Friday, May 25, 2012

Arsenal Season Review Part IV: Grading the Whole Season

So, it's time for the last part of my mammoth season review. Have a look round the site, and you'll find parts I, II, III, where I graded the defence, midfield and attack. Now it's time to grade the season as a whole.


I suppose this season was fundamentally one where we met lowered expectations.

For the first time during the Wenger era (to my knowledge) not only did we not mount a title challenge, I don't think one was ever really expected by the fans, or promised by the club's management. That's quite an epochal change, really.

It says a lot about the glacial nature of the club's recent decline. 7 years ago, we were not just a club that challenged for the league title - we actually won it. Now, after years of falling short, I think the whole perception of the club has changed.

A lot of people will point to last summer and say we did well to recover from it, which we did. But last summer happened because I don't think we are seen anymore as one of the club's that challenges for the very highest trophies - the Champions League and the Premier League. We can abuse Nasri all we want, and Clichy to a lesser extent, and, justifiably, say that money was a large factor in their decision to leave the club. But they also left because a club that has a greater chance of winning trophies was in for them, and players want to play for these teams. Both their moves were justified, ultimately, because, if they had stayed with us, they wouldn't have 2012 Premier League winners medals. Similarly, Cesc may not have won the league this year, but there is a much higher probability of him winning top trophies at Barca than at Arsenal.

Ultimately, last summer was a moment of true crisis for the club. A number of our best players stopped believing in the project that Wenger had devised, we were unable to secure top-level replacements for them, and we were unable to shift the enormous pile of overpaid deadwood that we had tied to long-term contracts in 2008-9.

So, whether or not you want to view these season as successful is largely based on your wider perception of events. If you think we did well to just compete with teams with greater resources than us, and to recover from a tumultuous summer, then so be it.

If you think like me, however, it's hard to be so sanguine. The crisis that befell the club last summer was due to an extended period of under-investment in proven talent that undermined the competitiveness of the club. The crisis was then mismanaged and exacerbated via our ridiculous transfer dealings. We then played largely in the way we have done over the last few seasons - a lot of good performances in the league, but not enough, and no real challenge for the Champions League and the FA Cup. Wenger will always produce teams that can sparkle on occasion, but the fireworks were too few and far between this year.

We were constantly 1-2 injuries away from disaster. Had van Persie sustained an injury, we would have finished 9th or 10th. Without Arteta, a player used to playing in a more disciplined side, none of our other midfielders showed any inclination to get involved in the dirty, boring midfield battles that win games. We continue to over-elaborate in possession; we continue to concede stupid, soft goals that turn too many games into an uphill struggle.

There is an overall sense, for me, that this is the best it's gonna get for the remainder of Wenger's time at the club. I think he will continue to deliver Champions League football, but not really mount much in the way of credible league or cup challenges. We will continue to lose top players, and replace them with others who will keep the overall squad's quality at a just about acceptable level.

And this is why I just can't really view the season positively. I think we could do more with what we have. Yes, we are fighting against club's with a huge financial advantage - but they can't buy everyone, and I wonder if we are really doing enough to actually elevate the squad we currently have.

Moreover, I've wondered on several occasions this season, for the first time, whether another coach might actually get more out of our players. When I see Vermaelen and Song strolling around the pitch, or going on attacking forays that leave us exposed, I wonder if another coach might actually do more to introduce a sense of tactical discipline to the side, or at least a reduction of the defensive naivety that sees us concede so many soft goals. I also wonder if another coach might think a bit harder about varying tactics and personnel to reflect the strengths and weaknesses of our opposition, rather than just continually attempting to play the same brand as football, regardless of who is available and who we are playing. Overall, I just wonder if another coach might give the team a greater amount of steel to complement its moments of skill

All I will say in that domain for now is that it can only be a positive that a George Graham-schooled defender, Steve Bould, is now Wenger's right-hand man. Surely this will improve the defensive stability of the team. But, if it doesn't, I will continue to wonder whether Arsene has just taken the club as far as he can. If he continues at the helm, it will obviously be no disaster - but this is the first time since he arrived that I've really wondered if it might be a good time for someone else to have a go. We've been promised the future for years now - I just wonder if someone else might be actually able to take us there.

Overall, therefore, this was a disappointing season. Great wins over Chelsea and Spurs don't make-up for the notably lowered expectations that now surround the club. Scraping into the Champions League just to be knocked out in the opening knockout rounds should be the absolute minimum expectations for a club like Arsenal, not, as it would seem at present, the new normal. Supporting a club should be about glory, or at least a bit of varied excitement - not just qualifying for a competition that we never win in order to keep the books ticking over. Maybe I'm a naive romantic, but I think the club can do more than it did last season.

Overall Season Grade: C-


If you just can't get enough of my rambling, incoherent opinions, you can find (basically) daily thoughts on Twitter. 

Lastly, thanks to everyone for reading this season. You've made it a pleasure to blog again.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

So Long Manuel - You Won't Be Missed

I suppose you could sum up Manuel Almunia’s Arsenal career through his performances during two of his first few games at the clubs.

In late-2004/early-2005, Arsene’s patience with Jens Lehmann had apparently snapped after a few chaotic goalkeeping performances (I remember one particularly erratic performance in Greece against Panathinaikos that had cost us three points in the Champions League group stage). As a Mourinho-inspired Chelsea began to pull away in the league, Wenger decided it’d be a good time to see if his new keeper could cut it or not. So, as you do, he decided to draft Manuel Almunia into the first-team for a clash in early February against Manchester United.

To say Arsene had picked Almunia from obscurity would be an understatement. He’d been playing on loan in the Spanish second division prior to signing for us in the summer of 2004, and had never represented Spain at any age level.

