The closing of the Premier League for Arsenal and Norwich City on Sunday brings an end to two seasons of polar opposites – one looking to build and move forward with a potential trophy and another banished to the dark depths of relegation.
Both Arsenal’s and Norwich’s 2013/14 season began with the classic case of early cautious optimism – both clubs made record signings in the summer in the form of Mesut Ozil and Ricky van Wolfswinkel, respectively, and early hope of a season of the club moving forward slowly moved into the realisation that both clubs would be fighting for where they were last season – Norwich in a relegation scrap and Arsenal settling for fourth (which, incidentally, is pretty much enshrined in the Premier League rule book). Arsenal, however, have secured their homely comfy berth of fourth and now face the very real possibility of a first trophy in nine years – ultimately, a successful season.
However, Norwich are now confined to the dark depths of relegation. Three seasons in the Premier League has proved enough for the Norfolk outfit, and hopes and dreams of mid-table obscurity a la Aston Villa or Swansea have been dashed as the Canaries are arguably put back to their spiritual home of recent years – the Championship. Ultimately, it is this that has so infuriated Norwich fans both this season and last – that expectations have not been reached, even that the lowest expectation of even the most pessimistic Norwich fan has been surpassed and beaten. It is the management of Chris ‘But he’s such a nice bloke’ Hughton that many have levelled their blame at, infuriated by Hughton’s negative tactics and reluctance to even try and win, rather, tactics that are formed around the concept to not lose. It is argued, contrary to Danny Mills and his band of merry Match of the Day pundits, that any relegation this year was not because Hughton was sacked too late by the Norwich board, it’s that he wasn’t sacked early enough. Indeed, Norwich’s finish of 11th last season was masked by two wins against West Brom and Manchester City on the last two games of last season. Norwich were still in a relegation scrap.
It is the performances of the players, however, that marks the big difference between last season’s finish and this. The usual stalwart of Sebastien Bassong at centre-back has been nothing short of dreadful this season, after being given the captain’s armband, and poor quality players like Bradley Johnson in midfield and Stephen Whittaker at right-back that have shown the teams Championship leanings at times. However, it is arguably the brand new, Champion’s League, international and Premier League experienced strike force that have been the biggest disappointment for Norwich fans this season – a combined tally of 8 goals between Ricky van Wolfswinkel, Gary Hooper and Johan Elmander in the Premier League makes guessing where Norwich’s problems have come from this season fairly easy. Indeed, even unlucky injuries to some of the better performing players such as Leroy Fer or Jonny Howson have made Norwich’s job considerably harder. Ultimately, it is the massive loss of Norwich ‘identity’ that maybe the fans can level their blame at – the loss of almost all players that were with the club through successive promotions, the manager that masterminded the operation, and the club talisman and 3 time Player of the Season winner Grant Holt all in fairly acrimonious circumstances means that the club has arguably lost its identity forged through the successive promotions of the 09/10 and 10/11 season and is now a club with an identity crisis. Indeed, the saga with the Wes Hoolahan transfer in January proves that all is not peachy behind closed doors at the club.
David Mcnally, Norwich’s Chief Executive, has stated that Norwich’s financial plans rested on the Yellows securing at least 17th season in the Championship, even with parachute payments and the like. However, maybe Norwich fans has a reason to be optimistic about a season in the Championship. Sure, it will be hard, because the Championship is a hard league, and the club will lose many of its Premier League quality players – Snodgrass, Fer, Pilkington, Ruddy, Redmond, and Hooper spring to mind – however, the club is as of this season externally debt-free, still has some decent players likely to stay with the club, can look forward to a new manager and can start again with a fresh challenge at promotion. We can even look forward to beating Ipswich again. However, is this optimism of this summer the exact same rosy optimism we felt of last year? One thing is certain – Norwich have failed on almost every level this season. Next season will decide whether the failure is long term or just a blip on the rise-to-the-top (‘top’ being a solid mid-table Premier League club) radar.
