…Say goodbye to the 2015-16 campaign and a few players who have served the club well.
Tomas Rosicky, Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini are all out of contract and will surely be leaving the club this summer. Who else will be going? Who will join Arsenal and where does the team go from here? Is there some hope for the future or should it be approached–as I write on this Friday the 13th–with only a sense of doom?
Oh, wait, there is still one last match to be played to close out our season and there’s something, albeit small, for which to play. Depending on this result and others elsewhere during the traditional ten-at-a-time final fixtures, Arsenal could finish anywhere from league runners-up to fourth. We will be returning to the Champions league, but will it be into an August qualifier (4th), directly to the group stage (3rd) or wearing the mantle as the top club in North London?
While it’s not a popular sentiment to lift our gaze up from the tops our own shoes, the team we face, Aston Villa, has had it far worse. They will finish dead last in the league and were relegated to the next tier weeks ago. Since we faced them in the FA Cup final they have lost their best players and a pair of managers. They’ve also won just three matches all season and have a goal difference that–like Medusa–is probably best viewed in a mirror: 27 goals scored, 72 conceded.
Many blame their American owner, Randy Lerner, for failing to invest in his club and adequately replace the likes of Fabian Delph and Christian Benteke who moved for sizable transfer fees to Manchester City and Liverpool. Off-season buys like Jordan Ayew (from Lorient) and Rudy Gestede (from Blackburn Rovers) were unable to fill their shoes and younger players who were expected to step up, notably Scott Sinclair and Jack Grealish, haven’t. Tim Sherwood, who oversaw their run to the cup final (as well as their 4-nil capitulation in it) only lasted ten weeks before being replaced by former Gunner, Remi Garde. Under Garde, however, they dropped from 19th place to the very bottom and he too was sacked when their relegation became inevitable. I had to look it up, but it will be a caretaker manager, Eric Black, putting out a team in Villa’s final Premier League match.
So much for the excitement (or hopefulness) in changing managers, the main thing Arsenal doesn’t do that makes life so frustrating for many Gooners. Our own guy, Arsene Wenger, knows this all too well after protests in our most recent home match vs Norwich City. Wenger, in fact, saved the strongest words in his pre-match press conference for those who suggested that he’d been offered a contract extension. This final outing surely will not be his most triumphant lap of honour. I would expect plenty of empty seats (again) but also (hopefully) a respectful and appreciative send off for the players who are making their final appearances–as well as for those whom Gunners might want back for the next campaign.
If it could be on top of a victory we will at least secure third place. If Spurs cannot get at least a draw at just relegated Newcastle, an Arsenal win would mean we finish ahead of our rivals for the 22nd consecutive time. As such, in addition to the shoe gazing, there could be a glance or two down at spectators’ cell phones. Only losing the match–plus a Manchester City win at Swansea–would see us fall to a fourth place finish and our Champions League football held up by the need to win a two-legged August qualifier.
So, given that we would like to go out on the front foot and give a little bit back to our home support, Wenger has to juggle a few different elements as he picks his first eleven, his seven subs and those who will only wear street clothes for the occasion. One guy who probably won’t make it will be Danny Welbeck as he’s just had surgery on the knee he injured last week at Manchester City. For both his and our sake, we have to hope that Welbeck, one of the brighter lights of the 2nd half of our season, can handle the challenge of another long rehabilitation and get back to fitness once again. He’ll have company as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain also will miss out on the European Championships this summer with knee trouble of his own. Per Mertesacker’s season is done due to a hamstring strain while Flamini may also miss out with an ankle problem. That still leaves more than enough bodies. Here’s my guess at the starters and subs:
Subs: Ospina, Chambers, Coquelin, Ozil, Cazorla, Campbell, Walcott
It’s a team that should be enough to get some goals vs a Villa side that we might not see back in the PL for awhile. I haven’t included the three pictured players even if Wenger hinted that they might feature. In any other match I don’t think they would make the bench which may indicate why they’re not being offered new contracts. It doesn’t mean, however, that it isn’t a shame that, of the three, only Flamini played meaningful minutes this season. His contributions helped the club through the darkest days of the year after injuries to Francis Coquelin and Santi Cazorla (and Arteta) had left our midfield in tatters. Arteta stabilized our team in earlier seasons (even darker moments, probably) directly after his transfer from Everton and later became a worthy captain. Rosicky, the little Mozart, is probably the most talented of the three but a player who lost too much time to injury. In many ways saying goodbye to them could be seen as a true changing of the guard. The other notable absentee from my subs bench is Kieran Gibbs, a younger player who finally surmounted his own injury issues but might seek more playing opportunities elsewhere this summer.
As always, it’s just my best guess at Wenger’s thinking and others may know more or have ideas of their own. Please share yours.
With Leicester City proving that money cannot buy you love–or at least the league title–it’s been a tough season for all the big clubs. Perhaps it’s been even tougher at Arsenal where we came into the season with strong belief in our squad–to the point that Wenger’s only summer buy was goalkeeper Petr Cech. Early hiccups followed by injuries meant we never truly found our feet. That we got through the worst of it but then stumbled–repeatedly, and when so much seemed within our grasp– makes it all the tougher to swallow.
As such, we head to the final match-day with much to regret. That’s football and that’s life. Sometimes the best laid plans and mountains of hard work do not find us looking down from the loftiest of summits. Ah well, there’s always next season and, perhaps, it’s the journey rather than the destination that should be the focus of our reflection and even our appreciation.
So, for the final time…
Go on then…