We were desperate for revenge over United after their referee-assisted victory over us in November, which had ended our unbeaten run. Both teams were pumped, sparks flew before the teams had even made onto the pitch, and we raced into an early lead thanks to a goal from Vieira.

You can’t really blame Almunia completely for what subsequently happened, but the warning signs about his ability as a goalkeeper, which never subsequently disappeared, were there for all to see. The first goal took an unlucky deflection, and the second was an excellent finish by Ronaldo from a tight angle.
But, for the third, Almunia decided to leave the six-yard box, run to the edge of the area, and miss the ball, thus allowing himself to be chipped, and presenting Ronaldo with a tap-in at the far-post as the goal was vacant. For the fourth, Almunia came, stopped in no man’s land in the middle of his box, and allowed John O’Shea to score an improbably brilliant goal by simply dinking it over his head.
These were to be common themes of Almunia’s goalkeeping career – hesitation, panic, and leaving the goal untended.

But let’s concentrate on the positives for a few minutes. A couple of weeks after the debacle at Highbury, which had promptly seen Lehmann regain his place in the side, Arsenal played Sheffield United in the FA Cup, away from home. After an uninspiring 120 minutes, the game went to a penalty shoot-out. Almunia saved two penalty kicks and Arsenal won the tie. In a way, therefore, he was a crucial part of our last successful cup run, although it is notable that Jens played in the final.

Jens was subsequently immense for the 2005-6 and 2006-7 campaigns, possibly because he knew that Almunia was ready to take his spot where there to be any further errors. But at the start of the 2007-8 season, big errors from Jens in games against Fulham and Blackburn saw Almunia reclaim a starting spot.
Now, I think this was an error. There is a persistent myth that says that Almunia had a good season in 2007-08. He didn’t. He had a season that you would expect from a mid-table keeper. I would say, at best, he had an adequate season in 2007-08. Accordingly, he had a few big moments, such as the penalty save against Spurs in December that helped us to win the game. But he also had his fair share of catastrophies, such as another moment of panic against Manchester United in the game at the Emirates, where he once more abandoned his area and let United score with ease. I wrote this in the aftermath of that game, which essentially said that we couldn’t rely on Almunia when it mattered, and I think what I said then was proved to be true.

Because when things started to get a little tougher in the seasons after 2008, Almunia was found repeatedly wanting. Yes, we can all cite his moments of glory, such as the incredible series of saves he made against Barcelona in the first-half of the first-leg in 2010. But people conveniently forget how he was beaten with ridiculous ease at his near post by Zlatan in the exact same game.

Ask someone to name an Almunia blunder from 2008-11 era, and you’ll probably get a different answer each time. Here’s just a few. Letting in a ridiculously speculative shot by David Bentley from the halfway line in against fucking Spurs; letting Ronaldo score from a farcical freekick in the Champions League semi-final; palming the ball into his net in a vital away match against Birmingham in 2010; or the series of catastrophic errors in our two matches against West Brom last year which meant they took five points off us in the league. This is all without remembering Almunia’s nightmare in Paris – not only getting beaten twice at his near post, but, in the case of Belletti’s goal, actively assisting it into the net.

Because this is what it comes down to for me – Almunia was not just crap, he was consistently crap and he cost us points and, arguably, trophies. Yes, Jens got sent off in Paris – but we only got to the final because of his saves in early rounds, including his remarkable performance in the home leg against Madrid.
Almunia, by contrast, was always a disaster waiting to happen. You could see this from his first games at the club, and I think it’s actually a myth that he ever substantially improved. Minor improvements due to a run of games? Possibly. But he was never anything more than a mediocre keeper that was a perennial, marked weakness in a team that was supposedly pushing for trophies.

Almunia stands as perhaps the ultimate example of certain critical problems that have beset the club over the last few years. Firstly, and maybe most obviously, Almunia represents the club’s repeated desire to penny-pinch in the transfer-market.  Secondly, he’s an example of Wenger’s occasional, stubborn refusal to admit when he’s got it wrong in terms of judging a players ability and potential. I mean, you can blame Almunia for being a poor player, but I can’t blame him for being picked an incredible 175 times, when it was obvious after 20 that he wasn’t good enough. That ultimately comes down to Arsene.

But, perhaps most pertinently, Almunia represents a culture in which players were rewarded with exorbitant, long-term contracts in return for achieving the square-root of fuck all. Because Almunia wasn’t just a poor player – he was a poor player earning wages that bore almost no relation to his ability. By the end of his time at the club, we literally couldn’t give him away. Some have suggested we should feel some sympathy for him due to the year he spent in the reserves. I feel none. I firmly believe if he was really interested in playing football, he could have expressed his unhappiness and forced through a move, preparing to take a lower salary in the process. But he didn’t. He knew he’d won the lottery, and had no desire to give up his winnings.

And so that’s why this isn’t a positive piece. Ultimately, when I think of Almunia in the future, it won’t be for the fact he won three memorable penalty shoot-outs for us, or that he did, occasionally, pull off the odd great save. I will remember him as a player who represented many of the negative aspects of the club between 2005 and 2012. And, for that reason, I feel a profound sense of relief that he is no longer at the club.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Arsenal Season Review Part III: Grading the Forwards

So, apparently there was a game on yesterday. As we all try and destroy the image of John Terry holding up a European Cup forever from our brains, here's something to keep us distracted. The third and penultimate part of the season review, where I grade our forward line.

Ju-Young Park: F

I have to say, I was quite excited when we announced this signing back in August. I'll admit it - this was mainly based on the fact I once signed Park in Pro Evo 2006, and he was the bomb, but there you go. In real life, he also seemed to be quite good. A lot of international goals, and a fair few for Monaco, despite their relegation. In short, he seemed like a half-decent back-up option, for a price that you couldn't really argue with.

