Our beloved football Club is setting a new example in European football: improvement through stability, something we should all be proud of. Nevertheless, the price we paid to be where we are today seemed too high to many – no trophies for almost a decade, no title challenges, no glorious runs in Europe and no legendary games in the FA Cup…
Since that night in Paris, when we let the Champions League slip through our fingers, we endured a very complicated period, during which everything at the Arsenal went under severe scrutiny: the board, most of the players and, above all, the manager.
Everything could have fallen apart. We could have wound up fading away from Champions League football, surviving in the top-half of the table, and hoping for better times with a more ambitious board and a more competent manager. Or we could have gone mad, signed all the players for insane money and flirted with bankruptcy – and still finished 6th or 7th in the league, like some other Premier League teams wearing red…
After surviving such a horrible journey, we are finally seeing the end of this awful, black tunnel and the long-term project to bring the Arsenal to the next level is starting to pay dividends. We won trophies, we got big-names signings and we restored some of the respect (and fear) any rival Premier League team was paying us in the early 2000s. We’re not the dominant force we used to be, but we’ve finally come of age, apparently.
Yet, we have completed only the first half of our path.
We have the stability we desired, but now it’s time for improvements; I’m talking about major improvements, of course, because we didn’t stop progressing for three years – in my opinion.
In the past two seasons we showed we have the potential to be champions but we failed to live up with expectations, although in two very different ways. Now it’s time to focus on consistency.
To move up a level, this group of players has to play the same football they played since January for a whole season, on three fronts; are they able to do that?
I believe they are. Or at least the core of the team is. I do not fear any sudden regression from the likes of Mesut Özil, Alexis Sanchez, Santi Cazorla, Laurent Koscielny or Olivier Giroud, established players who have great experience and unique profiles, either physical or psychological. They might have some dips in form, like any other athlete, but I don’t doubt their ability and mental strength.
I do have some concerns about players who had a meteoric rise (Francis Coquelin, Hector Bellerín) or who have been around the starting XI without leaving a clear stamp on it. We have many, many players who have something to offer but cannot really manage to do it on regular basis, like Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Theo Walcott, Jack Wilshere, Kieran Gibbs or Mikel Arteta. Will they be able to step-up when we need them?
They all have a huge role to play if we want to mount a serious challenge, like Zouma or Rémy had for Chelsea last season, and I would like to be 100% sure we can count on them. Youngsters like Francis Coquelin or Hector Bellerín won’t be the adorable surprise packages they’ve been this season – we would all expect them to continue their progression – how will they cope with the added pressure?
What will happen to senior team members like Mikel Arteta and Tomas Rosicky? Will they work for the team as hard as they did, knowing that they won’t even make the bench on Saturdays?
Will Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jack Wilshere, Theo Walcott and Kieran Gibbs finally have a proper breakthrough? Will they have the hunger and maturity to help the team from the bench, when required, even if that means playing bits of games here and there?
My feeling is that we’re on the brink of something great but the balance within the squad is very fragile.
Apart from a handful of excellent players I mentioned before, every member of the current team has to look over his shoulder to cement his place at the Arsenal.
Some may fear a new signing taking their place, some are aging and don’t know how to catch-up, others fall behind from one injury too many and some others still don’t know how to fulfill their potential; competition for places can be a fantastic thing if everyone’s going in the same direction – which seems to be the case at the Arsenal – but could suddenly become a most disruptive force in a dressing room.
I reckon our squad looks very united and I can hardly name a player who could fall out with teammates or the manager, however it is very difficult for a footballer to put the team’s success beyond any individual ambition. We’ve experienced that already, with two captains and self-confessed lifelong Gooners leaving to fulfill personal goals – hence I am very reluctant to put my money on football players.
If Arsène Wenger can keep every player focused on the bigger target, I do believe we might be going up a level or two; it’s a very hard job, though, because every defeat, poor performance and wrong call will re-ignite the fire of discontent in each of our fringe players, pushing individual ambition out.
Next year we will probably see how much Arsène Wenger’s project works: he aimed to create a core of players with a very strong bond with the Arsenal, trying to make sure they will always put the Club’s fortunes above their personal ones.
The truth will certainly come out after the first hiccups and our whole season could depend on that outcome.
Fasten your seatbelts, my dears.