Before Sunday’s defeat to Norwich, even after a slow start to the season, the mood amongst Arsenal fans was one of hope. Things were different this year. The squad had been given an injection of experience. These were seasoned professionals who had been around the block, who were capable of turning up each and every week, finding a way to win the tight games away from home. Some of them were even German for fuck sake. Why then did we witness the worst performance from an Arsenal team in a long time at Carrow Road yesterday?
One of the main frustrations of this particular defeat is the lack of any real explanation. Yes we could blame the goalkeeper, and I will, but this was bigger than that. Usually when we lose, especially to terrible teams, we dominate the game. We usually miss a host of chances and their keeper has the game of his life. Yesterday we allowed a team that hadn’t beaten anyone thus far this season to control the tempo and run down the clock at their pace. It’s worrying to see the same old problems creeping in for a new looking team. We clearly underestimated them and thought we would just turn up and leave with the win. To be honest I thought the same thing, but I don’t play for Arsenal do I.
Arsene admitted as much after the game:
Maybe we underestimated the difficulty we would face, but the Premier League is the Premier League, if you are not ready for the fight you will always get bad surprises.
Surely going a goal down away from home should be enough to spark them into life. Can Wenger not sit them down and make them watch the Invincibles VHS or even Fever Pitch in the changing room before every game? Why are the players not ready for the fight? Surely the primary job of the manager is to ensure that every weekend we have 11 players on the pitch who are primed and ready for the fight. It makes it even more painful when you watch a team like City fighting for their lives to win from behind with ten men against much better opposition. You could argue the new boys needed this as a learning experience to understand just how demanding the Premier League is. Let’s hope this is the case and they never underestimate anyone ever again.
Unfortunately for me, it seems as though something isn’t right in the preparation before each game. We know Wenger doesn’t spend much time focusing on the opposition. We know he has his own tried and tested pre match routine that doesn’t involve much drama. But perhaps Wenger is sometimes too pragmatic and rational. His motivational style is to condition the players on the training ground during the week. He encourages them to believe in their own technical ability and to buy into his philosophy. This is all well and good but are the inconsistencies we continue to suffer a result of this? Occasionally you need someone to scream at you to give you that extra 5%. We saw against City what we are capable of when we’re up for it and closing down high up the pitch. Against City the size of the match and quality of opposition is alone enough to motivate the team. Against the lesser Clubs we need to try something else.
Some have blamed the demanding nature of the international break as a factor. Undoubtedly this is fair, 14 Arsenal players were away representing their countries over the last 9 days. Norwich had two weeks to practice defending as deep as possible.
Chris Hughton admitted as much:
I’ve had a good two weeks to work with the players and of course that helped.
Wenger pointed out in response:
It’s not an excuse, you could say we have better players but there is only one way to show that – on the football pitch.
Interestingly the squad travelled from Luton to Norwich and were in the air for a total of 14 minutes. Clearly Arsene was concerned about the poor lads suffering the effects of a short train journey.
On the Mannone situation I genuinely think we have the worst goalkeeper in the Premier League. On Sunday morning I was thinking we’d escaped a potential banana skin by getting an alright run of results with a liability in goal, only for him to make yet another howler. His comments midweek about wanting to play for Milan one day are pretty embarrassing. Just because you’ve had a string of fairly average performances for Arsenal doesn’t mean you should start talking. Although if Milan keep playing like they have this season perhaps he could do a job in Serie B.
When you look at the league table it’s not a pretty sight. We’re in 9th position, 2 points behind Tottenham and 10 behind Chelsea after 8 games. Wenger said we will have a concrete idea of what this Arsenal side can do after 10 games. The next two league fixtures are QPR (h) and Man Utd (a). Even if we win both of those we can safely say this squad can do a lot better. The first step is to ensure they go into every single game in the right frame of mind. Let’s hope they’ve learned from this horror-show.