But then, he didn't play. At first I thought that Arsene was just trying to ease him into the side, but no, he clearly just didn't rate him at all. Who knows how he must perform in training, but he must be fucking dreadful. With about 20 minutes of playing time this year, his appearances against AC Milan and Man Utd were simply bizarre, more than anything else.

I really don't know what to make of the signing, but the fact is we wasted both money and a squad place on a player we didn't use, essentially, at all. A major failing was made at some point, whether it was by Arsene or our scouts. At present, he easily makes the list of the worst signings of the Wenger-era.

Robin van Persie: A+ (Player of the Season)

Well, what can you say about Robin this year that hasn't already been said? We've all run out of superlatives, I think. 37 goals in 48 games is simply outrageous, and you can't help but wonder how much we might have achieved in the last few years if Robin had made it through a few more seasons without picking up injuries. He's scored all types of goals, and we would have been a mid-table side last year without him. To be frank, I am still unsure about whether we should be giving a player at his age and with his injury record an enormous new contract - but I do want him to stay, and I think the effect of morale on the club, especially if he were to sign for Manchester City, would be enormous if he left. Now he's gone off to the Euros without signing a new deal, I suppose this saga is going to drag on all summer. Given what we've seen this week - the Prem and Champs League both bought by oligarchs - you can't blame him for thinking that he may have to join another club to win trophies, especially the top ones.

Those are all things we can worry about tomorrow. For today, let's just applaud the magnificent season he's had. Football from another planet, and Arsenal's player of the season.

Theo Walcott: C+

Theo got to double figures in goals and assists in all competitions this season. He posted the kind of raw stats that you would expect from a top attacking talent. But there's an underlying sense of disappointment about Theo's performances. He got two brilliant goals against Tottenham, but also seemed to be unable to control the ball on  multiple occasions. He went missing in more than one game, and his ability to lose the ball was a constant worry.

With all the hand-wringing over Robin's contract, there's been a lot less chat about the fact Theo is also in the last year of his deal. It's interesting, because I think that a lot of top European clubs would be interested in Theo were he to leave, but I'm not sure Arsenal fans would be that devastated if he were to go. All I will say is that Theo doesn't really look like a player with whom we'll win trophies, unfortunately.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain: C

I think the huge performances that the Ox had against Milan, Manchester United and, er, Blackburn have perhaps made a lot of people overlook the fact that he only got 2 goals and one assist in the league this year. He has an extraordinary amount of potential, shown by his inclusion in England's Euros squad. But he has been, understandably, inconsistent, and he has a long way to go before he can definitively be called a world-class player. That said, he was a genuine bright spot in what's been a tough season. I think he can push on and become the type of dominant box-to-box midfielder that we've missed for a while. Let's just hope he doesn't get buried under the weight of expectations.

Gervinho: D

After a few interesting performances at the beginning of the season, his form steadily dipped for the rest of the season, something that wasn't helped by a traumatic African Cup of Nations. My issue with Gervinho is that he never really looks like a threat. He kinda ambles forward, maybe beats a player, but the end-result is usually ceded possession, or a wasted opportunity. I think he does have the talent to be a better player than the one we've seen so far, but my fear is that he could go into a Chamakh-esque downward spiral if we're not careful. Hopefully next season will be a lot better than this one, otherwise we need to sell.

Marouane Chamakh: F

That Chamakh has only started one league game this season perhaps says it all. After a somewhat promising first season, he has officially been a complete waste of space this year. One league goal all year for a guy who looks like he is fundamentally not good enough for top-level football. Not only is he useless, he also, by all accounts, is on a massive weekly wage because of his free transfer. We desperately need to get rid of him this summer.

Andrei Arshavin: D+

Ultimately, Arshavin's career ended as ignominiously as it had begun gloriously. He didn't deserve to be booed when he appeared against United, but he was, and the damage was ultimately irreparable. I still think that loaning him to Zenit was a ludicrous decision, and I also think he had a better season than, say, Gervinho. We could have done with his ability to create chances in a few games towards the end of the season. Maybe if we'd ever played him in his preferred position we might have got the best out of him, but we didn't. Perhaps he'll come back for a glorious swansong, but he probably won't. One of the saddest stories in the last few years at the club - a player who really had the potential to be a world-beater. Someone else may yet get the best out of him.

Thierry Henry: no grade

I simply can't grade TH's contribution this year. I want to give him an A, but he wasn't really here for long to warrant that mark. Hence, I've sat on the fence by giving him the old 'unrated'. His goal against Leeds was possibly the best single moment of the season, and his winner against Sunderland was utterly glorious. But he also was a bit ropey in the other performances he made, including fairly anonymous outings against Swansea and Milan. However, his time at the club this year was a fitting coda to an Arsenal career that had previously ended on a sour note. I'm glad he came back, and wish he could've stayed until the end of the season.

Overall: A+ for Robin; D for the rest. 

Let's face it, our attack has basically been Robin this season. Without him, we would not be in the Champions League next year. I genuinely think we would have finished about 10th. On paper, this is a set of players that should be much, much better. Chamakh, Arshavin, Park, Gervinho all seriously underperformed, and we had to push Robin to his absolute limit as a consequence. We even had to sign an ageing legend because our other forwards were so poor.

The fact we announced the signing of a new striker, Podolski, before the season had even ended says it all. Great teams get goals from all over the pitch - next season, whether Robin is here or not, we can't be so reliant on one player to get us the goals that win us matches. It's a recipe for disaster that we only narrowly avoided this year.


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Friday, May 18, 2012

Arsenal Season Review Part II: Grading the Midfield

So our journey through the season (belatedly) continues. It’s time to grade the midfield. I’ve followed the club’s definition of “midfielder for this – see the link here. So you’ll have to wait another day or two for the 

Anyway, here goes.

