Another Premier League season comes to an end, and finally I have been able to watch a game live for the first time in about 2 months. Hence the delay between posts and the timing of my return.
As ever the hyperbole with Premier League football likes to deny the existence of anything before 1992 (except of course Alan Hansen’s medals at Liverpool and 1966), but for once the drama of the last day was deserving of the headlines. Not only was the unwanted final relegation place up for grabs, and the stumble for third, fourth or fifth, but there was also the matter of bragging rights in Liverpool and more importantly Manchester. With almost half the division with something to play for, not to mention the big prizes up for grabs, I was one of millions glued to their screens between 3pm and 5pm last weekend. All the interested parties had major fluctuations in their fortunes as the afternoon unfolded, but in the end (and by that I mean the 94th minute in Manchester), the Premier League table sat much as would have been predicted before kick offs.
I am torn with regards to how I feel about the title. I have always held an affection for Manchester City as a club, and loyal long-sufferance has been the badge of their support. And one can always take pleasure in the mob from Old Trafford having their sense of entitlement go unrewarded, despite the invariable intervention of officials. That said, I despise the Middle Eastern supermarket sweep that has taken place at Eastlands, both in terms of what it represents for football, but also the use of money taken out of massively unequal societies to fund the massaging of egos of the powerful and legitimise their morally bankrupt systems of governance.
For this to be followed by Chelsea somehow winning the Champion’s League with their worst team in 9 years, and despite being outplayed in every round in the tournament, was too odd for words, and distasteful . Chelsea’s performance was reminiscent of Arsenal’s 1994 Cup-winners-cup victory against Parma, where Smudger belted one in with his wrong foot from 20 yards, and the team somehow held on. I think Chelsea had five or six shots in the whole match compared to twenty-something for Bayern, and if Drogba played for the Bavarians, it could have finished 5-nil. Gomez looked like a pub player, and Robben and Ribery both seemed intent on personal glory. Also, having gone one-nil up with so little time left, for Bayern to bring on Van Buyten (a man mountain if ever there was one), and not have him mark Drogba at Chelsea’s first corner was criminally naive. The pressure of being at home and favourites got to Bayern, and despite dominating from start to finish, played without conviction. It was like watching Arsenal play, only I would have put good money on Arsenal beating the Chelsea 11 that were out last night.
From an Anglo-centric view, the two richest clubs, artificially propelled by the dubiously obtained fortunes of people with no prior associations with said clubs, have won the two biggest prizes. Having spent over 900 million pounds net between the two of them, they really should win I suppose, but it turns my stomach.
From an Arsenal perspective, this season has to count as a relative success in the light of lowered expectations. After the painful summer late departures of key men and the lack of signings, the club were not well placed going forwards, as reflected by early season struggles which found left the club with its worst start to a league campaign in two generations. The trolley dash on deadline day, brought in some experience and solidity, but I doubt anyone felt that Mertesacker, Arteta, Park or Bennayoun were first choice targets, despite the positive impact of three of the four. If we had known then that the team would suffer an injury crisis at full back, with people filling in out of position for almost half the season, and that we would get less than 180 minutes from Wilshere and Diaby combined, few would have seen us qualifying for the Champions League. Given the negligible impact of Park, Chamakh, Arshavin, and even Gervinho in all honesty, the team’s third place finish was pretty much a miracle, and one largely bestowed by the grace of Robin Van Persie. Over the last 18 months, the Arsenal captain has shown what we have long known – that if he could stay fit there was a world class player waiting to emerge. Other major plus points for the season have included the resurrection of Tomas Roscicky, the continued development of Koscielny, and for the most part, the impressive development of Song’s passing range. Walcott has taken a step forward this year as well, despite continued inconsistency and impotence against massed defences, and the pole in the goal has cemented the number one shirt as his own, despite the odd error.
