Opportunity Squandered or Progress Made?
With the FA Cup victory almost a week old it seems time to ask these and other questions about the season just completed. Pardon the length of this post and the lack of bullet points to guide those who might not want to read it all. I’m still buzzing from the lifting of the FA Cup even if it was a faith-testing, come-from-behind experience on the day. One for the (positive) memory banks, too…
But that’s just the final match of the season. How do Gooners feel about the season as a whole?
In my opinion this past season presented a real opportunity with managerial changes at Chelsea and both Manchester clubs, as well as a recalibration with our neighbors to the immediate North, who had pushed us in recent years for our Champions League place. (Spurs were losing their best player, but they were also spending the money from his sale even before it was finalized.) As such, nobody could quite be sure WHAT was going to happen. We had to expect that all these teams would be strong but we also hoped that Arsenal would be in the mix.
Of course, with the summer winding down, the press (and management) blaring on about our “money to spend” and only a young player (Sanogo) in on a free transfer, it was all up in the air as the season kicked off. Luckily it was an easy one on a sunny August day. LOL. When that match ended, in a 3-1 home loss to Aston Villa, it appeared even the air was gone. Certainly, any momentum or positivity from our strong finish the year before eroded in an immediate tidal wave of dissatisfaction and doom. The ship was righted somewhat, with convincing wins in the CL qualifiers, and another free signing of a guy we knew had quality (Flamini), and in a gutty home win vs Spurs, practically on the eve of the transfer deadline. The really big move, bringing in Mesut Ozil in a transfer deal more than doubling our previous record came the next day making the first break for internationals more than bearable.
Since then we’ve seen so much. In the Autumn we dominated our (not so difficult) early season league schedule, made it through “the group of death” (with both some stunning and naive performances) in the Champions league and watched a few players, notably Aaron Ramsey, make some marked improvements. Ozil brought a certain level of pace and precision to our game which augured well. Unlike in previous years, we weathered the early storm and found ourselves top of the table as others had much slower starts.
As the “darker days” of Late Autumn and Winter came, we suffered some set-backs, going out meekly in the league cup in our stadium and losing to a very disjointed Manchester United team. We also suffered our first “big loss” to a title rival, a 6-3 defeat at Manchester City which shook confidence. The congested “Festive Period,” saw us regroup with a solid home nil-nil in ugly weather against even uglier (and very cynical) Chelsea team. From there, even though we were winning our matches, we lost key players Theo Walcott to a season ending knee injury (after having already missed a couple of months due to another surgery) and Ramsey to a muscle problem.
Those two injuries would prove crucial, the latter because it was supposed to be short term but went on and on, and the former because he was not replaced in the January transfer window. “Internal” attacking solutions–Poldolski, Sanago and Bendtner, though offering a measure of promise, never truly brought what Theo might have in the biggest matches and most critical moments. At least we never suffered (much feared) injury to our big man up front, even if his off-field antics hit the press at the very worst of times.
For a big player, who relies on power and has far too many head in hands moments, we still wouldn’t have guessed that Olivier Giroud’s worst would come when he was exposed in a very different manner. The underwear shot (a photo tweeted by a woman who was not his wife) proved nothing, argued Ollie, but many would say the same about some of the shots he takes on the pitch. That its release coincided with our first period of brutal fixture congestion (Sanogo started critical FA Cup and Champions League matches) made it far less comical.
Still, we got through against Liverpool (who, earlier at Anfield, had handed us perhaps our worst defeat of the season, a 5-1 loss which featured 4 goals conceded in twenty minutes) and we looked bright early vs Bayern Munich. Ozil’s penalty miss and having to play with 10 men (after Szczesny was lured into fouling the floppiest bald man in the world, Arjen Robben) was a killer. Losing two-nil and knowing that the holders would not make the same mistake two years in a row in the return leg, was another crushing blow.
Additionally, Ozil’s miss created a firestorm of bad press for the record signing. Manager Arsene Wenger attempts to rest him–vs Sunderland, but more critically at Stoke City–backfired, when, in his absence, our offense stuttered and we lost the latter match. Ironically, in the 2nd leg at Bayern we would lose Ozil to a hamstring injury suffered 2 minutes in and likely made worse by soldiering on through the entire first half. Although we had advanced to the FA Cup semis (and then had the great fortune of seeing Wigan defeat Manchester City after we had drawn the winner), our league chances, given all the injuries, seemed tenuous at best. We got past Spurs at White Hart Lane, holding a 1-nil lead (secured by a Rosicky belter) for 90 minutes.