Abou Diaby: F

I’m not going to lie, I find it hard to muster too much sympathy for anyone who has become a member of a Premier League football squad. Yes, Abou has had terrible injury problems, but he also earns more money in a year than many of us will in our lifetime’s, so some perspective, please.
You can’t help but feel that this was the season that finally put to bed the idea that he will make it as a world-class footballer. He clearly is a talented player. But a crucial part of the ability to be a footballer is the ability to stay fit, and Abou cannot stay fit. He featured in less than 90 minutes of action this season without, and this is crucial in my mind, sustaining a serious injury. It was a succession of smaller injuries caused by his body’s fundamental inability to play professional football. I like him, and I feel bad that his travails have been caused by some shit-kicker who now works in a call-centre, but sometimes life isn’t fair. We need to release him in the summer, on a free if necessary. His wages need to be put to use elsewhere.

Tomas Rosicky: B-

A renaissance man? Well, not quite. The common narrative to Rosicky’s season is that he has recaptured the form that prompted us to sign him back in 2006. Yet, for all of his supposed resurgence, he has only scored 1 goal and provided 4 assists in 29 appearances in the league this year, and 1 goal and 0 assists in the Champions League. Those are hardly the numbers of a superstar attacking midfielder. That Rosicky has been so feted this year simply highlights the dearth of attacking options we’ve had in midfield. He deserved a one-year contract extension, but if he remains a first XI player, I really can’t see us doing much next season.

Mikel Arteta: A

I was skeptical of this signing when it was announced on deadline day, but I could not have been more wrong. He has been integral to the team this season. Indeed, it is possibly worrying that we needed to sign a veteran player in order to give some shape and discipline to our midfield. He is the only Arsenal midfielder who seems to know that you have to do the simple things as well as the flashy stuff in order to win matches. I really can’t praise his attitude or contribution this season highly enough, and I just hope he can continue at this level next season.

Aaron Ramsey: C

Oh, Aaron. I wrote an article back in February on this site in which I defended his contributions until that point in the season. It proved one of the more divisive pieces that I’ve written, and, unfortunately, Aaron did little to help me out in the months after its publication. Firstly, I’m still a great believer in his talent. I think he’s direct, and has the ability to play a killer pass that few other of our midfielders have. But he does dawdle on the ball and, when low on confidence as he is now, he can look bloody awful on occasion. For me, this year was his first full season in the Premier League. He still has time to become a great midfielder, and I’m confident he can prove a lot of his critics wrong next year. But, ultimately, it’s hard to pretend he had a great season this year.

Alex Song: B-

Will the real Alex Song please stand up? Is he the guy who plays killer passes in the final third, or is he the flashy git who cedes possession and doesn’t track his runners? He got eleven assists in the league last year, and in many ways appeared to replace Cesc as our main creative force in midfield. But he also appeared to go missing when we needed him for defensive duties. With Arteta performing his steadily disciplined role, Song seemed to go walkabout on more than one occasion, and seemed to forget his responsibilities when Mikel was not in the side. I think next season could be an interesting one for Song. Will he become the dominant, complete midfielder that he occasionally threatens to become, or will his ego outgrow his ability? With only two years left on his contract, a potentially decisive period in his Arsenal career is surely coming up.

Jack Wilshere: N/A

What a disaster this season has been for Jack. On June 7 last year, I proudly put on my spanking new Arsenal shirt with “Wilshere 19” emblazoned on the back. It’s sad to say, but I have probably worn that shirt more times on a football field this year than Jack has worn his own. With news of another “minor” procedure on his knee, Jack will soon have been injured for an entire calendar year. We need him back so, so badly, because I would love to see a midfield with both Jack and Arteta in it. Wilhere is our real hope for the future, more so even than Robin, and hopefully he’ll be ready to go when the league kicks off in August.

Emmanuel Frimpong: D-

He came, he saw, he got sent off. Frimpong is a player who I initially wanted to love because of the passion he has for the club. But he seems to be a youngster who hasn’t quite realized that actions have consequences, whether they are mistimed tackles on the pitch, or completely inappropriate pictures posted to his twitter account. Hopefully he will recover from his injury and come back stronger than ever, but I would be really surprised if he has a long-term career at the club, unless he is able to add a greater degree of finesse, subtlety and maturity to his game.

Yossi Benayoun: C+

Yossi became a bit of a hero towards the end of the season with some fine, vital goals in games against Norwich and West Brom, to add to his winning goal earlier in the season against Villa. He really seems to have had a season of two halves. A frustrating start to the season, followed by a resurgence in the second half. I really like him and his attitude, but if we were to offer him a new deal it would have to be on the basis that he would be a squad player. I think we can all thank him for his professionalism and performances this season, but it might be best for all concerned if he moved on elsewhere.

Francis Coquelin: C-

Parachuted in the baptism of napalm that was the Old Trafford debacle, we actually didn’t completely fall apart in that game until Coquelin was withdrawn. I think he looks a tidy, young player, who can definitely make a notable contribution to the team in the coming years. He certainly looks like a better prospect than Frimpong, for instance. That said, he has barely played this year, and he looked a little overwhelmed in the final match of the season against West Brom, which was a little worrying. A steady first season in the league then, and I’m confident he can improve.

Overall: B-

Our midfield was better than our defence this year, but I suppose that is only to damn it with faint praise. Aside from Arteta, we simply have too many players who are not interested in doing the difficult, dirty stuff in midfield that controls a game, and prevents our opponents from scoring. Song probably typifies this more than anyone else. Just because he’s acted like a deep-lying playmaker this season, and set up a load of goals, doesn’t mean this is what’s best for the midfield or for the team as whole. Without Arteta giving us some shape, I actually dread to think of the state we’d have been in this year. Even with Jack’s return (hopefully) imminent, it’s not for nothing that we constantly linked with the likes of Yann M’Vila – we need new midfielders, and hopefully this will be an area of the transfer market that we dip into this summer.  

