Fly the standard higher.
Arsenal haven't won anything in six years. This is the drumbeat in vogue in some quarters of Arsenal. It is often the media's favorite tune.
The cliche has become tiring. Arsenal must plan to win something soon. In view of this, I discuss in 10 slides what I consider "realistic" goals for next season.
A few of them are obvious and are real goals in the literal sense. Others are not as obvious, but not less important. I always aim to stimulate conversation, so I look forward to hearing from the readers.
It is time Arsenal won the League again. The club should make this its goal for next season. Unless the loss at QPR proves more than temporary, there's enough quality in the team to suggest that it can challenge for titles next year.
Just a minor tinkering is enough to turn the team into a winning side. It appears that two more players could complete the chain: a striker and an attacking midfielder.
If Arsenal can buy these, and if this season's injury problems don't return next season, then there's no reason why Arsenal couldn't challenge and win the league.
I do believe the key is these players, peradventure Arsenal don't lose Robin van Persie and Theo Walcott. If this happens, Arsene Wenger would be constrained to build the team afresh. In that event, the club can kiss challenging for titles goodbye.
The key, then, is not to let this happen.
"Last year was terrible for us because we finished on August 31 at 11.55pm and we do not want to repeat that, of course." This is Arsene Wenger talking about transfer.
What he says is true. Transfer transactions need to be concluded as early in the summer break as possible so that the players can be available for preseason orientation.
I know that a million or two is a lot, but I'd rather that Arsenal don't quibble about such differences if it means disrupting the team's summer preparations.
I believe we need a quality attacking midfielder and a striker, and perhaps an older experienced player or two to add depth to the squad.
If the Lukas Podolski rumor is true, then the striker problem already is solved. If more marquee signings prove too expensive, then perhaps Wenger should think about Junior Hoilett, who although plays on the flank could be converted into a more central position.
On the form Hatem Ben Arfa is on, he could be another option.
My point though is that Arsenal should buy whomever they like very quickly to ensure that preseason preparation isn't disrupted by last-minute purchases.
I did a "Seven-Players-Wenger-Will-Be-Happy-to-Sell" article back in March. The list included Manuel Almunia, Sébastien Squillaci, Nicklas Bendtner, Denilson, Andrei Arshavin and Marouane Chamakh. Some readers suggested Carlos Vela as well.
Arsenal need to sell off some of these players to free up the wages. This will allow the club to offer better contracts to the likes of Robin van Persie, Theo Walcott and Alex Song. A few of these players could even be let go for free in view of the wages problem.
What is important is that Arsenal conclude this business as quickly as possible to allow the club make decisions on new players.
Next season will be tough on players, especially those who participate in Euro 2012, which holds between 8 June and 1 July.
The current season ends in the second week of May, which means that players called up to their national teams won't have time to rest before reporting to their respective training camps.
There will be just six weeks between Euro 2012 and the beginning of the 2012-13 season. This means that these player either won't participate in preseason training or that they won't have rest at all.
In the midst of all these, Arsenal have scheduled preseason matches in Asia and Nigeria.
How each team manages its preseason will contribute to the kind of beginning it has to the coming season.
Arsenal, therefore, must plan towards a viable way to negotiate this difficulty.
Tactics, I have maintained on a number of occasions, aren't hyphenated numbers but more like a flow chart, and involves a great deal of drills.
Arsene Wenger, I believe, is a constructive-manager-type, which means he focuses mostly on the manner of playing football, with the belief that it can subdue opponents.
This is different than obsessing over a given team with a view of finding destructive tactics to neutralize its play. Lesser teams are constrained to be destructive.
The remarkable way by which Wenger transformed a broken team from a losing position to a challenger for top-of-the-table finish owes greatly to the fact that he has a clear understanding of how his team should play and of what it takes to achieve this.
Wenger builds his teams around particular players, and this explains why Robin van Persie suddenly became the apex of the current team, whereas the recent teams have been built around Cesc Fabregas, with Samir Nasri becoming progressively important.
