In many ways, the season that has just ended is reminiscent of the previous few seasons. Starting relatively well, keeping up with cup and league challenges until the February/March period before fading away the rest of the season. We all love the good kind of repetition, the kind where we lift trophies every season but the one which just ended frustrates a lot of fans and supporters.
I checked back and realised that I never really did a full season preview but I remember exactly what I thought back before the first league game away at Anfield. I was rather optimistic that we could really win something this season. Manchester United and Chelsea did not bolstered their squad with major signings while Manchester City did make a couple of big buys, I thought it will take them more than 1 season to come to the fore.
My optimism also stemmed from the fact that our boys have grown a year older and had another season of experience under their belt. Arsene Wenger managed to keep the core of his team together and central to that was the successful prevention of Cesc Fabregas’ sale to Barcelona. The worry of losing our captain over that summer was particularly stressful, not to mention the disrespect Barcelona showed by attempting to close the deal at a mere £30 million.
Wenger also added 3 new faces to the team; Laurent Koscielny, Marouane Chamakh and Sebastien Squillaci. The last one being another one of those last minute signings which frankly only points to it being a panic buy. Koscielny was unproven after only just finished his first full season of Ligue 1 at the ripe old age of 25. However, the major talking point was the purchase of Chamakh. Our interest in him was well known for a full year before eventually taking him over via a free transfer. That people points to him being the plan B for us, forgets that we already have a similar player like him in Nicklas Bendtner.
Participation in the Final of the World Cup in South Africa put paid to our hopes of starting the season with our best team. Robin Van Persie and Fabregas needing more time and rest to recover from their exertions in the summer. The world’s biggest tournament also impacted other players in our squad, namely Alex Song who was out injured. In his place, came the precocious talent of Jack Wilshere. We all knew the boy to be good but he was something else.
Wilshere never looked back from that sunny day at Anfield. His performance meant that he was one of the first names on the team sheet. Calm and composed on the ball with the aggression and desire that is unrivalled in the current squad. One will only have to look at the videos of him against Barcelona, to fully understand that we one in our hands a player who can rule the world. His confidence was unshakeable even in the presence of Xavi, Iniesta and Messi.
The other star performer in midfield was Samir Nasri. The aforementioned delay of Fabregas’ return and the subsequent injuries put Nasri in the limelight to be the creative force in our team. His 15 goals return this season alone is more than an indication the kind of influence he has been. Although to be honest, most of those were happening in the first half of the season. If any awards were given out at that time, he would swept them all.
As it was with previous seasons, we have the customary long lay-off for RvP and Bendtner which means that Chamakh was forced to learn the English game by actually playing week in week out. This is not the normal route by which Wenger likes to gel his new players. The Moroccan was a real force to be reckoned with in the first half of the season. Leading the line on his own, winning headers and defending from the front. It was no surprise that his all action game took the wind out of him by December. The return of RvP also did not help his cause of having more game time.
When RvP came back, he came back with a bang. 22 goals from a striker who had missed the best part of 3 months out with injury is no mean feat. Had he played an additional 1 more month, he would’ve surely finished with the Golden Boot. As the season faded, RvP was like the sole beacon of hope and consistency. He also owns the record of scoring in consecutive games now. Many others in the team could learn a lot by following RvP’s example. The performance, not the injury.
Like in attach, a similar situation happened in defence. Thomas Vermaelen was forced sit on the sidelines for almost the whole of the season. Koscielny, who was expected to play in only 10 – 15 odds games here and there, ended up starting 43 times for us. Only Wilshere played more games. He was nervy at the start, which is to be expected of someone with his experience of high level matches but the no. 6 grew into it as the season progressed. A fantastic tackler of the ball and is aerially competent as well. I do believe that Wenger has found another gem here, provided Koscielny can removed the kind of stupid mistakes like the one in the Carling Cup final.
The one sharing his folly in the match that we’re closest to winning a cup this season is none other than Wojciech Szczesny. If a time machine was created and every Gooner/Goonerette were allowed a trip back in time to gather their pre-season thought, no one would say think that we’ll see him line up as our goalkeeper in the cup final. But such is the state of our goalkeeping situation that a young, albeit extremely talented Pole can be our No. 1.
Wenger started with Manuel Almunia as the first choice at the start of the season. The former’s open pursuit of Mark Schwarzer in the summer meant that we started the season with a keeper whose position was undermined right from the start. To his credit, Almunia did fairly well in the opening couple of games but soon we were reminded of why Wenger decided to try for the Fulham keeper in the first place. The WBA games being the chief of those showings.
But Szczesny was not the first Pole being given a chance. That opportunity fell into the lap of Lukasz Fabianski. The keeper everyone always remember for his display in the 2009/2010 season against Porto and Wigan. At least within the period that he kept goal for us, we finally understood Wenger’s faith in him. Fabianski did really really well to cover for Almunia and it was summed up by that last minute save at Wolves. We looked to have found our next first choice and he is Polish but unfortunately for Fabianski, it looks to be his younger compatriot.
This review is already long enough without me covering every single player that played for us. Perhaps another time. Now, looking back at the season, we rarely fall against the so-called big sides. Yes, there were defeats at Old Trafford, Stamford Bridge and Nou Camp. But we beat all 3 of them at Ashburton Grove. So, on that front we were equal to them. What really did us in was the games against the lesser sides.
We all know how lower teams are going to set up to play us. Tight at the back and be more physical. It is beyond me that the team and the manager could not find a way to play around that. Our home form left a lot to be desired. We lost the league by losing at home to WBA, Newcastle and Spurs. If those results were reversed, that would have taken us to within 2 points of champions, Manchester United. There’s also those home draws against Sunderland and Blackburn and I can understand the sympathy of other fans. Those two teams were the most out of form team in the country, let alone the league but somehow we contrived to settle for a point. I know there were refereeing decisions which did not go our way but that would be sweeping the actual problem under the bed.
Add to that those disappointing draws away to Sunderland (conceding last minute goal), Newcastle (4 goals lead slip), Spurs (2 goals lead slip) and Wigan (late Squillaci own goal), I’m stunned that we actually allowed United to win the league. Defensive errors coloured all over those bad away results. Except the Invincibles, no team can remain undefeated the whole season but if you look at those games again, it is hard to justify where we finished.
In the Champions League, we sauntered through the opening phase of the group stage but a crappy loss away to Europa Cup finalist, Braga, meant that our first opponent in the knockout stage was Barcelona. You can argue that had we finished top of the group, we could’ve avoided playing the Spanish champions so early in the competition. To be the best you have to beat the best, there’s no two ways to that. Controversial decisions in the second leg at Nou Camp sent us flying out of the competition. That being said, nothing takes away the specialness of the first leg. We beat the “best” team in the world playing our way. It was the best atmosphere we ever had at the Grove.
This season has left a bitter taste in the mouth of all those connected to Arsenal Football Club. The low far outweighs the high. This is arguably going to be Wenger’s biggest test in the coming summer. Thanks for the season, next move is yours Arsene.