Newcastle 0-1 Arsenal: Time to shoot for the moon

Screen shot 2013-05-20 at 12.30.50

Newcastle 0 – 1 Arsenal
Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

So that’s that. Imaginary red ribbons have been tied around the ethereal fourth-placed trophy. Arsenal have qualified for the Champions League.

Well, sort of. There’s still the significant matter of a preliminary round to navigate after Chelsea beat Everton to secure the automatic third spot. It’s a hurdle we’ve overcome several times in the past, and barring an unfortunate draw I’d expect us to do so again.

Crucially, Arsenal have also managed to finish above their rivals Tottenham. Again. I think we all understand that qualifying for the Champions League is important. Finishing above Spurs is just plain fun.

As luck would have it, I was working during the game, which spared both my nerves and my nails. There’s something curiously appropriate about the fact that at the end of a season in which I’ve often felt oddly detached from the side, I was absent at the very moment their fate was decided.

That’s not to say I wasn’t delighted. Arsenal did a difficult job well. Since the derby defeat to Spurs, Arsenal have won eight of their 10 league matches, drawing twice. This match was won in the pragmatic style that has defined this final part of the season.

That style was forged in the fires of the Allianz Arena, when Arsenal secured a surprising 2-0 victory over Bayern Munich. After that game, I said:

Contained within this performance was the DNA of an Arsenal team capable of hauling its way back in to the Champions League. Arsene Wenger must play John Hammond, extract it and bring it back to life before our very eyes, starting this weekend at Swansea.

The components are clear:

  • Hard work
  • Disciplined defending – not just from the back four, but the entire team
  • Efficiency in attack

I’d have been lying if I’d said I had absolute conviction that Arsenal could follow that mantra on a regular basis. However, Arsene Wenger has managed to set aside his love of flowing football and focus on the only thing that matters at this stage of the season: results. We compromised on some of our principles; we also conquered a good many of our problems.

That Laurent Koscielny was the clear match-winner yesterday typifies our recent resolve. Not only was he was scorer of the vital goal for the second year in succession, but he was also absolutely outstanding in defence. In Koscielny and Mertesacker, Arsene Wenger has uncovered a central defensive pairing with communication, balance, determination and no small amount of ability. That partnership, much like this Champions League qualification, is a foundation on which to build.

Some pundits have seen fit to criticise the Arsenal players for celebrating yesterday’s events with such vigour. Frankly, I don’t think it’s up to them to determine how happy our players should be. What’s more, such a view seems churlish in the extreme. In spite of everything that’s come before, Arsenal’s recent run is an achievement worth celebrating. We had a clear goal: to salvage the situation and finish fourth, and we did it. What’s more, we did it at the expense of our closest and most loathed rivals. To allow that to pass without celebration that would be bizarre. Remiss, even.

There are those who say there’s no point qualifying for a competition you’re unlikely to win. These snipers are the same folk who hold the trophy-hoarding example of Chelsea aloft as a superior model of management. Chelsea will be roundly praised for having won the Europa League this season, but it’s worth remembering they only competed in the competition as a consequence of exiting the Champions League – before Arsenal.

While I’m picking that bone: what a ridiculous system that is. Arsenal qualify from their group and go out on away goals to a Bayern Munich side who later beat Barcelona 7-0 on aggregate, yet Chelsea are allowed to remain in European competition and have another crack at silverware despite failing to even make it through their group. I struggle to see the logic there.

Anyhow, I digress. Qualifying for the Champions League is important for us. It keeps both the bank balance and the reputation of the club healthy. It’s not the be-all, but it’s certainly beneficial.

However, I don’t think it makes this season a success. Our domestic cup campaigns both ended in defeats that were not only humbling but humiliating. As for the league campaign, I suspect I will come to look back on this season as an opportunity missed.

Take a look around the other major clubs: Chelsea spent a season battling their own supporters after the appointment of a manager they detested. Manchester City had the worst summer they could possibly have had, missing out on Van Persie and Hazard and settling instead for Jack Rodwell and Scott Sinclair. United may have waltzed to the title but even their own fans will admit this is far from Ferguson’s strongest side.

The noises coming out of Arsenal now suggest that they’ll have money to spend this summer. That’s good news, but has to be tempered by the fact that market-place is set to be crowded with other big spenders. Messrs Moyes, Mourinho and Pellegrini will all be wanting to put their own stamp on their new teams, and however much our budget might have swelled it is unlikely to match theirs.