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Arsenal Season Review Part I: Grading The Defence

After yesterday's posts on the highs and lows of last season, today I'm going to continue with the season review, with a multi-part review of the players who took part in it. Rather than review everyone at once, I'm just going to do the defence today, before hopefully moving onto the midfield and attack later in the week.

Wojciech Szczesny: B-

Harsh, maybe. But I think Woj's performances this seasons have been viewed through rose-tinted glasses at times. The fact he's much better than Almunia and Fabianski does not excuse both the large and small errors he's made on more than once occasion this season, whether it be Tottenham away, Norwich at home, or even some of his positioning for the two goals at the weekend. According to Orbinho (via Opta) on Twitter, Woj had a save percentage of only 63 percent this season - the joint second worst in the Premier League. David de Gea, who some still erroneously believe had a poor season, had a save percentage of 78 percent, by contrast, the best in the league. However much you want to read into that stat, I think there are a least half a dozen keepers in the Premier League who are clearly better than Woj, and with whom we would have won more games this season.

That said - I am hopeful he will improve. He dominates his area better than any other Arsenal keeper I've seen for a while, and he's clearly a massive character, which I think is good for the club - contrast him to Almunia, and his almost permanent expression of anguish, and it's easy to say that Woj is good for the side. I think he can kick on next season, but he has a lot of work to do - put simply he must make more saves, and help us to win more games.

Manuel Almunia: F

Yes, he still plays for the club. And, if you bought any form of Arsenal-related tickets/merchandise this year, he got a slice of your money. A nice guy, but the fact we can't give him away says volumes about how poorly some of our player's contracts have been managed, and how much misguided faith was put in a whole range of players between 2006-2010. It might be spiteful to give him an F, but I'm annoyed he's still on the payroll, and so should you be. Thankfully he'll be gone in the summer.

Lukas Fabianski: D

He played in a few cup games, and showed why he lost his place to Woj last season. I remember a poor performance in a cup match somewhere. Alas, flappyhandski, we barely knew ye.

Bacary Sagna: B+

A pretty solid season for Bac, unfortunately marred by two savage leg breaks. His importance to the team was emphasised by his absence, and we struggled considerably without him during the winter. We can only hope that he comes back from his new injury as well as he came back from his last one, but two breaks to the same leg is worrying. With only Jenkinson for cover, we may even have to contemplate other options. Despite an array of impressive performances, crowned by his determined header against Tottenham that began the best fightback of the season, Bac wasn't perfect. There have been lapses and concentrations and errors this season, and it was particularly disheartening to see Victor Moses turn him every which way in the defeat to Wigan. Overall, he's still a brilliant player though, and one of the few I think is a real winner, so I really hope he's back in the side as soon as possible.

Carl Jenkinson: C

Yes, he's a childhood gooner, and, yes, he can put in a pretty decent cross. I would even argue that he's no worse than the pestilence that was Eboue. But Carl hasn't really set the world on fire during his first season at the club. A lengthy injury at just the moment when he could have got a run in the side meant we haven't seen that much of him this year, but it's far from clear whether he's fully ready for premier and champions league football yet. His sending off at Old Trafford was one of the more brutal moments of the season, like watching a car reverse over a baby deer to make sure it's definitely dead. Still, he's shown potential, and, at least he's not a colossal prick, like his predecessor. Here's hoping he can kick on a bit next season.

Sebastian Squillaci: F

I know what you're thinking - how can I give an F to a player with a 100 percent pass completion rate in the Premier League! Sebastian Squillaci: pass master. I'm a total bastard, I know, I know. In seriousness, he stands only just above Almunia in my estimation. Here's hoping we can entice some poor French side to buy him this summer.

Johan Djourou: C-

It's been a difficult season for Johan. After seemingly turning into a top defender last season, this one has been marred by him being shunted around the defence and being frequently asked to play out of position at right-back, somewhere he's looked hopelessly out of place. He's been far from completely terrible, but this season has been an unfortunate regression, in sum. As fourth choice centre-backs go, I'm not sure we're going to find much better, but it's sad that that's where he now stands in the pecking order.

Andre Santos: B

Andre has been a breath of fresh air in the squad. Unfairly criticised for not knowing how to defend, he was viewed by many as a typical Wenger signing - all fluff and no substance. Quite the contrary, in my opinion. Not only do I think he's a far better defender than many have given him credit for, having him around now means we have a genuine attacking threat coming from left-back when he's playing, something we could simply not say during Clichy's time at the club. He scored two vital goals in the league during big wins against Chelsea and West Brom. I'd love to give him a higher mark, but his lack of game time means he remains a somewhat unknown quantity (why, oh why was he playing in Athens). I predict he may well be one of the surprise packages of next season, and he seems like a very useful chap to have around. Here's hoping he lays off the pies this summer.

Kieran Gibbs: B 

There is very little between Santos and Gibbs in my opinion, which is something I didn't think I'd be saying in around October. He's impressed me many times this season, and his last ditch tackle against West Brom showed a level of steel to his game that I wasn't sure that he had. It may be a struggle for him to hold down a first team spot with Santos as competition, but I don't see that as a bad thing. The more competition for places, the better. This is the first season that Gibbs has really shown that he could become a real top-class player, but he will need to stay fit next season if he is to make the transition.

Thomas Vermaelen: C+

Possibly harsh, but I'm not sure that Tommy's had a very good year. Six goals for a central defender is a brilliant return, including a vital one against Newcastle in the very last minute of the match. But, I think his positional play, which has always been suspect, has finally been exposed as very poor this season. Ultimately, Vermaelen is a defender, and so you have to judge him, primarily, on his contributions to our defence, and they were frequently not good enough. In the second half of the year in particular, I lost count of the number of times where we were exposed defensively because he was either charging around in midfield/up-front, or because he stood in the wrong place and got stranded in no-mans land. Perhaps the reason I'm being so harsh is because I think he's potentially a brilliant player, if he had a bit more tactical discipline and nous. Here's hoping he can improve a bit next season, because I think his attitude is wonderful, and he does have the tools to become a great defender again.

