Warning: Long read.
Of all the talks that Arsenal’s defense has been improving with us finally having a dependable GK in Szczęsny, our defensive record this season is actually the worst during Wenger’s 16-year reign. The main culprit of course is the 8-2 drubbing at the Old Trafford. Without that game, Arsenal would concede 41 goals in 37 games, similar to 41 goals in 2009-10 season and 43 goals in 2010-11 season.
Arsenal was also heavily involved in high-scoring games such as the aforementioned 8-2 and also the following games: 7-1 vs Blackburn, 5-2 vs Tottenham, 5-3 vs Chelsea, 3-2 vs West Brom, 3-3 vs Norwich, 3-4 vs Blackburn, 2-3 vs Swansea. Two high-scoring games vs Blackburn are perhaps a sign of things to come. Blackburn tops the number of goals involved in their matches (126) and is followed by Arsenal (123).
So, it’s really a mixed bag when it comes to Arsenal’s defense this season. On one hand, a confident Szczęsny means that we do defend better from set-pieces which have been killing us for the past few seasons. However, on the other hand, now we conceded more from open plays (not to mention that Szczęsny was bad in the final few games). Vermaelen is really good when it comes to scoring, but his defensive performance is actually worse this season. On the right, Sagna was injured for a significant part of the season. On the left, Gibbs is decent enough but Santos isn’t interested in defending.
More importantly, after Arteta was injured we then realized that he was the one who did all the dirty work protecting the back four. As the season comes to close, it’s become apparent that Song is more interested in moving forward and applying his now patented L1 + triangle passes. Of the two main central midfielders of Arsenal this season, Arteta is much more disciplined defensively than Song. The discovery of Song’s offensive arsenal is not a bad thing, really, but it highlights that we do need to purchase another defensive midfielder for the next season. So, yes, bring in Yann M’Vila, please.
(So the core of Arsenal’s midfield would be Wilshere, Arteta, Song, and M’Vila. Not bad, right.)
The huge elephant in the room is of course whether RVP will extend his contract at Arsenal or not.
Scenario 1: RVP leaves
If he leaves, then somehow we need to replace those 37 goals and 14 assists. (To put things into perspective, RVP’s production is basically only half of Messi’s extraterrestrial 72 goals and 28 assists.) And that is a very big hole to replace. We have bought Podolski, of course, but I think he will “only” give us 15-20 goals, and it means we still have another 20 goals to fill. Where will those goals come from? Aside from buying a new striker, there might be some potential sources from within.
First, Walcott was actually pretty good this season with double-digit goals and assists (his numbers are similar to Valencia’s). And it will be a pity for Theo if RVP leaves as they have formed quite a formidable partnership on the front. I don’t expect Walcott to add many goals from his tally of 11 goals this season. Given his deployment at the wing, he will score at most 15 goals in all competition next season.
On the other side for the wing, Wenger needs to make sure that Gervinho doesn’t turn into another Chamakh. Before coming to the EPL, Gervinho scored 18 goals for Lille each in 2009-10 and 2010-11 season. The return of 4 goals this season is the worst in his career and definitely not good enough for an attacking winger (for comparison, left back and winger-wannabe Santos scored 3, Ox, an 18 years old rookie winger, scored 4 and Vermaelen, a central defender, scored 6). A return of 8-10 goals for the next season will be good enough.
Next, the enigma which is Aaron Ramsey. Ramsey’s off-ball movement is good, really, and that’s how he got all those scoring opportunities. The problem with him then is his wastefulness and lack of confidence in front of the goal (or perhaps his benevolence towards humanity).
Ox will also be featured more next season, but I don’t really expect many additional goals from him. He is still a work in progress.
Arsenal should also try to sign Benayoun for a year (with a contract renewable every year). He is a truly squad player, ready to be called upon anytime, but surely his tally of 6 goals from 25 games this season is already very good (similar rate to his 3-year spell in Liverpool). Finally, Rosicky won’t score many goals, he will simply play hard, and Arteta is also already scoring at expected rate like Yossi.
So, after listing all those options, and assuming that they will all work out, Arsenal will still need to replace around 10 goals lost if RVP leaves. So, buying a new striker is a must to get back these 10 goals.
Scenario 2: RVP stays
If he stays, I think his goals would moderate to around 25 next season. With Podolski coming, he will feature in less number of games, and we have been very lucky that he was not injured at all this season. So, we do expect Arsenal will score more with RVP staying and Podolski coming. Surely Podolski, Walcott, Gervinho, and Ramsey can replace (and add to) those 10-15 less goals from RVP.
