No one expected Arsenal to challenge for the title. And even when it was clear they were challenging for the title, no one really believed they were actually going to win it. It may seem odd that the team leading the Premier League for so much of the season could be so comprehensively dismissed. And yet this was the only logical conclusion that could be drawn. Arsenal hadn’t changed, so why would we expect different results?
The signing of Mesut Ozil for £42.5m triggered much a talk of a ‘New Arsenal’. But in reality, it doesn’t seem like there was a lot new about it. Okay, so the transfer fee was new. It even set a new record. However, there was nothing new about the type of player that Arsenal were buying. Ozil, while being very good at football, is a still a tackle-shy, neat passer of the ball who does his best work behind the centre forward – the type of player that Arsenal already had in their droves.
So why did Arsenal seem so much better this season? Many suggested that their overnight improvement was down to the signing of Mesut Ozil. The fact that Arsenal did not need another player like Ozil was irrelevant, what mattered was that they’d bought a player who was as good as Ozil. It was argued his sheer quality alone gave the club a ‘lift’ and this lift was responsible for the good results of the first three months of the season.
And while this is of course possible, it is quite probable that the difference in this season’s form is simply down to chance. Even a side with such obvious flaws as Arsenal is capable of putting together a decent season every 10 years or so. Essentially, 2013/2014 may just be the exception that proves the rule. However, if this is reality, but we believe that something has actually fundamentally changed, then it disguises the fact that such problems exist in the first place. If Arsenal believe their own hype, and continue to ignore their long-term problem areas, then we should expect normal service to resume next season.
Where Arsenal really needed to strengthen was in the position both directly in front and behind the No. 10. It has been long said that Arsenal failed to replace Patrick Viera with a similarly combative central midfielder. However, it’s also true that Arsenal have changed their style of play since the Frenchman’s departure. The Gunners have reduced their reliance on physicality and have sought to break teams down through the attritional virtues of sustained possession.
In making this move, Wenger has undoubtedly taken his queues from Iberia. Spain, and more specifically Barcelona, have been pioneers of this possession-centric football, and both deploy a deep-lying central midfielder who operates as a kind of metronome, keeping the ball moving from side-to-side as the team probes for space further up field. Wenger has attempted to follow this blueprint by making Mikel Arteta has chief defensive midfielder. And while the Spaniard has functioned well when Arsenal have been capable of bossing possession, his effectiveness tends to be diminished when Arsenal are drawn into a midfield battle.
The signing of Mathieu Flamini has gone some way to dealing with this problem but the Gunners have consistently looked frail in his absence. If Arsenal are to consistently challenge for the title next season then another midfielder along the same lines as the Frenchman is required.
The other glaring weakness in this Arsenal side is in front of goal. Wenger’s attempt to replace Robin Van Persie with Olivier Giroud and Lucas Podolski has largely been a failure. While both are capable of making positive contributions to general play, such praise tends to tell you all you need to know about a striker: they don’t score enough goals.
Perhaps the most damning argument against the idea that there is a ‘New Arsenal’ comes in the form of Yaya Sanogo. He is the a-typical Arsenal signing: young, French, unproven and injury-prone. Or perhaps the club’s January pursuit of Julian Draxler – another slight, silky attacking midfielder – is greater indicator that Arsenal are still Arsenal. Either way, both would seem to go a long way to discrediting the idea that anything has really changed.
It would be crazy for us to expect different results at the Emirates when nothing is in fact different. While Arsenal have managed to put together a title challenge this season, it is quite possible that this merely represents the exception to the rule. The law of averages would suggest that in the long-run, Arsenal will revert to the mean struggle to finish in the top 4 next season. Of course, there is always time for things to change.