Per Mertesacker: B-

Per made a few clangers this season, and, yes, he is a bit slow. But to rate him purely as a defender, the position he plays after all, I think he had a better season than Vermaelen. On more than one occasion, Mertesacker gave a calmness to our defence which I hadn't seen in years, and it's nice to see a defender in the side who reads the game and quietly does his job, after years of having defenders who charge around making last-ditch tackles. I think his injury was one of the big moments of the season - I don't think we would have conceded 4 in Milan with him in the side, for instance. Here's hoping he has a good Euros and comes back reinvigorated next season. As it stands, I would pair him with Koscielny as our first choice centre-backs.

Laurent Koscielny: A- 

After a quietly promising first season, Koscielny spectacularly bloomed this year, and has established himself as one of the best central defenders in Europe. Among his impressive stats are these: he made 9 last-man tackles last season, the highest in Europe, and, among Premier League centre backs, he led the league in terms of tackles and interceptions. He's clearly a quiet guy, but the passion he showed when he scored the winner at West Brom exemplified his determination and will to win. We can only hope he sustains this level of performance next season. In any other year, he would be my player of the season, but will all know who's gonna get that award. Still, to bounce back from being part of the 8-2 side, to being one of the best defenders in the league is quite an achievement. If we build our defence around him next season, we can only concede fewer goals.

Overall Grade: C+

Arsenal conceded 49 goals in the league last year, and also received one of their heaviest European defeats in recent memory. In short, it wasn't a great year for the defence. Looking at players individually, we should have conceded less goals than we did, because there are some talented defenders in the squad. But it's perhaps telling that we set some form of record for the most come-from-behind victories in the league last year - we could just not stop gifting our opponents soft goals, even if we subsequently turned round the game.

 I don't think it's fair to only blame our defenders for our poor defensive record. Too many midfielders don't provide the defence with any coverage (*cough* SONG *cough*) and, for example, Vermalen's forays upfront have often been made to look worse than they are because other players haven't helped out.

But the fact remains this - we will not win the league, nor any trophy of note, if we continue to concede this many goals. It goes beyond individual performances - we need to have a better defensive mentality as an entire team, and to not treat lesser opponents as, well, lesser opponents. To concede three goals at home to Norwich perhaps summed up our defensive woes this year as much as the 8 goals in Manchester. Until the team, as a whole, values the art of defending as highly as Koscielny does, our barren spell will continue.

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Top Five Best and Worst Moments of Arsenal's Season

To paraphrase a quote from the end of "Band of Brothers" - 'It's been a long season; it's been a tough season'.

Maybe I'll have deeper thoughts on this as the next couple of weeks go by, but, for now, here's a list of the best and worst moments of the last few months. Let's get the horrible stuff out of the way first.

The Worst

5) Sunderland 2 Arsenal 0 (FA Cup)

This was a season when we could have won the FA Cup, but after our disaster in Milan, we didn't turn up in Sunderland. An atrocious performance, in which we barely mustered a shot on goal, saw us limp out of another competition. I'm glad, obvisouly, that we have third place, but a trophy would be nice, and unless things radically change in Manchester, the FA Cup is our best hope of silverware at present. More effort next season must be made because silverware is now a necessity.

4) January

After finally signing some experienced players, we went on a run of decent form for most of Autumn, 2011, and even managed to get through a tricky Christmas period reasonably intact. This was followed by a month in which we didn't win a league game. If away defeats to Fulham and Swansea were hard to take, then events at the Emirates against Manchester United were even worse. 

Subbing off the Ox for Arshavin, boos rang out at the Emirates, and it felt like a rubicon moment had occurred in the Wenger era. Arshavin, clearly distressed, was at fault for the United goal and would be essentially hounded out the club (although don't rule out a return next summer). If there had been mumblings of discontent for some time at the Grove, this was the first time it had erupted so publicly at a decision made by the manager. After fighting so hard to get our season back on track, the wheels seemed to have fallen off once more, and our only 'consolation' was a typical Arsene signing - Tomas Eisfeld from Dortmund. Things seemed bleak.

3) AC Milan 4 Arsenal 0

We didn't even have the excuse, in this game, of having a team stuffed full of craven youngsters as we did in Manchester. This was just an utter shambles. Yes, the Milan pitch was a joke and, yes, Koscielny limped off  at half-time, but our defending was almost inconceivably naive, with players falling over, backing off, and generally helping Milan to score in any way possible. 

Arsene's dream, and that of the club, is to obtain a Champions League trophy. But he'll never get near one as long as he sends teams out that can't keep it tight and defend away from home. We got to the final in 2006 on the back of defensive solidity, and we would do well to remember that in next year's campaign. 

2) The Summer Transfer Window

Ridiculously, the English season starts before the transfer window ends. When this absurdity will finally be ended, who knows, but it needs to happen because it effectively cost us all our August fixtures, and a hangover into September to boot. 

Quite what Arsene was thinking when he said that we could not be a big club if we were to sell both Fabregas and Nasri is anyone's guess. If it was a bluff, it didn't work. We lost two players that were key to our midfield, and we also saw Jack Wilshere pick up an injury that would ultimately rule him out for the season. 

