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Why this season hurts so much

IN the aftermath of Chelsea’s defeat to Sunderland on Saturday, I tweeted:

It generated some debate and so I thought I’d expand on it further in a blog and look at the general question of what might have been this season.

First, to expand on my tweet…
For me (and many others) Chelsea and City always looked vulnerable. Neither looked like a side who would run away with it – both looked more than capable of results such as Chelsea’s against Sunderland. It was also the first season in many a moon where United didn’t loom very, very large. I felt Liverpool were a threat: I was quietly impressed by them in their 2-0 defeat at the Emirates.

And Arsenal?
Well Arsene Wenger put together a squad that in the calendar year (yes, I know football is never about calendar years) to the end of January 2014 amassed 88 points from 38 games. Title winning consistency had been built on a defence that had long possessed individual talent but now looked organised and a midfield and attacking midfield that though probably in need of that fabled Vieira like figure and a little more pace was nonetheless highly productive.

And what of up front?
Well we’d got away with it over those 38 games really. And the crucial point is that 38 games that includes a title run-in is very different to 38 games that doesn’t. The manager who 10 years earlier boasted Henry, Bergkamp, Kanu and Wiltord (and even Aliadiere for that matter) but who brought in Reyes in the January just to be sure now appeared to long for the halcyon days of 1988-89 and 1990-91 when Arsenal won the league with basically one full-time striker. So Olivier Giroud was cast (not unreasonably it should be added) as Alan Smith and Yaya Sanogo as Kevin Campbell. What could possibly go wrong? Well, even in those very far off days, such a strategy was hardly a sure fire guarantor of success. Smith was brilliant in the title winning seasons, but excluding them he mustered just 41 league goals from 170 starts, fewer than one in every four games and George Graham didn’t muster any kind of a title challenge outside of those seasons.

So for me…
To have won the title with the strike force we had would have been a quite improbable achievement. We had one decent (not world class, but decent striker), one youngster who back in August I felt was as unready as any I’d seen play in the Arsenal first team and Theo Walcott and Lucasz Podolski, both of whom appeared to be viewed by the manager as being far more in the vein of Marc Overmars or Robert Pires than say, Thierry Henry. We simply had to buy.

The crucial point…
Is that in a title run-in you simply have to have players who will ferret you goals from somewhere. You need it even if you’ve got an Henry or a Suarez. If you don’t, you need it even more. Think Freddie Ljungberg on a Sunday afternoon v Ipswich in around April 2002. Two latish goals foraged from not a lot. Thank you very much.

But what about our bad luck with injuries? Didn’t that do for our chances?
I think we’ve been pretty fortunate with injuries because had Giroud got injured we’d have been totally stuffed. I’d accept that in midfield, on balance, we were slightly unlucky. Not so much in the volume of injuries because these happen and that is why you have a squad and if you look at it, we actually have a decent number of midfielders and so have never had to put out a five across midfield that was really particularly weak and certainly not as weak as Sanogo on his own up front. But to lose your best player from late December to April and to lose a player as unique to us as Theo Walcott for the second half of the season were cruel blows. Both were players capable of delivering those kind of Ljungberg v Ipswich moments. I accept them missing made it tougher for us, though could a properly resourced strike force have mitigated for their absence? Quite possibly.

But what of a defensive unit that capitulated on the big occasions?
It is hard to reconcile one that had previously managed such consistency with one that could ship six at City, five at Liverpool, six at Chelsea and then three at Everton. You can’t put the heavy defeats down as off days and equally you can’t dismiss all that previous consistency as a fluke. Clearly, we were vulnerable on the big occasion. It is also true that early goals can be the best form of defence. I’m not saying a better strike force would have stopped us conceding six, but it might have changed the narrative of one or two of those games and that in turn might have altered the wider narrative.

In conclusion…
This piece doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a fairly crude analysis. And inevitably it is dealing in a whole host of what ifs. I see the last fifteen games or so of a league season like the latter stages of a distance race. Just as the runners are not completely independent actors, nor are the teams at the top. What they do or don’t do impacts on the others and for every psychological boost you can give yourself so you can also deal a blow to your opponents. There are occasions when two or more teams do battle right up until the very last day. But not infrequently one team puts together a few wins and as their confidence soars so their competitors come under ever greater pressure and begin to crack and so this boosts the team on the ascendancy even more and so on and so forth. Wenger’s first two triumphs (10 wins on the spin in 1998, 13 in 2002) were classic examples of what Liverpool have done this year.

We will never know if Liverpool could have been stopped. But (assuming Liverpool don’t now screw it up), what we do know is that City and Chelsea were stoppable and United were never contenders and that we’d got ourselves into a very decent position. And also we also know that our strike force was under-resourced (few people doubt this) and even more so after the injury to Theo Walcott. And we’re not just talking lacking within the usual confines of how football fans assess a squad (ie in the way you might argue we need that Vieira like player). We’re talking massively lacking, to the extent that the question of “who?” is frankly rendered redundant. Even a Kaba Diawara or Chris Kiwomya level signing would have been a definite bonus. And until someone can explain otherwise, we have to assume the money was available.

I’m not saying we would have won it, but I am saying the conditions were better than they’d been for a long time and that we demonstrated a desperate lack of ambition.

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