But then, in Wenger’s 1000th match at the club, our title hopes were crushed in a 6-nil defeat to Chelsea. Beyond the horror scoreline and the comedy element (Kieran Gibbs was sent off for Alex-Oxlade Chamberlain’s early handball on the goal line–on a shot going wide!?!), we also lost another player to injury: our best defender, Laurent Koscielny.
The injuries and the psychological devastation of the Chelsea match (on top of the other away losses on big scorelines) led to consecutive home draws against Swansea City and Manchester City. By this time, our squad was a shadow of itself, both in confidence and available, match-fit, personnel. In a final blow, we traveled to Everton, got soundly beaten there and dropped below them and out of the Champions League places.
Many Gooners were calling for the head of Arsene Wenger, who noted (in a French interview) that with all the injuries, his team was “only average.” With Kim Kallstrom as our only January signing, on loan from a Russian club, and having made only a minimal contribution due to fitness issues of his own, there was plenty of hindsight, most of which put the manager squarely in the cross-hairs.
Luckily, at that point, the schedule got easier and this “average” team did enough to win their remaining matches. At first it wasn’t pretty, with the darkest moment coming at Wembley, as we came within 10 minutes of being eliminated by Wigan in the FA Cup semi, before beating them in a penalty shootout. From there, we secured 4th place with relative ease as Everton struggled with a far more difficult schedule. In fact, we ended up 7 points clear of them, the exact number we finished behind eventual league champions, Manchester City, who couldn’t beat Liverpool at Anfield. Unfortunately for them, ‘Pool couldn’t contain Chelsea in their home ground nor hold a 3 nil lead at Crystal Palace, and, in essence, handed the title back to the Sheik and his Citizens. All we could do, however, was win our remaining matches and watch from the sidelines of the mathematically eliminated…
It all culminated in the FA Cup final, a microcosm of both our frailties and our strengths. Playing a goal-keeper (Fabianski) and a defender (Sagna) who were winding their contracts down in order to seek greener pastures, we started in a stupor and fell behind by 2 goals, only avoiding a 3rd, when wisely placed Kieran Gibbs used his head in another manner to clear a looping attempt which had Fabianski well beaten. Fortunately, the smallest player (with the biggest heart?…) Santi Cazorla took the team forward, won a foul and converted the resulting free kick. The comeback was on. Goals by Koscielny (risking injury as he scored it) and Ramsey, the season’s most stunningly improved player (and perhaps its best?), and we (finally) have our trophy. The joy amongst the team, the manager and the Gooners who had all stayed the course was fantastic.
Now what? How do we kick onwards and upwards?
In my opinion, despite the struggles of the season (cheers for actually reading the synopsis for those who did…) we have much we can take from it. There is great potential in the squad up and down the pitch. Moreover, as a team, we have shown a certain level of resolve and focus. The clean sheets and solid results against the lesser teams were the best in England. Obviously, we had huge stumbles, especially in away matches to the other top teams. Still, the “team,” at its core, is as solid as I’ve seen it for years with more upside than down. We did not, again, in my opinion, “over-perform” this season and thus, if the spirit stays intact, we should improve. Of course, our rivals will be trying to do likewise but that’s another matter entirely. While I believe our greatest asset is our work as a unit, it being the close-season with the torture, er, transfer window unofficially open, an examination of the current squad, position by position is in order.
Keeper: Wojciech Szczesny gained another season of experience and showed great focus to compile the incredible statistic of 20 clean sheets in all competitions (22, if you include the two CL qualifiers). Yes, he still makes mistakes with the Red Card + Penalties vs Villa and Bayern standing out. Nonetheless he commands his area well and makes most of the saves you would expect him to make. He may well have benefitted from the consistent push of his countryman, Lukas Fabianski, whose contributions in the FA cup run were nothing short of outstanding, even if he might be somewhat faulted for the leakiness early (and the moment of insanity late on) in the final. While I would love to retain him as a more than capable #2, I don’t begrudge his decision to seek first team football elsewhere. Of course, he will need to be replaced. We should be able to afford an older, very experienced keeper who might be happy to help Szczesney on the finer points of his game while being more than ready to deputize if necessary. Damien Martinez, as our youth team keeper has perhaps shown enough to deserve promotion to the first team as our 3rd choice?