The advantage Arsenal have is that of consistent leadership. Arsene Wenger will be comfortably the longest-serving manager in the Premier League next season, but with that comfort comes an element of danger. When asked about new recruits in the aftermath of yesterday’s game, Arsene urged the importance of ‘stability’. My fear is that stability and complacency could go hand-in-hand.

It’s essential that Arsenal push on and do their utmost to make an impact in the market. Tread water for long enough and you drown.

The feat of making the top four for 16 consecutive years is impressive, but hearing Arsene trot that record out with increasing frequency makes me uncomfortable. On the weekend of Alex Ferguson’s retirement, it was telling that among the 13 Premier League titles, five FA Cups and two Champions Leagues, his 22 consecutive top four finishes passed without mention.

If fourth place is any kind of prize, it’s a runners-up medal. For a club of our size, it’s oughtn’t be an aspiration but a conciliatory accessory to failure.

It’s simple, really. Don’t aim for fourth; aim for first, hit fourth if you fail.

Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the Champions League’s assembled stars.

WBA 2 – 3 Arsenal: Arsenal complete The Great Escape

Arsenal players hold Pat Rice aloft after the final whistle

West Brom 2 – 3 Arsenal

Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

Arsenal were not able to raise a trophy aloft at the end of this season. We were, however, allowed to lift up Pat Rice, and give him the send-off he truly deserves. A traumatic season ended on a high as Arsenal secured third place with this win at the Hawthorns. You might not get any baubles for qualifying for the Champions League, but one need only look at our post-match celebrations to realise its significance.

This has, in my humble opinion, been the most exciting season in the history of the rebranded Premier League, and it had a final day to match. Events in Manchester will rightly take the headlines, but for any Arsenal fan the only thing that mattered was our game against West Brom. Arsene gambled a little in his team selection, dropping Gibbs and Ramsey for Santos and Coquelin, and playing the inexperienced Jenkinson at right-back. The result would suggest that this brave move paid off.

We certainly owe a lot to West Brom’s stand-in goalkeeper, Marton Fulop. Early on, his dallying over a back-pass allowed Yossi Benayoun to steal in and grant us a lead that should have settled the nerves. Instead, as against Norwich, his goal was a cue for complacency to creep in, and we ended up going behind. First Shane Long was wrongly ruled onside and fired past a hesitant Szczesny, before poor defending allowed Graham Dorrans to reach his own flick-on and fire home from the edge of the box.

Fortunately, we got a goal back before half time. Without that I’m not sure we would have had the bottle to turn it around. Andre Santos, playing in the “false three” position (credit to Barney Ronay), strode forward and thumped a 25-yard shot that took a slight deflection before beating Fulop at his near post. Again, the Hungarian could have done better.

At half-time Spurs led Fulham comfortably. Arsenal knew that only a win would be good enough. I said then I felt that if we could cut out our defensive errors, we’d have enough to win the game, and so it proved. Again we owed a debt to Fulop, who flapped horribly at a corner, allowing Laurent Koscielny to stab home. Interestingly, Fulop spent three seasons on the books of one Tottenham Hotspur, in which time he failed to muster a single competitive appearance. Judging by yesterday’s evidence, he’s still feeling a little sore about that.

This rolercoaster game was by now horribly reminiscent of that fateful 3-3 with Norwich, and I was dreading a heartbreaking late equaliser. That we didn’t see one is due largely to Kieran Gibbs, who produced this stunning tackle in stoppage time.

There were other heroes on the day. Wojciech Szczesny recovered from his positional error on the first West Brom goal to put in a commanding display, especially when you consider that Arsene Wenger revealed he has been playing with a bad shoulder injury. It was fitting that Koscielny, our best player over the season bar Van Persie, should score the vital goal. As for Yossi Benayoun, what can I say? His contribution has been enormous, and his role in final day folklore will make him a firm favourite among Arsenal fans for years to come. It seems unlikely Arsene will give him a permanent deal – Yossi himself has intimated he’d like to move somewhere he’ll play more regularly – but I’d certainly consider trying to convince him to stay. Whenever he’s been called upon, he’s shown more commitment than many players on more lucrative, long-term deals. The guy is a real pro, and whoever gets him next season will be lucky to have him.

At the full-time whistle, the relief was palpable. To have finished third in a season which began with four defeats from seven feels like we have snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. Disaster threatened to engulf us on so many occasions this season, and yet we’ve actually managed to improve upon our league placing from last year. And, crucially, we’ve edged above Tottenham. Not so chatty now, Mr. Van der Vaart.