Yes, we may have had to wait until champions league football was secured to pick up certain signings, but I still think there was no real excuse for the debacle that unfolded last summer. The humiliation on the pitch at Old Trafford was the direct result of the off-field shambles that engulfed the club  at the same time. 
1) Manchester United 8 Arsenal 2

To continue the probably ill-advised second world war theme, this was a day that will live in infamy for as long as Arsenal football club exists. I saw that a few people on Twitter wanted to make the Milan game the worst match of the season, but that was nothing compared to this. Milan was a horrible performance and a terrible result. This was a genuinely once-in-a-lifetime evisceration. It was our heaviest defeat since fucking 1896, so, actually, it's probably even worse than a once-in-a-lifetime result. 

The match was the culmination of not just a dreadful summer, but, really, a torrid period at the club that dated back to the Carling Cup Final defeat. Our awful run-in during the 2010-11 season bled into our transfer policy, and the starting XI contained at least one player (Traore) who was sold within hours of the final whistle. A succession of chastened kids made their debuts as everything United seemed to do flew into the net. It was a genuinely devastating moment in the club's history, and almost any other manager would have been shown the door in its wake. 


Everyone take a deep breath...things only get better from here....

The Best

5) Udinese 1 Arsenal 2

This seems so long ago now that it could be almost last season, but, really, in many respects, it may have been our most important win of the season. Udinese qualified once more for the Champions League this season and are clearly no mugs, and we did incredibly well to get a result in Italy. A mad fifteen minute period saw us equalize, concede a penalty, save a penalty and then score to put the tie to bed. It was a classic smash-and-grab job, and, crucially, it gave us enough leverage to attract the likes of Santos, Arteta, Mertesacker and Benayoun, who would all be crucial to us securing third place. (and, er, Park.)

4) Arsenal 3 Milan 0

One of the best 45 minutes I've ever seen from an Arsenal side, and a truly miraculous performance from Oxlade-Chamberlain, saw us stick three goals past Milan in the first-half, which seemingly put the tie within our reach. Milan, composed of seasoned pros, destroyed the tempo of the game in the second-half, but we were a Robin van Persie miss away from completing a truly incredible comeback. Even though we didn't, the result restored a huge amount of pride, and meant a lot to both the players and the supporters. All-out, anarchic attack isn't a strategy that will get you to the Champions League final, but it was pretty fucking nice for one night.

3) The Return of the King

He came, he scored, he conquered. Milan away might have been too much for him, but his goals against Leeds and Sunderland will be remembered for the rest of Arsenal's history (and the one he definitely DID score against Blackburn). If his finish against Blackburn was sentimental, then his goals against Leeds and Sunderland were genuinely important, and he put to shame several younger attacking options in the squad (I'm looking at you Chamakh). 

Perhaps as importantly, it was a necessary coda to his time at Arsenal. I was there when he limped off the field against PSV Eindhoven in 2007, and that was no way for an Arsenal legend to finish his time at the club. This was. 

2) Chelsea 3 Arsenal 5
This was so close to being my favourite moment of the season, because I think it was our first genuinely big win for a long, long time in the league. After seemingly blowing our early dominance by conceding twice, Theo and RvP proceeded to score two hilarious goals. I will never forget John Terry falling over - such a beautiful moment. But when Robin broke down the field, and slammed the ball past Cech into the top corner for our fifth, I was delirious. We went to Stamford Bridge and put Chelsea to the sword for the first time in a long time. The way the players celebrated at the end showed that they knew this was the first big win by a new Arsenal side, and I actually thought for the first time that the season might not be a total disaster after all.

1) Arsenal 5 Tottenham 2

Two nil down against Tottenham at home, and everything seemed to be falling to pieces. Champions League qualification seemed a mile away, and there was a genuine possibility that the Totts would finish above for the first time in well over a decade. 

But, for once, there seemed to be a genuine fight to the team. It was no surprise to see Sagna lead the fightback, and Robin drew us level with one of the most underrated goals of the season. 

What followed next was the classic mixture of ineptitude and hilarity that marks a truly wonderful Spurs collapse. 'arry fiddled with his tactics (presumably on an etch-a-skecth, coz e can't read, after all) and the Totts fell apart. Their midfielders ran around with a manic lack of direction, while we sliced through them and turned a win into a humiliation. 

While 'arry was off talking investment banking with his dog, we secured a famous win. The poor Spurs fan waved their 'mind the gap' signs, before promptly falling into it themselves. The defeat precipitated a monumental Tottenham collapse, which saw us ultimately finish above them, despite our own desire to piss away our champions league position. North London was red, London was ours, and all was right in the world. 


So there you have it. More to come in the following days, but let me know what you think. You can get in contact on Facebook and Twitter, or leave a comment below.


Saturday, May 05, 2012

A Change Needs to Come: 12 Thoughts on Arsenal 3 Norwich 3

Will this team ever learn? Thoughts as follows:

* We started well, when Yossi beautifully curled a shot in to give us the lead after barely a minute of play.  I thought he had a good game in general, and was slightly bemused to see him subbed off when he was. If that’s his last home game for us, then I think we can easily say he was a worthwhile signing this season. I was slightly skeptical when we picked him up on deadline day, but he’s chipped in with five goals, and has generally looked handy when he’s played. I do wonder if Arsene has sometimes not given him as much game time as he might have done, because he ultimately knows he’s not part of our long-term plans, though, which I think is an error.

* As soon as we scored, our good start seemed to abruptly end. A good start of about one minute isn’t really enough, and Norwich deserved to equalize when they did. You have to commend Norwich – they don’t have a huge amount to play for other than pride, but they never flagged for 90 minutes, and they fully deserved to take a point from the match, and you couldn’t have begrudged them the win if they’d taken all three points.

* Szczesny was extremely poor, and not for the first time this season. If he might have done better with his positioning for the second and third goal, he must take a huge amount of blame for the first one, which should have been a comfortable save. It was interesting watching the FA Cup final later in the day, because it showed the importance of goalkeepers that make saves. Cech’s save won Chelsea the game, while Reina’s error was a large part of why Liverpool lost.  If catches win matches in cricket, then saves win games in football. As Opta pointed out during the game, Szcz has a save % of only 64% - the 4th lowest in the Premier League. Yes, he may well improve in the future, but how soon is now?