Arsenal collected 70 points this season, two points better from 2010/11 season. But of course it wouldn’t be good enough to mount a title challenge. Next season, I think it is reasonable to target 80 points. It still won’t be good enough to win the league (another 90-point winner coming from Manchester), but a progress is still a progress nonetheless. Arsenal can still do better both at home and away games. During Wenger’s 16-year reign in Arsenal, on average he got 43.63 points at home and 31.88 points away (hence, in total, 75.5 points/season). This season (40 at home and 30 at away games) is worse than Wenger’s average and hence we can definitely do better than this.
But, we have a problem which what I called the Abramovich inflation. Before Abramovich bought Chelsea in 2003, Wenger’s average is 76 ± 6.35 pts/season. After Abramovich rule, the number is 75.11 ± 8.28 pts/season. So, the difference is not statistically significant (the difference might be simply due to Arsenal having less points against Chelsea post-Roman acquisition). But, the average league position of Arsenal dropped from 1.86 ± 0.69 to 3.11 ± 1.05. What has risen is the standard. Now Wenger’s average is no longer good enough to secure the second place (in fact, the last time Arsenal got the second place was in 2004-05, the same year they last won a trophy). It is only good enough to secure the third place. The problem is Arsenal has not coped with the inflation, unlike Man Utd, which does. So, what’s the standard now to win the league?
Before the coming of Abramovich, the average points to secure the championship (starting from 1995/96 where the Premier League is consisted of 20 teams) is 82, runner-up is 75, third place is 70, and fourth place is 67. After the rule of Abram, the numbers are 89, 83, 76, and 68, respectively. The number for the fourth place is not really different, but the numbers for the top three places have been inflated significantly. That’s why I said earlier that 80 points will probably not be enough to win the league now (post-Roman, it only happened once in 2011).
The problem becomes more complicated with the coming of Sheikh Mansour and hence the rise of Man City. This year is the first year his investment comes to fruition, so the numbers haven’t really changed further, but if this season could be used for any indication for things to come, it will spell bad omen for Arsenal. Man Utd’s haul of 89 points is the new record for the second place (previous record is Liverpool in 2008/09 with 86 points). It is very probable that the numbers will increase even further, perhaps similar to what was seen in La Liga for the past three years (e.g., Real collected 96 pts in 2009/10 and can only get the runner-up). Abramovich will certainly not be pleased with Chelsea’s sixth position this season and you could expect him pumping more money, and, given Wenger’s love to austerity even before it is popularized (as a term, not in practice) by German chancellor Angela Merkel, there is a possibility that he can still easily hold to his average of 75-76 pts/season but that it will only be good enough to get the fourth place in the league. Arsenal must update their own standard. Stagnancy is actually decline in this era.
The additional points need to come from a few sources. First, a return to Highbury home form. In Wenger’s era in Highbury, Arsenal averaged 44.7 pts/season. In the Emirates, they averaged 41.8 pts/season, a 2.9 pts drop. So, for a start, we must target 45 pts from home every season (for comparison, City got 55 pts and Utd got 47 pts from home this season).
The away form also took a dip (hence, it’s true that Arsenal has actually gone worse after moving from Highbury to the Emirates, going from 77.2 pts/season to 72.7 pts/season, highlighting the financial limitation that they have because of the new stadium — although they shouldn’t use that excuse anymore, really), from 32.5 pts/season to 30.8 pts/season, but there is another way to look at this problem. Title-winning Arsenal teams averaged 85 pts/season: 45.3 pts at home and 39.7 pts from away games. Second-place Arsenal teams averaged 76.4 pts/season: 46.2 pts at home (which is actually better than the title-winning teams) but only 30.2 pts from away games. The difference is the away form. It makes sense. It shows the steel mentality that a champion has when it plays outside of its comfort zone (e.g., this season, City got 34 pts and Utd 42 pts from away games). So, what Arsenal can target for a start is to aim for at least 35 pts from away games every season (remember, the standard has gone up, so this is one area where Arsenal can improve themselves).
So, 80 points for a season, 45 from home and 35 from away, will roughly look like this: home form of 14W 3D 2L and away form of 10W 5D 4L. If compared to this season, Arsenal needs to convert 1L and 1D (e.g., vs. Wigan, vs. Norwich) to 2W at home and 3L (e.g., @Blackburn, @QPR, @Fulham) to 1W and 2D at away games. Arsenal must improve from their currently 75-76 pt/season standard. The gap between the runner-up and the third place also hits the record this year with 19 points between them. Coming back to La Liga illustration, you don’t want to be left behind like Valencia, separated by a whopping 30 points from Barça at the second place. As the magic number to win the league is 90 pts now, we can start reducing the gap by targeting 80 pts for next season.