Personally, I’d like to extend my congratulations to Arsene Wenger. If another manager had arrived in September and shepherded us to this position, he’d be hailed as a messiah. Instead, I’ll doff my cap to an ordinary human who is an extraordinary football manager.

There are other challenges ahead, starting with resolving the future of Robin van Persie. After that we have the summer transfer window, next season’s Premier League, and (thankfully) a Champions League campaign to worry about. I hope you’ll excuse me if I forget all that for now, and enjoy the moment. My glass is half-full. In fact, it’s more than that. It’s Fulop.

If I were giving today’s team-talk…

At around 2.50pm this afternoon, Arsene Wenger will look out at his Arsenal team, and attempt to cajole just one more performance out of them. Fortunately, he’s a man steeped in experience, who will doubtless know just what to say to his men. The situation is clear: win, and third is ours. Fail, and we’re at the mercy of others, and quite possibly locked out of the Champions League. As supporters, we can only imagine what words we might summon up in such circumstances. Imagine it, and then write it down. Like this.

I’d start be spelling out what’s at stake. Champions League football is a massive thing for Arsenal. It maintains our status among Europe’s elite clubs, significantly boosting our reputation and our bank balance. That’s vital. It’s easy to say that you wouldn’t mind dropping out of it, but it’s less easy to accept the possible consequences. Falling out of the top four would make it far harder both to sign new players and keep our current ones.

Even putting aside our practical concerns, every player in the squad should want to be in the Champions League. Being a sportsman is all about pushing yourself as far as you can, and testing yourself against the best. As far as European football is concerned, the Champions League is that arena. The likes of Tomas Rosicky must recognise that they won’t get many more chances on that stage. At the other end of the spectrum, lads like Kieran Gibbs and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain surely know that competing at that level is vital to their development.

For a long time this season it looked impossible. Following our 8-2 mauling at Old Trafford I was roundly mocked for saying I still felt we’d finish in the top four. Chelsea’s success in reaching the Champions League Final has meant that even the top four did not provide the requisite security: it had to be third. And that, for such a long while, looked out of reach. Spurs were flying, until Bacary Sagna launched himself at the ball and powered home a header of such force that in that one moment it flipped the North London hierarchy in our favour.

Everything that followed – our tremendous run, Spurs’ collapse – was to try and claw us in to a position where third place was in our hands. We have attained that. We have ninety minutes in which we are masters of our own destiny. When fate contorts itself to hand you that kind of opportunity, you simply do not pass it up.

The mention of Spurs is important. As much as this is about European football, it’s also about local rivalry. Do this group of players really want to be the first to finish below Tottenham since 1995? Especially when it’s so easily avoided?

All we have to do is win one game. I’d make it clear to the players: we’re not asking them to run through walls. We don’t face a Herculean task. On paper, this is a game that Arsenal should win. We simply need to do our jobs. We need to be focused and switched on for ninety minutes, plus every second of stoppage time. We need to take individual responsibility for marking our men and tracking runners. West Brom have nothing tangible to play for: we have no excuse for not showing more desire in every fifty-fifty. The Baggies aren’t a hugely physical side, either. This isn’t a match in which we need to drastically adapt our game. We simply need to do what we spend every day drilling over-and-over again: touch, pass, move. If we control the possession we will create the most chances. And we have the league’s best striker on the end of them.

If we do the simple things right, we will win. And if we do we will be able to reflect on ending this traumatic season on a relative high. Defeat would bring a summer of uncertainty and cast a shadow over the forthcoming campaign. And, after what we’ve been through this season, the fans don’t deserve that.

The players must recognise that the supporters have stuck with this iteration of the Arsenal team through quite a lot in this long campaign. Early on, the majority of supporters recognised the limitations of the squad and realised that negativity was not helpful. Better Arsenal teams would’ve been met with jeers and boos for some of the performances we’ve seen this season. This term, everyone has stuck together to try and drag us out of a self-inflicted hole.

Now it’s time to reward the fans. To allow them to celebrate something – not a trophy, but something: a place on the European stage, and getting one over on a rival. It’s time to reward Pat Rice for 44 years of outstanding service to Arsenal with a good send off. It’s time to put down a marker for next season, and show that despite the loss of key players, terrible injury problems, humiliating defeats and plenty of bad luck, this club will not be broken. We are Arsenal, and winning this one game is well within our capacity. Keep focused, keep fighting, keep the faith, and get this done. Come on boys.