Golf coaches have a phrase that they are fond of using; they insist that ‘feel and real are two different things’. There can be a disjuncture between what the player feels they are doing in their swing and what the video evidence actually shows they are doing. The situation with Arsenal currently is reminiscent of that analogous example. Many Arsenal supporters, as well as many neutrals, believe that Arsenal have made progress this season. It just ‘feels’ a better season than last. The numbers however, don’t necessarily concur with this school of thought. They tend to suggest Arsenal have more or less stood still. There are good arguments on both sides of the debate and it comes down to a question of perception.
The weekend’s 1-1 draw away at Manchester United means Arsenal require only one point from their remaining two games to secure a top three finish and automatic qualification for the Champions League. This would also be an improvement from last season’s 4th place finish. However the draw at Old Trafford also ensured that Arsenal will finish with fewer points than they did last season. They can reach a maximum of 77 points compared to last season’s total of 79. They are in the FA Cup final, which they won last season, and were knocked out at the last 16 stage of the Champions League once again.
So how have Arsenal managed to create the impression that they have progressed, if their season when written down on paper looks very much like the last? In the last two season’s Arsenal have had one good half and one poor half, but the timing of their good run in this campaign might account for the good vibes around the club. Last season they were top of the League on New Year’s Day, and topped the league for 126 days in total, before slipping away to 4th. This season that sat in 6th on New Year’s day and have since claimed 38 points from a possible 48 to climb to 3rd and at one stage 2nd. The good half, in other words, has come at the end of the season and therefore resonates with people a bit more.
Arsenal’s good half this season has also contained more notable results compared to their good run in the autumn of 2013. The major doubt looming over Arsenal going into this season was their ability to cope away from home against their rivals within the top four following the 6-3 defeat at Man City, the 5-1 dismantling at the hands of Liverpool, the 6-0 debacle at Stamford Bridge and the customary limp performance and 1-0 defeat at Old Trafford last season. Plus there was a 3-0 defeat away at Everton, which often gets forgotten, where they were thoroughly outplayed.
There has been an improvement on this front. Arsenal’s good run in the second half of this season has included a 2-0 away win at Man City, a 4-1 beating of Liverpool at the Emirates, and an FA Cup win at Old Trafford against United. There have been league draws at Anfield and Old Trafford as well; a point at either of those grounds is always a credible outcome. They lost a tight encounter away at Chelsea in October 2-0, at a time of the season when Chelsea were in full flight, but compared to their previous visit there it was an improved display.
Arsenal’s good run at the beginning of 2013/14 was in truth, built upon a very friendly fixture list early on. They found themselves 8 points clear in December and that after having lost to Aston Villa at home on the opening day. However, their only two stand out domestic results were wins over Tottenham and Liverpool at the Emirates; two matches where they were favourites. The fact that this season’s ‘good half’ has retained some good away results at grounds they have typically found tough accounts for the perception that Arsenal have progressed. If they win their final two matches they will have massed 44 points in their final 19 games of the season, compared to 42 points in the first 19 games of the 2013/14 season. So this season’s ‘good half’ will be fractionally better.
Aesthetics are an important part of how people perceive teams and players, and there is also a feeling that Arsenal just ‘look’ a better team than last season. In that campaign they relied heavily on Theo Walcott and Aaron Ramsey’s third man runs to penetrate and counter attack teams. When both were injured at the same time last spring, Arsenal really struggled offensively due to a lack of pace. In the aforementioned defeat at Goodison they had a front three of Podolski, Giroud and Rosicky. All three of those players have their merits, but it wasn’t an attacking line up with the right blend of attributes.
This season, mainly due to the acquisitions of Alexis Sanchez and Danny Welbeck, they have had more variety and a counter attacking threat. Alex Oxlade Chamberlain was excellent until getting injured, and helped provide this as well. (As a side note, it is the emergence of these three players that mean Theo Walcott could well be deemed surplus to requirements). The added pace has certainly aided Olivier Giroud who has looked an improved player though he relies heavily on having these runners around him.
With two home games remaining against Sunderland and West Brom they have chance to improve on the 68 goals they scored last season having already reached 67. They have conceded 35 goals this season compared to last season’s 41, though that number was very much skewed by the big away defeats. They actually kept more clean sheets last season, with Wojech Szczesny sharing the Golden Glove with Petr Cech. So once again, it’s difficult to establish which improvements are real and which are merely perceived.
I would argue that there has been a modest amount of progression at Arsenal, certainly in the quality and style of their football, which is the basis for winning games. Many people assume that Arsenal’s style of football is never in question, but there is no doubt that between 2011 and 2014 due to the loss of key offensive players the style and quality of football dipped. Arsene Wenger has almost completed the rebuilding of his forward line, and the quality of their offensive play is on the way up. The lack of a home victory against the three other teams in the top four indicates a touch more firepower might be needed.
The definite regression of Manchester City and Liverpool this season, as well as the fact that Manchester United’s post-Ferguson transition is lasting longer than anticipated have all contributed to perhaps flattering Arsenal in terms of their League position. That may be a touch harsh, because you still have to earn the points, but it’s certainly made life a bit more comfortable. There is no reason to think Chelsea will take a step back next season, if anything one would expect them to get stronger, so it will take a substantial improvement for Arsenal to overhaul them.
They have however, in the last two years, moved on from being a club with the burden of a nine year trophy drought who scraped into the top four on the final day of the season, to a team that now finishes in the top four quite comfortably and has the chance to win back to back FA Cups. That’s progress of a kind.