Defence: Obviously, losing Bacary Sagna will be a major blow. What a professional and what a servant to the club. Additionally, he essentially held down two positions. As such, we will need to buy (or promote) at least two players to replace him. Players like him simply cannot be replaced in a like for like fashion. A senior right back seems essential unless we really trust Carl Jenkinson and/or Hector Bellerin. Additionally our style of play will need to change given that Sagna was such an accomplished header of the ball. It could, however, be an opportunity for a pacy player of great stamina, one who can get forward on offense and circle around the tall (but not so mobile) presence of Mertesacker at the defensive end. In many ways, I think, replacing Sagna sucessfully will be one of our greatest challenges but also one of greatest opportunities. Given Wenger’s desire to have as many “footballers” in the squad, the huge hole Sagna will leave could actually be seen as a chance for several players to make their mark.
Central defense is as solid as it’s been in years. The partnership of Mertesacker and Koscielny is the best in the league. The back up of Captain Vermaelen is troublesome, but also reassuring, given that so many of us thought he was the best defender on the team just a couple of years ago. Injury problems have hurt him, but he’s been a model professional. That he can also play left back, where our first options have injury issues of their own, makes him even more valuable. Still, I expect him to be the subject of endless transfer speculation and he might be one leaving the club. A younger, more speculative prospect, especially one who has played a bit as a defensive midfielder, might also be seen as a positive change.
Kieran Gibbs, when he’s not hurt (or being sent off for another player’s handball…) seems firmly established as our first choice left back. He’s got great pace and athletic ability and his defensive positioning and offensive contributions are improving over time. He seems one who, if he could have a full season injury free–and this season was closer in that regard–might really take a major step up in quality. Ignacio “Nacho” Monreal, who is perhaps more comfortable on the ball than Gibbs, is an able back-up. At times, Nacho appears a bit lacking athletically (in comparison to the “sneaky” athleticism Gibbs possesses) but also has some sly moves. I particularly admire his high-angle pull backs when he drives forward, but think he might need to put away his full turns (away from the attacker and the ball) at the defensive end as they (sometimes) leave him trailing his man and badly out of position. If we can retain Vermaelen, who brings real defensive stoutness (but is not as much as a typical touch line runner going forward) this position seems very well covered.
Midfield: This is our obvious strength–an embarrassment of riches to the point of begging the question of how we keep everybody happy. There is also a question about our ability to use our possession game to protect our back line, i.e., is there trouble at the back? Ramsey, Ozil, Cazorla, Wilshere, Rosicky, Oxlade-Chamberlain (or is he a forward?) Arteta, Flamini, Diaby. Wow, it’s a mouth-watering bunch of names, but it’s also a group which had more than its share of injury troubles. Additionally, the guys we assume would lay back and protect our defensive line are not getting any younger.
Many feel that we need reinforcement at “defensive midfielder” and I would agree. However, I also think that Wenger doesn’t look at it this way and wants his deeper lying mids to bring great skill and composure on the ball, rather than act as the prototypical “beast” many desire. Mikel Arteta’s physical limitations will only become more glaring as age does its inevitable thing. Still, trying to replace or complement him with a more physical presence, if he doesn’t bring similar on-the-ball skills, can be a double edged sword. The initial contributions of Flamini (especially his vocal organization of the players in front of him) seemed very welcome, but the loose tackles hurt us as the season wore on and he never seemed the sort of player who could keep things “ticking over.” Abou Diaby has the height and (as I recall) the ball skills to be a great contributor in this part of the pitch, but even discussing him, given his injury record, seems as thinly naive as his ankles. As such I would expect every deep-lying mid in world football to be linked with a move to Arsenal this Summer, though I would also suspect that this is an area where Wenger might gamble on players staying fit, performing above expectation or (even) slotting in a player who is more nominally a defender.
He could also do likewise by (nominally) moving players back. Wilshere, Ramsey and Oxlade Chamberlain have all taken turns, usually alongside Arteta, in what some observers label a double pivot. Again, I don’t think Wenger views it in this manner, and would prefer a group of 5 midfielders (3 central, 2 who start on the touchlines as wingers) changing position freely and covering spaces for one another. In moments when it works, it positively buzzes. It can, however, lead to periods where we struggle against deeper lying teams and leave ourselves open to trouble on the break (and those freak scorelines against the better teams). Ball retention, i.e., possession and pace of play are everything in Wenger’s approach and a stable group (fewer injuries) seems essential. Overall, however, the players we have, I believe, perhaps with the exception of Arteta and Rosicky, are ALL poised to have more productive seasons. Wilshere, Ozil and Ramsey looked very good but also had injury issues and trouble in the biggest matches. I expect their output (assists and goals) to increase. Santi Cazorla, expected by many to step into the #10 spot and make up for the output of those three, was a disappointment to many, but I see him as a guy whose true genius sparkles in filling the holes (on the pitch rather than the team-sheet). With his range of passes (and shots) he needs teammates occupying defenders because he’s simply too small (and lacks that real burst of acceleration) to get away on his own. I may have too much faith in the little Spaniard, who is also approaching the big 3-0, but I think his output (goals and assists) could go up the most of any of our midfielders.