The loss of the two players therefore was tantamount to breaking up the entire team, hence the early tragedies of the season (allow me to use this word).
With the coming in of Mikel Arteta, Wenger quickly abandoned his preferred 4-2-1-3 (4-2-3-1), in favor of 4-3-3 proper. In other words, the current team is much more balanced, as far as the relative importance of players is concerned.
Arsenal tend to lose the plot whenever a team vigorously attacks its strategy. Or, to put it differently, Arsenal find it difficult to overcome teams that refuse to be subdued. A good example is Everton and Liverpool who outplayed Arsenal, even though Arsenal got the win in these matches.
The same thing happened at Swansea, who took control of the match and proceeded to outplayed Arsenal, even out-passing them.
At QPR, a combination of structural discipline and physicality frustrated Arsenal to a defeat. Against Fulham, physicality and pressure on individual players frustrated Arsenal.
It is evident to any close observer that Arsenal do not cope well in overly physical and high-pressure matches. They prefer to exert the pressure themselves, but tend to wilt away when the tables are turned.
This is because Arsenal don't seem to have destructive strategies of their own. It is the reason past teams have tended to collapse, even from winning positions.
Clever coaches have realized that the easy way to subdue Arsenal is to be physical, to man-mark them, to allow them no time on the ball.
When this happens, Arsenal players tend to panic and this leads to errors, such as Thomas Vermaelen's against QPR, or to defensive mix ups, such as has happened in the past between Wojciech Szczęsny and Laurent Koscienly. It often leads to own goals.
Compare this to Barcelona, for example, who when pressured, proceed to segment the pitch and isolate the opposition's possessing player by strategic pressing.
This leads to errors from these players, who then inevitably surrender possession to Barcelona, who then transfer it to another segment of the pitch, causing the opposition to chase shadows. This in turn leads to frustration with the eventual result often becoming red cards.
Arsenal, on the other hand, don't know what to do when their tactics are challenged. This problem isn't something you can solve in a match in progress, nor is it one you can solve in a short time, it requires time to drill strategies to employ for every anticipated contingency in a match.
This is both what I mean when I say that tactics are more like a flow-chart and when I say that the team needs to expand its tactical arsenal.
For the team to become dominant, it must practice several drills and tricks to use when certain problems occur in a match. This ensures total control. It is why Barcelona are rarely ruffled, even when they concede early goals.
Segmenting the pitch is what Arsenal could improve upon. This enables players to remain calm in possession, as they know and can anticipate both what to do next and what their opponents reaction will be.
Please, watch any recent l Clásico match or last year's Champions League final to see Barcelona employ this strategy.
Arsenal can make it their goal to improve and expand their tactical arsenal before next season commences.
If you ask me I'd say winning cup competition is more a matter of luck than other factors. I base this on a number of reasons, the reader can think up some for him/herself.
Domestic cup competitions have become canvasses for reserve teams. For Arsenal, it is a forum to observe its young players, with a view of giving them the opportunity to break into the first team.
Although the priority now is on the league, Arsenal should nevertheless try to win one of the domestic cups next season. We came close last year. Let's try for next season.
In fact, if Arsenal buys well in the transfer market, we may even challenge for the Champions League title, that is if we are able to qualify for it.
Winning a cup will be a psychological boost for the fans.
The following appeared in the editorial section of Goal.com on November 18, 2011, and as its subject is central to the present point, I quote extensively from it.
After Lionel Messi collapsed holding the hamstring of his left leg after 38 minutes against Celtic at Camp Nou on March 4, 2008, Ronaldinho and Deco were first to arrive and console, distraught at another calamity for their injury-prone young friend. Messi limped off the field in unrestrained tears – a moment which signified that his, and his team’s season would go up in smoke.
A war cabinet was convened in the wake of the injury. Present were the director of football, Txiki Begiristain, and two vice presidents: Ferran Soriano and Marc Ingla.