Recent weeks have illustrated the importance of Mikkel Arteta on the team. His metronomic passing to keep the ball moving, his positioning, and most importantly his positional play and tackling have been highlighted by their absence. The team has lacked fluidity and looked more vulnerable without him, despite his unobtrusive approach. In recent weeks we have conceded almost a goal a game more without him and scored almost a goal a game less. Before hailing him as a vital part of the side, it is worth taking into account Ramsey’s shocking loss of form, another injury to the dependable Sagna, and Vermaelen having a few games of forgetting to play defence. With Ramsey still coming back to form, and Wilshere probably needing to be eased back having missed a year, Arteta should remain first choice unless the manager surprises us with a big signing. The Spaniard is a bit of a jack of all trades, but in this current imbalanced Arsenal squad, that is no bad thing.
I’m sure I’m not the only Arsenal fan who will express warm thanks to Yossi Benayoun. While it would make little sense for the long-term strategy of the club to attempt to make his transfer permanent, his impact in the second half of the season has been significant, and puts the likes of Arshavin and Gervinho to shame (for very different reasons). His commitment on the field and professionalism off it have been very valuable, and I hope whichever club he moves to next will be able to give him the playing time he deserves. Ironically, the English team that would benefit most from his particular skillset would be Liverpool, but I’m not sure a return to Anfield will be on the cards. Either way, I’m sure the irony of an Israeli twice scoring final day goals to ensure Arsenal finish above Spurs will cement his reputation in these parts.
Last Sunday also saw the end of a rather longer standing association with the club, as Pat Rice retired after 44 years as a player or coach at Arsenal. It was lovely to see the current players, many of who will know very little about his playing days, carry him over to the travelling Arsenal fans. Rice epitomised the value of hard work and determination, as older fans have informed me that his start as a player would never have hinted at 500+ appearances, the double and captaining the club to three FA Cup Finals. He also coached two FA Youth Cup winning sides, and was Assistant Manager for 15 years, including two doubles, the unbeaten season and another FA Cup win. Not bad for a boy born in post-war Belfast.
One wonders if we will ever hear an explanation for the curious case of Park-Joo-Young. He arrived with a decent reputation, captain of his national team and bright spot in an otherwise awful relegated Monaco side. After an awful showing against Shrewsbury in the Carling Cup followed by a good performance and fine goal against Bolton (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z61H0ffFkBI&feature=related), he disappeared without trace bar a bizzare cameo against Manchester Utd. He managed to score one in two reserve games, but other than that no-one has even seen him. Apparently the South Korean FA can’t get hold of him. A total mystery, particularly as he offers so much more of a goal threat than Chamakh.
All gooners will now be waiting to see what happens next, in terms of ins and outs. Will our talismanic captain stay, as his wife and mother seem to encouraging? Or will the lure of having a run at the Champions League whilst earning double what he is now prove too strong? Will Arsene be able to find buyers for the likes of Squillachi, Park, Chamakh, Bendtner, Vela and Denilson to avoid paying their wages for another year? Will we see any more big name signings, such as the oft linked Vertongen, M’Villa, Hazard or Belhanda? It seems increasingly likely, particularly with the club needing to sell to free up squad space before it can buy. There will also be endless questions re tactical adjustments, the impact of Steve Bould’s promotion, and the ongoing boardroom battles.
As ever, and in keeping with the Wenger model, the club is well placed going forwards if the right transfer business can be conducted, but the threat of RVP departing, and the imbalance in the squad leave all this hanging in the balance, particularly with the vastly superior resources of Man City, Man Utd and Chelsea all likely to flex their muscles. All Arsenal supporters feel the club needs to show ambition this summer to cement our wavering place at football’s top table, and with the highest ticket prices in Europe and the need to be position successfully for the end of our current undervalued sponsorship deals, it seems obvious that is a summer to speculate to accumulate. The famously cautious and parsimonious board and management, may continue to beg to differ. The curse of interesting times lays ahead.