Attack: obviously, this is an area of worry but also one of some serious promise. Losing Theo Walcott was a massive blow as many expected him to kick on from his previous (and best) season with a 20 goal (or more) contribution. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, with maybe a touch less pace (but a lot more touch…) is also an extremely promising player who can be very direct and loves attacking the box. Both guys, if they can just get a bit calmer in their finishing could go from (near) zero to (super) hero. Serge Gnabry also appears to have a real eye for goal and a desire to work on his complete game and is still only 18 (!) We should expect greater contribution from him as well.
This past season, however, Olivier Giroud had to carry the load. He did quite well, especially against the lesser clubs racking up impressive numbers (22 goals) and showing a tireless ability to wear down defenders (in opposition to his annoying time-wasting antics feigning injury on the turf). His younger French counterpart, Yaya Sanogo, also contributed, in a somewhat similar manner, even if he has (still) yet to score his first Arsenal goal. Size matters in English football and those guys are targets at set pieces. Not quite as big (unless you count his smile…), Lucas Poldolski brings so much experience and one of the most powerful left boots in world football but remains a puzzle. When he scores he’s brilliant, but he also looks out of place as a total footballer. He seems to enjoy drifting deeper and helping out with the possession work, but also appears a step slow in that part of the pitch. Closer in, his striker instincts (to shoot or cross) seem positive but not always in-sync with his teammates. Is it a lack of pace or on the ball skills or just too much time playing in a slower paced setting? Regardless, he’s on a massive salary so, unless he makes a (surprise) splash for the Germans in Brazil and attracts some transfer interest, I would expect the enigma to continue next season at Arsenal.
So that is my summation of the squad and what I perceive as the potential for the season ahead. Who am I missing? Also, speaking of Brazil: we got a world cup to enjoy. As a neutral I enjoy watching Arsenal players contribute and seeing who can and cannot handle the immense pressure of the situation, even if, in my opinion, the game is slower and (until the final rounds at least) generally at a lower level than the club game. Compared to most of the top English teams we are not sending too many players who will play major minutes but, with our “vast” reserves of money to spend, ANY player who does well at the tournament will surely be linked with a move to our club. In that way, if you have the right attitude, it could be fun to watch.
But, of course, I’ve been accused of having a bad attitude. In truth, I believe that Arsenal supporters are suffering more than a bit of an existential crisis and are overly divided into deeply entrenched camps, which brings me down immensely. Right now, on the back of the FA Cup win–and the ease with which we clinched Champions League football, support has swung back towards Arsene Wenger continuing as manager. Latest reports suggest he will sign a 3 year deal at 8 million pounds per year–essentially the same salary as our highest paid player (Ozil). I believe the manager, while not always correct in every decision, is one of the great stories and maybe the greatest asset the club possesses (and, as such, deserves this new contract). Many, however, disagree, or, at least, have tired of him as the face of the club and desire change. But that’s an entirely different issue and one which we might discuss in more detail as the Summer wears on. Unfortunately, due to his immense presence, our stance on the manager clouds ALL discussions about the club. My hope is that we can trust in him (as we would with ANY manager) while realizing he’s human and appreciating that he has linked his personal legacy to that of the club. It’s probably too much to ask, so, if (god forbid) we actually lose a match (we didn’t, in the league, at least, a decade ago–i.e., he made his own high standards)…it’s “Wenger Out” all over again. It’s a pressure that’s (probably) too hard to bear, and one which, frankly I could live without. Still, the times being what they are (the 24 hour “blame” cycle of the internet…) somebody must do the job. At least Wenger seems willing to bear it, so I salute him.
OK, enough said. What do you guys think? Are we poised to kick on (and up)? Can we expect improvement from a majority of squad members? Who do you think might REALLY kick on? (As opposed to the more typical, who must we REALLY replace?…) Is the future so bright that we need to wear shades or is it so grim that we need to draw the shades (or curtains) and hide? Many will be focused on the transfer market and all the links that come with our status as a “big club” (with money). Others might lament that we (still) can’t hold onto our best players even if they’re on the older side (Sagna). Where do you come down? Is this a Summer of appreciation and hope or dissatisfaction and despair?…
Written by: 17highburyterrace