(Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
In many ways, writing one article to sum up the entirety of the 2009-10 Arsenal season seems like folly. Arsenal experienced so many ups and downs, so many extremes of feeling, that this season defies summation in a lot of ways. thusly, this will not be a traditional end-of-season article, recapping all of the action, but rather, more of an examination in broad terms of where the club found itself, and what might yet come. This season felt much more frustrating for a good deal of the supporters, too, if one goes merely by the comments on Arsenal blogs. This has as much to do with expectations and the gap between what seemed possible and what happened than it does with results.
However, in view of what many in the press, in the stands at the Emirates, and in front of their Arsenalized TVs around the world said in July, in the end, this season was another stepping stone towards the highest success that a team can find.
One of the truisms about this Arsenal season is that everyone has ideas about what's wrong with the squad, who needs to go, and who needs to stay. One can more or less see what the problem is by simply looking at the goals for and the goals against column, and of course it runs deeper than that. Arsène Wenger knows this as well as anyone and has said so over the past two weeks: Arsenal's defensive record, and thus its defensive corps, must improve, whether by addition or from within. This is not a secret. Supporters may disagree about the details and the abilities of individual players, but the overall message remains the same.
The negative aspects of the season are obvious, though. A slight adjustment of perspective and a shedding of short-termism works wonders to stave off end-of-the-year depression. It is perhaps hard to recall in the light of the late-season collapse, but last July, more than one prognosticator said that Arsenal would finish outside of the Champions League spots, causing Cesc Fábregas to leave for Spain, causing Wenger to retire, causing a takeover bid, etc. In light of these expectations, which, granted, many Arsenal supporters did not share, Arsenal's season was positive.
There were no trophies. Nobody is happy about this, just as nobody is happy that Arsenal failed to dent Man United or Chelsea. However, saying this does not obviate the fact that Arsenal are better-positioned for success in the next few years than any other English club. Supporting a team cannot be simply about trophies. If this was the case, nobody would ever go to Spurs matches, much less QPR or Wycombe matches. Arsenal have enjoyed a period of success since 1998 that has forever tectonically shifted the expectations for the club.
Everyone wants to win trophies; it is the primary objective for every team. Arsenal's failure under this criterion this season, though, sits atop a raft of successes that are harder to see. The team collected three more points than they did last year, which does not look like much, but if the losses to Wigan, Tottenham, and Blackburn had not rolled off in such quick succession at the end of the season, it would have been higher. It is easy to forget looking at the points total that Arsenal won three more matches this year than they did last year.
Arsenal also scored 15 more goals this year than last year. And for all of the complaints about defending, only four more goals went against the Gunners this year than did last year, which is annoying, but hardly smacks of unfamiliarity. It is an issue that Wenger is on top of and concerned about, and one can imagine that allowing, say, even ten fewer goals over the course of 38 games next year could see Arsenal gain a lot of ground. Considering that the team scored 83 with long-term injuries to van Persie and shorter stints out for Fábregas, Nasri, Arshavin, Bendtner (Arsenal had Arshavin playing center forward, for Pete's sake)...it's easy to imagine Arsenal scoring 100 with fewer man-hours lost next year.
These are crude on-the-field numbers that don't speak to, or perhaps more accurately are the result of, all of the hard work done off the field by persons other than the playing staff. There are no worries about the price of natural gas and oil at Arsenal. There are no green-and-gold scarf protests at Arsenal. There is no Kop full of disgruntled fans worrying about their American owners at the Emirates. Arsenal are a financially sustainable, well-run organization with a quickly growing international brand. The club is better-positioned than any other in England to move forward irregardless of the economic situation. The overall financial goals of the club are starting to bear fruit, as CEO Ivan Gazidis has said that Wenger will have substantial funds to invest in players this offseason if he'd like to do so. These players will not be leveraged against some kind of unmanageable debt or promise of a deep Champions League run; the funds have been earned on a solid basis by the club.
Another aspect which one cannot emphasize enough is that this team is still young and inexperienced. The captain is 23 years old; most footballers are just starting to come into their peak years at that age. Much of the squad is just entering its peak along with him. If one considers the progress made by Alex Song, Nicklas Bendtner, (both 22), and Theo Walcott (21, and still with much room to improve) this year, Arsenal have a group of players that achieved third place in the most competitive league in the world without playing their best football yet. The greybeards at Chelsea and Manchester United, while undeniably great now, don't hold out the same potential.
Arsenal supporters know that the team plays the most attractive football in England, frustrating as it can sometimes be. Their style alone provides immense pleasure week in, week out, and brings results that all but a handful of teams in Europe would envy. Arsenal have succeeded this year in marketing not only a team, but a feeling, something more out of the realm of the aesthetic than the pragmatic.
When the team finally wins a trophy, it will be all the more satisfying for being borne of the kind of geometrically silky play that Arsenal engenders. Arsenal furthered their progress in England, solidified their financial footing, and added a year of experience to a very young team. Mixed in with the disappointment of the past month and a half were moments of sheer running around the house screaming in joy, moments of courage (PKs on broken legs? okay), and moments to melt faces (Nasri's goal against Porto, Cesc's goal against Spurs, Arshavin's goal against Liverpool). Although the lights have been put out for the 09-10 campaign, they will light again in August. The future's bright...