Lower down the league, the automatic promotions of Reading, Southampton, Charlton and Sheffield Wednesday all gave me a degree of pleasure, with all four well supported, with good, under-appreciated managers who encourage their teams to play good football. With saints following the Norwich fast-track, and Reading bouncing back despite losing their best players for the last 4 seasons in a row, the quality of British managers in the Premier League will be higher than it has been for a while, with Sam Allerdyce to follow. Now if only we could see a way to rid ourselves of Tony Pulis and his sub Charles Hughes football, the division would be very pleasing on the eye. And if anyone thinks I am being unfair, Stoke City scored a massive 14 goals from open play all season. Its all about the restarts…
In Italy, Juve went the whole season unbeaten, despite not really being talked about anywhere outside of Italy, with a final day winning goal from Del Piero in his final match for the Old Lady. Runner up and Arsenal beaters AC Milan got a last day winner in his last game from Pippo Inzaghi. A fitting way for two greats of the Italian and European game to bow out. Also ex-gooner and part-time mercenary Matthieu Flamini scored on his final game of Milan (also his first start this season). Udinese and Lazio are fighting it out for third place, whilst Inter’s post Mourinho decline takes them into sixth as things stand, despite a strong last few weeks.
In Spain, an imperious Madrid strolled over the finishing line, with a staggering points and goals total, whilst Barca’s end of season limp dragged itself to a draw, as their season and Pep’s last ground to a halt, despite Messi’s mindblowing 50 la liga goals and 72 in all competitions. The injuries to Villa and Pique, and Abidal’s ongoing struggle with cancer de-railed their season, so that their reliance on Messi was obvious to all. The continuous playing of almost every game at such an intense level for four years caught up with the likes of Xavi and Puyol a little, but Barca’s B team winning their league suggests that the Catalans can feel relaxed about the long term future. Too many away draws for Guardiola’s men, but Madrid’s 100 points and +71 goal difference is astounding. Valencia were a distant third, 30 points behind Barca, and nearly 40 behind the Madridistas. As I’ve commented before, the Spanish league is badly broken, and unless the top two are forced to re-negotiate the TV deals in Spain, it will only get worse. Barca and Madrid received over 70 times the amount of TV Money Heracles got last season, which compared to the relative parity of the EPL and the Bundesliga is a disgrace, and poses serious questions of the future of the Spanish League, particularly given the struggling economy and the vast swathes of unpaid tax in Spanish football.
German football on the other hand, continues to enjoy its recent renaissance. Bayern predictably won their penalty shoot-out against Jose’s massive favourites Madrid to reach the Champion’s League final. However, they lost out on the League title to Jurgen Klopp’s fantastic Dortmund side by 8 points, as well as being soundly beaten in the German Cup final German Cup Final by the same side, in a game full of fantastic goals. On the flip side, I read an interesting article yesterday about :Bayerns anti-Nazi past.
Montpellier continue to sit atop of Ligue 1, and if they avoid defeat in their final fixture of the season away to relegated Auxerre will pip the oil barons of PSG to the title. This would probably make them the most left-field champions of a major European league in some time. It would also wonderfully illustrate just what can be achieved on a small budget. It is also probably the only shot they will get at the title as a club any time soon, so my fingers are crossed for them.
Looking ahead to the summer, I am one of those who was happy with Roy Hodgson’s appointment. He has experience at international level, has enjoyed great success overseas, and was treated very badly at Liverpool, as has been subsequently illustrated by their failure to improve despite spending big. I think his appointment of Gary Neville as a coach is sensible, and he is much more likely to look at the longer term aspects of the job than the media darling, Harry Redknapp. England will not have a sniff of winning the tournament this summer, with so many players injured, out of form or just not of sufficient quality, but Hodgson has pedigree in building cohesive systems and investing energy in youth, and is not frightened to adopt successful continental models.
I look forward to both the European Championships and the Olympics with the pleasure of not caring who wins, which after a very stressful season for gooners is a blessed relief!