Ingla takes up the story: “We were disappointed with the fragility of Messi and his repetitive muscle strains. After the Celtic match we constructed a holistic plan for his future performance: to manage the number of meals he had; what type of food he should eat; how many hours of sleep he had to get; what type of stretching he had to do every day. It was a multi-faceted plan to keep him healthy and to minimise injuries. We put lots of work into it and invested lots of money to help him.”
Juanjo Brau was a fitness and rehabilitation coach who had been working with Messi, but not exclusively, since prior to the 2006 World Cup. It was decided that Brau would be dedicated to Messi, helping him avoid injury, rather than recover from it.
Messi's diet would now include previously unknown quantities such as fish and vegetables and these changes in the way he maintains his body have made him leaner and stronger, less susceptible to injury and quicker to recover. However, there was more to the plan than that.
Note how the word "fragile" is used to describe burgeoning Lionel Messi as recently as 2008, and note that the "fragility" has to do with hamstring injuries.
Also note the aggressive way in which the Barcelona management confronted the problem. Then locate Cesc Fabregas within all these and you should draw a few points, the least of which isn't that since Fabregas' move to Barcelona, his penchant for hamstring injury appears to have vanished.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not insinuating that I'm aware that Fabregas has undergone a similar health regiment as Messi's since his move from Arsenal to Barcelona, or that whatever regiment he had at Arsenal was inferior.
What I can note is that the niggling hamstring injury that plagued him at Arsenal (even in his final season there) appears to have disappeared. So, in the light of the Messi situation above, I can only wonder whether or not the move to Barcelona hasn't something to do with this.
But while I wonder, I must quickly note that Wenger was a pioneer in dieting, a fact for which he was soundly mocked by the British press, until it was seen to produce results, and today, every club has a dieting regiment.
Also, I must note that Arsenal have the best medical facilities in England and one of the best—if not the very best—in Europe, which, in the very least, means that the club takes the medical side of the game very seriously.
Having noted this, though, we must remember that Arsenal have been affected by injuries in recent seasons, even if we must acknowledge that some of these injuries have been the random types—leg breaks and fractures, for example.
I recall reading somewhere that Arsenal and Manchester United have topped the list of teams with the most injuries in the last decade. This gives one pause, especially in the light of the fact that Arsenal have the best medical facility in the Premier League.
Is there anything Arsenal could do to minimize the rate at which players go down with avoidable injuries, such as muscle strains and pulled hamstrings?
Can Messi-like regiments help players that are especially prone to these kinds of injuries, players such as Kieran Gibbs and Francis Coquelin this season?
To solve his own injury problems, Abou Diaby recently enlisted the help of specialists in the USA.
There's no doubt that injuries affected Arsenal's run last season. To make sure the situation doesn't repeat itself, Arsenal can do no wrong in studying the problem with a view of improving the current health regiment.
This will enhance Arsenal's competitiveness in next season's competitions. The more available the players you have, the more your options are for every game.
At the beginning of every season, every team knows it'd play 38 matches, half of which are away. Plus, every team knows which of these games would be relatively difficult. For example, Arsenal could note that it might have a problem winning at the Britannia Stadium, or that it tends to win against certain teams.
This, of course, isn't to say that conditions are always the same in every match or that a team will always win or lose at a given stadium.
What it does mean is that a team can have strategies in place to address the contingencies that contribute to its record at certain places.
In addition to this, each team is aware where each fixture will fall in the campaign. This knowledge should help the team balance the Sturm und Drang of the entire season. This is why I believe Sir Alex Ferguson always retains older and experienced players, the type you'd use at the Britannia Stadium, or the type you'd bring on to consolidate a winning position in a given match.
Here's what I'm thinking.
The manager can have a flow chart of likely scenarios for every of the 38 matches of the season (a sketch, not the details, which can be filled in when each match comes around) in the light of the squad.
The sketch chart will account for the frequency of fixtures and of cup competitions. Penciled in should be a draft of likely players to be used for every match, barring injuries and such like.
Leaving every match to chance is already halfway towards failure.
In the light of this, what older, experienced players could Arsene Wenger sign in view of the entire sweep of the season, players to call upon in difficult away matches?
