It's been a wild and unpredictable run-in to the Premier League, and while we still don't know who will lift the trophy next weekend, we already know one thing for sure. This season, there are no great teams in England's top flight—only a select few that we can call very good.
No team has been able to separate from the pack, and what that tells me is that, with a few tweaks, a change of philosophy and a stable full of healthy players for a full season, a team like Arsenal may not be that far away from taking the next step.
Of course, if Arsenal beat Hull in the FA Cup final, that will get the monkey off their back, and they'll finish the season with silverware for the first time in nine years. And doing so could perhaps catapult the Gunners to greater things, with the focus finally off the long trophy drought.
Don’t take that part for granted, either, because as a player, perception weighs heavily and can often take your focus from truly achieving your goals. When so much is written and said about something like Arsenal's trophy drought, that weighs heavily on players' minds and can take away from their ability to perform their best.
It’s a funny thing, how a player’s mind works. No matter what they say, players do read the papers, they do listen to the supporters and they do understand how much it all means. And in the case of Arsenal, these players are being reminded every day about the lack of silverware in recent years.
Wherever they are, they can’t escape it.
But say Arsenal beat Hull City and win the FA Cup later this month. If that happens, and if you consider how long they led the Premier League and how close they really have been, you could easily make the case that this was a very, very good season for them.
(Of course, my assumption is that Arsenal will win the FA Cup, but if not, we would obviously have to reconsider. In that case, forget this whole article.)
So what makes the difference? Very often, at the highest level, it is the smallest of details.
It is not the lack of winning attitude, because these players do have that. I don’t believe for a second that Wenger is going to change and spend millions on several new players. I do believe, however, that Wenger needs to be less stubborn and recruit a different kind of player.
Consider this: How do you protect the sort of players that Arsenal have in abundance? That is, the small, technical, less-physical players that are somewhat interchangeable, like Mesut Ozil, Tomas Rosicky, Santi Cazorla and Mikel Arteta to name a few.
These are the kinds of players who pay the price in a fast, physical league like the Premier League, and wondering why they keep getting injured is a useless exercise for me.
If there’s one thing that Wenger needs to do, it’s to protect his technical players with some physicality.
Manchester City have Yaya Toure and Fernandinho to provide protection for players like Samir Nasri and David Silva. Chelsea have the likes of Nemanja Matic, Frank Lampard, David Luiz and Ramires to cover Oscar and Eden Hazard. Liverpool are top-heavy, but Lucas Leiva, Jordan Henderson and Steven Gerrard are capable of protection and a physical drive forward.
To put it simply, Arsenal are too reliant on combination play while lacking the ability to drive forward and penetrate with physicality.
Their other needs are obvious to everyone. We all know what Arsenal need. The question is: Why isn't it obvious to Arsene Wenger?
Surely we have to respect his experience and knowledge of the game and what the club needs in general, but we don’t have to agree with his inflexibility.
Wenger must come to understand what a long season in the Premier League and Champions League means to the players he already has—and he must do something about it.
Olivier Giroud is a fine international striker, and his total of 16 league goals this season is nothing to be ashamed of. But he cannot do it all.
For Wenger and Arsenal, the next step is to have a player who can get the job done in big games against the top clubs in Europe. (And by the way, finding that player is not as easy as some seem to think.)
Meanwhile, if Bacary Sagna leaves the club this summer, Wenger will also have to look for new signings at both left-back and right-back. This might be even more important than some of their other needs.
To shore up the defence, the Gunners need strong, physical players who also have to be dynamic, as Arsenal rely on full-backs going forward.
But first and foremost, they have to be excellent defenders. No matter what the statistics tell you about Arsenal defensively, I still think it’s an area that will creep up on them next season if not addressed properly.
I don’t have much faith in Kieran Gibbs and Nacho Monreal, and if Bacary Sagna goes, Carl Jenkinson is capable only as a deputy.
In addition to bringing in the right recruits, Arsenal need a change of mentality.
It's no secret that the Gunners have had some awful results against the top teams away from home this season. When things went right, the team seemed fine, but when trouble started brewing, they needed more leadership.
In the past, it's been said that if you win the games against lesser sides, you can still take the title without beating all the top teams. But this season has shown that Arsenal have to be more competitive against their biggest rivals, for the sake of confidence alone.
I really do think that Arsenal are not that far away, based on what we’ve seen this season in the Premier League.
Just look how close they were this season, even without fully addressing their needs. Rather than looking at this season as a disappointment—though, admittedly, it will be if they don’t win the FA Cup—it's completely reasonable to think of it as a success.
The Gunners weren’t that far from having a really great season, and in the end it was mainly Wenger’s stubbornness that kept us from talking about Arsenal fighting to the end for the Premier League title.
What Arsenal and Wenger need most this summer is to provide an answer to all the critics. Sometimes signing a big player is more about perception than what he actually does during the course of the season. If you sign the right player, and most agree that it’s the right player, that takes away some of the pressure all by itself, and to a degree, Ozil was a perfect example of that.
When the Germany international was playing well, the whole club was boosted. He’s had a very good season—not a great season—and his presence alone at the start of the campaign lifted everybody associated with the club.
The players were positive; the fans were positive. Look at the start of the season Arsenal enjoyed, being top of the table for so long—that is what making the proper signings can do.
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