* Speaking of poor defending, it’s unfortunate that I must engage in a rant against two other members of this unit – Vermaelen and Song. As Zonal Marking noted on Twitter, the second goal was similar to others we've concede in recent years, in that TV was too high up the pitch. A similar criticism could be made for the third goal. One only has to think back to Spurs’ first goal against us in February, Wigan’s first goal in the recent 2-1 defeat, or, going further back, the goals that Ibrahimovich scored against us in the 2-2 draw with Barca in 2010 for examples of TV’s desire to push-up, or just outright attack, costing us goals. I would argue that the “Verminator” myth has been fully exposed in recent weeks; he often seems more interested in attacking than defending, and his goals don’t make up for his all too frequent mistakes. At present, he would lose his place to Mertesacker, or Vertonghen, if the latter were to sign in the summer.

* Almost the exact same criticisms could be leveled against Song. For all his wonderful balls over the top that set up goals, such as RvP’s second today, there are ridiculously sloppy moments like that which led to Norwich’s third goal. I don’t know if he’s being asked to play in a more attacking role or not, but he neglects his defensive duties far too regularly, leaving our defence all too frequently exposed.

* Song’s deficiencies hint at a wider problem – a lack of tactical discipline within our midfield. Since Arteta’s injury, we have had no one in midfield willing to do the dirty defensive work that’s necessary if you want to control the game. We have, essentially, anarchy in the middle of the pitch all too frequently, and, as such, we allow teams to put pressure on us. Whether this is down to the players or Arsene is unclear, but it’s happened too often for it to be an accident now. It’s no good Arsene ranting on the sidelines – he is the one who is responsible for the shape of the team, and he could do more to make us a more cohesive unit. What is perhaps most concerning is that we have consistently conceded more goals in recent years, as this graph from 7AM Kickoff over on Arseblog shows.

* By contrast, Koscielny was superb once more. I worked out today that I like him because he’s a defender who actually seems to enjoy defending. Almost all our other defenders seem to see defending as a temporary inconvenience to the time they spend attacking. LK is the type of no-nonsense CB that we've missed for a long time, and we should build the rest of our defence around him next season. 

* Ramsey had a terrible game, and probably should have received a second yellow for a reckless challenge after half-time. He needs to have a proper pre-season, no messing around in the Olympics, and try and work out what his role in the team is next year. In Arteta’s absence, he’s had the opportunity to stay deep and try and play a different role, but has failed to do so, so far. And even when pushing forward, he has looked indecisive. A few times today he elected to pass when a shot was the better option. One of the things I like about Ramsey is his directness, and I hope he is not losing this aspect of his game. There’s now no getting around the fact that he’s had a pretty rotten second-half to the season. That’s no excuse for the abuse he’s received from some ‘fans’ though.

* Sagna’s injury is concerning on a number of levels. Most immediately, it means we’ll be without him for our trip to the midlands next week. In the long-term, he may well miss the start of the new season, and it’s very concerning that he’s now broken the same leg twice in such quick succession. Jenkinson, or perhaps Coquelin, has a big opportunity – let’s hope they seize it.

* We played better for much of the second half. The Ox and, incredibly, Chamakh both made a positive impact when they were introduced, and it seemed like we had everything sown up when Robin scored twice to give us the lead. Just like Milan, however, he missed a one on one that might have confirmed our win. Who knows how costly that miss might be at the end of the season –but we can’t rely on Robin to get regular hat-tricks to win us matches. We simply don’t have enough goalscorers in the team at the moment. Rosicky, Ramsey, Gervinho etc. – they all need to get more goals if they are to be considered for attacking positions next season. 

* The last goal, as I’ve already hinted at, was a mixture of ineptitude and complacency. For a team that hasn’t won anything, these players seem to regularly think that they have already won matches when they haven’t.

* And so here we are  - we now have to rely on Man City and Villa to do us massive favours tomorrow, and our destiny is once more out of our hands. My main hope is that Newcastle face not only face a Man City team that is desperate for the title, but that they also face Everton away on the last day of the season. Those are two tough games, and I don’t think they will take 6 points. While I would expect Tottenham to beat Villa tomorrow, and Fulham on the final day of the season, I can also see them dropping points against a Villa side fighting for their lives, and a Fulham team managed by Martin Jol, who will be looking for some revenge against his former employers.  The fact remains that if those two teams both take 6 points, we aren’t going to be in Champions League next season.

What’s saddest is that I honestly don't expect anything from this Arsenal team anymore. They are serial bottlers, competing for qualification in a competition that we undoubtedly won’t win. If we can’t even be confident of them to beat the likes of Wigan and Norwich at home, what is the point of qualification for the Champions League, other than a pay-day for the club before an inevitable defeat. That is, when you think about it, quite sad. Especially when the pay-day for the club doesn’t seem to benefit the fans in terms of reasonable ticket prices.

In the build-up to today’s FA Cup final, they showed classic action from our wins in 93, 98, 2002, 2003 and 2005 and it pained me. It reminded me of Arsene’s statement that Champions league qualification is like a trophy. It’s not. Winning a trophy is like winning a trophy. Yes, Chelsea have a huge amount of cash, but can we really not make a bit more of an effort in the FA Cup? Just one trophy would mean a huge amount to the fans, but we seem further away from this than ever.

Yes, I’ll be happy that if we qualify for the Champions League once more – but this will be tempered by the fact that we haven’t really progressed as a club this season. A big summer is coming up, whatever way you look at it, and I am increasingly convinced that we need a change of leadership, of some sort, at the club.