Saturday, 12 March 2011

From average, to bad, to promising, to...?

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Until very recently this season could be classified as a relative success but after a cup final defeat and another European failure on our travels, I now notice we are one point worse off in the league than this time last year. So how should we view this campaign?

In the five months since my last blog, the overall direction of travel has been upwards and individuals like Nasri, Wilshere and Djourou have continued to make progress. But there have been some horrible lows too. The Chelsea and Man U away games were as lacklustre as expected, giving up a four-goal advantage at Newcastle was historic in its wretchedness and, frankly, I lost a little bit of my soul watching us crumble at home to Spurs.

I gave up on Wenger and the season after that Tottenham defeat. All of the faults displayed so often before were crystallised in that game and the feeble response to the challenge posed by our fiercest rivals made things even worse. Gradually, foolishly, I let myself be convinced over the turn of the year that things weren’t as bad as I thought and that we did stand a chance of genuinely competing for silverware. Away wins at Everton and Birmingham and impressive home victories over Chelsea and Barcelona showed the team had a bit of steel and could even mix it with the best.

Then we failed to end the five-year wait for a trophy by losing the Carling Cup final and Barcelona again played us off the pitch at the Nou Camp to end faint dreams of success in Europe. Cup games are, of course, more susceptible to misfortune and bad luck than a league campaign. But the trend of defensive frailty, tactical inflexibility and vulnerability away from Ashburton Grove can be seen over years, not just single matches.

Take our record in Europe. Since reaching the final in 2006 we have played 24 away group and knockout matches (excluding qualifiers) winning six (25 per cent), drawing five (21 per cent) and losing 13 (54 per cent). Our last knockout win was in Milan in March 2008, meaning it will be at least four years since our last European away win outside a group game whenever we next produce one. Throw in the fact that we have kept four clean sheets in those 24 games (a rate of one in six) and the evidence is there for all to see.

We remain alive in two competitions but there is nothing to suggest we will change the pattern of failure to win either. So, as I asked at the beginning of this article, where do we really stand? It feels like the side contains more natural ability and the prospect of Szczency, Djourou and Wilshere making up a spine of the team over the next few seasons is certainly a brighter prospect compared to how we finished 2009/10. We are second in the league, a position closer to the summit than at this point last season but only by virtue of the leaders having fewer points. We have one point less, 57, and remain three points behind, though this year we have a game in hand.

Overall my sense is we will not make the ‘breakthrough’ we have been threatening for five years without a cold-hearted assessment of the strengths of some players and real reinforcements being found. And there is nothing to suggest that will happen with Wenger in charge. As persuasive and powerful Wenger is, his argument that our top four finishes and consistent progression to the Champions League group stage over recent years are as good as a trophy are pretty hollow. Silverware is needed to validate his approach and belief that this squad does justice to the club’s stature and resources.

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