Simon Poulter of What Would David Bowie Do? rounds up the season
Chelsea (75pts, GD +36) 3rd
If I were to believe the club and it’s patronizingly-titled “Interim First Team Coach” for the last seven months, all that Chelsea set out to achieve this season was achieved.
The reality is somewhat different. Winning the one trophy that, at the beginning of the season, wasn’t even amongst the seven Chelsea were contending for, is an unnatural victory.
Of course, as a fan, I am delighted they won a consecutive European trophy and joined the small elite of clubs to have won all three of the continent’s major silverware. But, still, Chelsea as ever the masters of dysfunction, what with their handling of the Clattenburg affair, the aftermath of the John Terry racism mess, and the annual managerial switcheroo. Keeping Roberto Di Matteo only long enough to pay lip service to his successes as interim boss (yeah, only the European Cup and FA Cup…) was hardly a shining moment of endearment to the fanbase, which they worsened by hiring the most divisive individual they could have possibly chosen. Rafa Benitez says – with some justification, I’ll concede – his appointment has been vindicated. I would say that third place and a second-choice, default trophy only vindicates the decision to make him an interim coach.
Performance-wise, Chelsea regressed this season. Yes, I know, 69 fixtures and all that, but if that stretched the side so much, why did they have virtually a full 11 out on loan, with Romalu Lukaku banging ’em in for fun at West Bromwich Albion and Thibaut Courtois helping Athletico Madrid to the Copa del Rey and third place in La Liga? What, too, was the point of replacing Di Matteo with Benitez when the waiter’s record hasn’t been fundamentally any better – an identical win ratio of 57% over a similar number of games in charge.
Did Chelsea progress at all over the course of this season? Yes, in spots. Eden Hazard eventually settled in to become a lethal component of an attack, with Juan Mata making himself indispensable and justifiably the club’s player of the season. Fernando Torres still spent most of 2012-13 as a grumpy teenager, but despite not scoring in the league between December and last Sunday, a 23-goal haul for the season is not at all bad.
Further back, Chelsea was, at times, a defensively gaping chasm this season. But at least give to Benitez for converting David Luiz to holding midfield, where his discipline improved out of all recognition, and he began to appear destined to become one of the club’s big personalities, a latter day Joe Allon, and even a captain in the making.
Mention should also be made of Nathan Ake, the Dutch teenager who not only emulates Ruud Gullitt’s former hair-do, he also emulates Gullitt’s midfield presence. And finally, hats off to Paolo Ferreira: as loyal a servant as you’ll find these days in football, he played out his contract at Chelsea without complaint or going on strike, serving as a true squad player as well as providing invaluable support and mentoring to the club’s young Brazilians. Obrigado!
Arsenal (73 pts, GD +35) 4th
There is a scene at the end of the terrific World War II movie The Bridge At Remagen where Robert Vaughan, playing a somewhat sympathetic German officer defending a Rhine crossing from the advancing Allies, is carted off by the SS to be shot. In his final scene, Vaughan’s Major Krüger asks an SS goon whether the planes he can hear are German or Allied. “Enemy planes!” comes the curt SS reply, to which Krüger, with a downbeat look on his face mutters, “But who is the enemy…?” before being shot. I mention this only because Arsène Wenger has, at many times this season, carried the same look as Vaughan’s in that final scene.
As the season has worn on it has been obvious that Wenger’s Arctic-tog Millets sleeping bag-come-overcoat wasn’t for keeping out the cold but protecting him from his own side’s bullets. He has, on occasion, looked quite forlorn and helpless, the perfect presentation of that line “hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way” from Pink Floyd’s Time. The problem is, how much of this has been his own fault? On paper – and certainly if you are a Spurs fan – achieving Champions League football for the 16th consecutive season is a glittering prize, but crucially, it is still the only reward Arsenal can claim after eight dismal years without so much a silver teaspoon in the trophy room. And that just isn’t good enough. Arsenal are still a brilliant side led by a brilliant manager, but at times it’s like finding Hendrix playing bar room blues in a provincial pub.
This is simply where Arsenal shouldn’t be. Two positions higher, they’d be runners up. Three, champions. The 12-points separation between Manchester United and Arsenal isn’t such an unassailable gap, but then that only inflames the situation further. What difference would a striker have made to those 12 points? What difference would some flair in midfield have made? Would some better options for creativity have made things better?
“Boring, boring, Arsenal”, is how we used to chide visiting Gooners, but more for the disciplined way they got on with being annoyingly more successful than ourselves. Now that ‘boring tag’ seems to apply to a team that will happily achieve another tilt at the Champions League, taking the nice little welcome package that comes with it, and still do nothing about making one of football’s great clubs perform like it.
Only Wenger can really answer these questions. Fourth is no disaster, and no one team actually deserves anything, anyway. But even to this Chelsea fan, the look on my face this season as I’ve looked across London has been as flummoxed as that on Wenger’s. Except that it’s his job to fix the problem.
Article originally published here.