, but you always felt that we would come unstuck unless the classy football returned. In fact, other than away games at Man City and Milan, we have rarely come anywhere near to that first half at Villa again this season.
So, if it was clear for all to see that the team was struggling and looking tired, surely an injection of fresh blood in January would’ve helped to reignite things? You’d think, but Arsene is a stubborn and principled man, and was keen to show loyalty, perhaps a little blindly, to his fringe players. He also, mistakenly, believed that Robin van Persie would return to fitness to lead the charge into the final months – this was blind faith in the extreme, if you consider RVP’s injury history; the boy is made of cheap glass from TK Maxx, and we should NEVER have put any reliance on him playing anything more than a couple of games here and there. It is this kind of loyalty which makes Arsene a manager that players love to work with, but it is also his undoing if, as is becoming more frequent in this age of pampered stars, your players can’t keep themselves fit. And that is why the Gooners are upset at the way things have turned out, despite most of their expectations having been exceeded already.
The Champions League clash tomorrow night is certainly one that Arsenal can emerge victorious from, but you’d be a very brave man to put anything more than negligible money on them winning the whole competition with a squad that is looking more threadbare than a vagrant’s socks. If Arsene bites the bullet this summer and makes 2 or 3 great signings (a la Bakary Sagna) in the key positions, then the expectations from the Arsenal faithful will go through the roof…although no doubt the chaps from down the road will already have ‘claimed’ a top 4 position by then…