To defend this point from the charge of naivete, let me note that it was such an older player that bailed Arsenal out against Leeds United in the FA match and against Sunderland in the Premier League away fixture in the current season.
Note also how Sir Alex Ferguson keeps Michael Owens around and calls upon him in strategic matches, and also how he fields players like Park Ji-Sung in particular matches.
Furthermore, note how the age and experience of Mikel Arteta has helped give Arsenal the backbone it has lacked in recent seasons, or how the return of Paul Scholes has help United, or how the ageless Clarence Seedorf helps AC Milan in big matches.
That a team can decide to win a competition even before the ball is kicked (barring uncontrollable factors) can be found in Ferguson's declaration that he had come to Manchester United to knock Liverpool off its perch.
Of course, he didn't achieve this in the first few seasons, but he did eventually.
Having a strategy for every match of the season even before the season kicks off can help the team win its difficult matches, and if a team can win its difficult matches, it's already halfway towards winning the title.
A strategy such as the one advocated here can help a manager decide the exact players to sign in view of particular matches.
The single most important achievement Arsenal have made in the last decade is the construction of the Emirates stadium. This has transformed Arsenal from a middling club to one of Europe's financial superpowers.
Paying off the loan that enabled the construction of the stadium led to a change in strategy on the playing front. It meant Arsenal couldn't compete viably in the transfer market, not if it wanted to maintain a financially sustainable model.
A major difference between Arsenal and her sister European giants such as Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester United and Bayern Munich is in the fact that it alone has sustainable debt. Bayern, of course, is the closest to Arsenal.
Another major difference between Arsenal and these clubs is the fact that all dwarf Arsenal in the area of revenue. Right now, the bulk of Arsenal's revenue comes from match-day earning and from broadcasting. Manchester United, for example, cracked the £100 million ceiling in revenue. Real Madrid (and even Barcelona) are in a world of their own in this area.
Bayern Munich's financial power comes from its robust sponsorship deals. Arsenal is a Lilliput to these clubs' Gulliver in terms of generated revenue. It is why Arsenal is stepping up campaign to make her brand more globally known.
The higher the club's earning, the more it can compete in the transfer the market, and seeing as she has the least debt of these clubs, if Arsenal can increase her revenue, she could soon position herself on top of football's pyramid.
The step toward this will be gradual. For next season, all she needs is an increase in her earnings. It is a goal the club can achieve.
Recently, a Gooner said he was scared of the fact that even Birmingham have won something in the last five years while Arsenal haven't.
I was touched, as I was afraid his fears might turn into nightmares.
For this person, the Carling Cup was his definition of success. As I write, Liverpool are celebrating winning a trophy, when, barring some miracle, they will finish outside the top-four this season.
Arsenal's past month has summed up the bizarre nature of modern football. By the standard of 15 years ago, this would have been considered a disastrous period, with an FA Cup defeat to Sunderland and a European Cup exit at the hands of Milan. Yet somehow the Gunners are on a high. They've beaten Tottenham, Liverpool and Newcastle in a run of league fixtures that looked tricky, and now they have a great chance of finishing fourth. Or maybe even third. And the value of coming third or fourth in the league, sadly, is greater than the value of winning the FA Cup.
We've probably now reached the stage where the difference between qualifying and not qualifying for the Champions League is more important than the difference between winning and not winning the league.
Top-four is on the brink of becoming a taboo word at Arsenal. A sizable section of the fans despise the word. And yet, until the current season, only a few of them realized the value of a top-four finish. Top-four is cash, a lot of cash, while the Carling Cup, the FA Cup, even the League title aren't as valuable.
Winning the league guarantees Europe naturally, but it doesnt hold the same financial value as actually being in Europe. The value, of course, is emotional and psychological.
In view of this, Arsenal should make top-four finish the minimum benchmark for next season. The goal should, of course, be to win the league. But in the event this doesn't happen, they must make sure to achieve this minimum benchmark of the last 15 years.