Our vague chances of finishing in the top two were finished off by Chelsea on Monday, and our target is now to finish on eighty three points, which would be a fifteen point improvement upon last season. Sunderland are safe from relegation, so this won’t be the most exciting game ever seen, between two sides with nothing to play for. And with comments from Roy Keane like "There will be changes in the summer because I'm saying the same thing week in, week out and I'm really bored. It's irrelevant to me whether players are under contract. If they are, you just pay them up to go because you want certain characters", confidence can’t exactly be sky high at the Stadium of Light. They’ve won four and lost three of their last seven league games, and edged clear of the relegation battle against Middlesbrough at the end of April.
So, another trophyless season comes to a close. It has been one of bitter disappointments, more so than any other season in recent memory. To be knocked out of one domestic cup competition by Spurs, the other by Manchester United, beaten in the Champions League by a late penalty and some inexplicably bad refereeing, and to be five points clear in the league before going on one of the worst runs of form in Wenger’s career…let’s just say this is a season we’ll be wanting to forget pretty soon. Hopefully next season will abolish some of these bad memories. We’ve seen Wenger’s sides respond to great disappointments in the past, and we’ll need this team to learn from the current ones to prepare them for next season. The players have been battered and scarred mentally this season and they will be stronger players for it.
The side was playing so well as a team up until the end of February that deficiencies in the team were covered over. When it got to crunch time, we weren’t good enough. Not solid enough in defence and not potent enough in attack when we needed to be. The blame lies squarely with Arsene, who failed to strengthen the squad in areas where it was blatantly obvious that it was needed. The lack of strength in depth in the squad meant that we had to sacrifice the FA Cup, which no ‘big’ side should end up doing. Considering the wide positions are a vital part of the attack, one that has been a major part in all of our previous Premier League success (Overmars in 98, Ljungberg in 2002, Pires in 2004), to start the season with one permanently injured player, one young player that the manager is still afraid to use in matches of any importance, one right back playing out of position, and one player with only three goals to his name in each of his two previous seasons playing for Arsenal, with a lanky central midfielder as back up, is unforgivable. Oddly enough it ended up being one of the most memorable games of the season, but we travelled to the San Siro to face AC Milan with Eboue and Diaby on the wings. Ludicrous.
Another problem with the squad was that there was no genuine cover for Fabregas, meaning he had to play pretty much every game this season not including the Carling Cup. Even though he is one of the best central midfielders in the game, he only turned 21 last week. When other major players were rested in games such as United in the FA Cup, Liverpool at home in the league, Spurs in the Carling Cup semi final second leg, Cesc had to play, as without him the central midfield would be nowhere near good enough. I’d like to think Diaby could be the one that fills in for him next season, but that would require him no longer being back up left winger. Injuries haven’t helped. Our best form of the season came in the first half, and the goals were coming mainly from Adebayor, van Persie, Fabregas and Rosicky. To then lose two of those players for the rest of the season isn’t easy to handle. Rosicky’s should have been mitigated for, but van Persie’s injuries all stemmed from a bad twist of the knee while playing for Holland. He doesn’t have a great injury record, but that wasn’t injury proneness, that was sheer bad luck. And Robin’s goals were important. Two goals against Sunderland in a 3-2 win, one goal against West Ham in a 1-0 win, one goal against Blackburn in a 1-1 draw. United and Chelsea have less attacking options than we do in terms of strikers (United have Rooney and Tevez, Chelsea have Drogba and Shevchenko, we have Adebayor, van Persie, Eduardo and Bendtner), but crucially Rooney and Drogba were fit for the majority of the season. When those two players weren’t available for them, they struggled. Before the Chelsea game, United had lost every league game that Rooney hadn’t been involved in. I doubt they’d be top if they lost him for four months to an international injury.
I don’t want to seem too down though. This season was absolutely awful at times but I’m genuinely hopeful towards next season. The team is still young and can only be improving. At the start of next season, Sagna will be 25, Clichy will be 23, Fabregas will be 21, van Persie will be 25, Adebayor will be 24, Toure will be 27. They are the most important players in the current first team and they’re all approaching the age where they need to start really doing it on the big stage. Wenger has a big transfer window ahead of him. Flamini’s gone, even though he’s said no one else will leave apart from Lehmann I’d be surprised to see Gilberto and Hleb stay. Flamini wants more money? Fine, damn off. Hleb wants to slate Wenger’s ambition while his agent touts him for a move to Italy? Fine, damn off. Your three goals a season won’t be hard to replace, assuming Wenger attempts to replace you. Denilson isn’t ready to make the step up yet, so that would mean buying at least one defensively minded central midfield holding player, to play alongside Fabregas/Diaby, if not two for cover purposes. With Rosicky always injured, even with Vela coming back from loan, who does look good, we need to buy in that position.
After a very, very poor season for Eboue, where he’s managed no goals despite being first choice right winger for a large part of the season and caused more groans from the crowd than I’ve heard for an individual in a while, with every pass that goes straight to the opposition, Wenger can’t have not noticed. He’s a decent right back option behind Sagna, that’s about it. Walcott’s looking more ready for first team football, but we can’t just rely on him on the right if Hleb goes. Two signings needed in the wide positions. If he buys those three midfielders that are needed, to the required standard ala Sagna and Eduardo last summer, then we’ll be fine. While I doubt Gallas will still be captain next season, he’s still a good central defender and while Wenger might look into making a purchase in that department, it’s not essential. What would be more useful would be to get Keown and Adams on the coaching staff, even for pre-season, to work on our defensive play.
We’ve beaten Sunderland the last seven times we’ve played them, including four wins at the Stadium of Light. The last time we played at this ground, it was in an end of season game, and Diaby had his ankle shattered.
Sagna, Diaby and Rosicky are out injured, Hleb is still suspended, Flamini and Lehmann probably won’t be involved in the squad at all. Van Persie didn’t play against Everton due to his ‘pre-cautionary’ withdrawal against Derby, and I doubt we’ll bother rushing him back into the side now that there’s nothing left to play for at all. Fabianski will keep his place in goal. Fabregas won’t play. Wenger has suggested he’ll play some of the young players like Randall and Gibbs, so it’ll be fairly impossible to guess the team.
Subs: Almunia, Senderos, Traore, Randall, Gibbs.Sunderland
Sunderland have a couple of injuries but should be able to select a strong side for their last home game of the season.