So, the season is almost over and once again we have come away with absolutely nothing to show for it. The difference between this season and the previous is that this season we deserved something. Written off before the season had started, this side have proved so many people wrong. It is hard to strike a balance between disappointment and pride. This sums up exactly how far the side has come.
When Thierry Henry left it sparked reporters and pundits alike to predict a season where Arsenal would finish below the Spuds and outside the top 4. Liverpool were predicted to mount the biggest challenge to Manchester United, how wrong they were. This Arsenal side started brilliantly and only lost its momentum as injuries and tough decisions went against us.
Wenger brought in Eduardo as Henry’s successor and straight away the pressure was heaped onto the guy. Naturally, when a legend like Titi leaves the club he scored so many goals for, whoever comes in is going to feel the hype. Some Arsenal fans questioned Wenger’s decisions over these two transfers but, anyone who has followed Arsenal over recent years trusted Le Prof.
He had let Mark Overmars, Emmanuel Petit, Patrick Vieira, Lauren and Freddie Ljungberg leave the club when he felt the time was right and this alone demanded trust from the Emirates faithful. As we have seen, the man was spot on once again. Henry’s injury had clearly taken some toll and his poor season is in stark contrast to that of the 27 goal Emmanuel Adebayor.
Eduardo started slowly but showed his quality on odd occasions. Once he got his first league goals at Everton, he went into the New Year and the Croat was let loose. He seemed to be that poacher we have not had since Ian Wright and his injury rocked the squad. His clinical factor was missed in the run in and we lacked ruthlessness in the last third. Eddy was on his way to being the goalscoring hero for us this season and may well have got as many as Ade; such was his accuracy in front of goal.
Another new signing was Bakary Sagna and like Eduardo, some fans were doubtful of this. The reason behind these questions was whether we needed him or not. These people have been proved wrong as Baka has arguably been the signing of the season across the whole league. He made us far more secure at the back with his tackling, aerial ability and general defensive quality. Once we lost him to injury against Chelsea, we suffered hugely.
A tribute to Wenger’s judgement over these two players comes from the view that these two injuries cost us dear. I believe that having these two players fit going into the run in would have kept up our momentum and left us in the hunt going into these last few games. They gave us those added dimensions that we did not have the season before.
I will look closely at the season in thirds but first I will look at the season in a general sense. With 2 games to go until the season is officially over, we already have 9 more points than last year. The gap between us and the two above us is 4 points. Mathematically, we are still able to win the title but it would take a major twist for this to happen. Last season we were out of the running with 10 games or more to go so this is a sign of major improvement.
We have scored marginally more goals this season (72) compared to last season (63). The fact we have two games to go means we should score a few more than 72 but again it shows we are improving. We could do with more goals considering the chances we create in a game. We still need to be more clinical in the final third of the field and more players need to chip in with goals.
At the back we have improved a little, conceding 31, whereas last season we conceded 25. The few remaining games work in reverse here in that there is a possibility we will ship a couple more. It is at the back I feel we need major improvements if we want to challenge. The top teams create foundations with a solid defence on which they can rely if goals are hard to come by. This Arsenal side does not have this and the fans do not feel we could hold onto a 1-0 lead should we be forced to.
On so many occasions we have let teams back into games because we cannot keep a team out once we take the lead. It seems we cannot invite any sort of pressure onto ourselves and the ONLY way we know how to defend is attack and try to get another goal or two. We shipped a lead and went behind shortly after at both Manchester Untied and Chelsea; on both occasions I could see no way back into the game. This is indicative of the difference between us and our rivals.
Another aspect we must cut out is our tendency to concede silly goals against the run of play. The players seem to feel too comfortable as they set up camp around the opposition penalty box that they forget that we have our own goal to defend. I thought this was where we had improved this season but it was reminiscent of the first at the Emirates.
I have vivid memories of all those games from last season where we would go into the break having conceded a goal on the counter. We would push everyone forward to try and open up the defensive barrier set up in front of us. Suddenly, the away side would get a corner or break quickly on the counter and nick a cheeky goal. From then on it was simply a matter of “break us down if you can”. For the remaining minutes of the match, we would have all the possession but would struggle to break down two lines of four.
On many of these occasions we were able to get a draw but at home this is not good enough. On 5 occasions we managed to come back and take a point; the only problem is that we should have the games. I saw this as 10 points dropped; on one occasion we failed to get anything and dropped another 3. That is 13 points dropped at home in one season which is very poor.
As we moved into this season, it seemed we had turned a corner. We were far more aware at the back and were able to get early goals. This was often followed by one or two more and the games were over early. There were clear signs that the lesson had been learnt but unfortunately we went back to our old ways. As the season moved into the final months we began to concede silly goals and drop stupid points. On 4 occasions we drew the game against sides that had few chances. It cost us dear.
The lesson seems to have been learnt in part and we need to sort it out completely if we want to win the league. We have been better against the so called lesser sides but the odd lapse has proved costly. When you are strong against your rivals at the top, a side can afford a few silly draws and that is why we were able to gain 4th spot with ease last season. This season however we have not been so good against our rivals and those draws look far worse.
Team Played Won Drawn Lost Points
Arsenal 6 3 2 1 11
Man Utd 6 2 2 2 8
Chelsea 6 1 4 1 7
Liverpool 6   ;2 0 4 6
Team Played Won Drawn Lost Points
Man Utd 6 4 1 1 13
Chelsea 6 2 2 2 8
Arsenal 6 1 3 2 6
Liverpool 6 0 4 2 4
It is clear here that we lost the superior showings against main rivals. The season before gave us great hope that we were as good as the other teams but this season we have let teams bully us off the pitch. We have not been secure enough at the back and have been too wasteful in front of goal. Our performances against the lower teams have improved a little but those against the other top 3 sides have dropped. Next season, if we can sweep past the lesser teams, then we can afford not to win all the massive games.
I will not go into how to improve our weak areas now as I will be doing this on a separate occasion and now I will look at the season in more detail. Excuse me if I only mention games in passing but I want to look at certain parts of the season in detail.
First third of the season: August 12th to November 3rd
The season started at home to Fulham and I feel it gave the players a huge boost. We went behind to a stupid goal (Cheers Jens!) but managed to come back, but in contrast to so many occasions last season, we won the game. The fact it came in the last minute also gave it something extra special.
In the rest of the games in these months we went at teams and the goals flowed. We looked comfortable on the break once we had the lead and games were generally over quickly. Some of the football was fantastic as the team had the freedom to express themselves. The early lead meant we could be patient. Certain partnerships were working brilliantly and in particular the midfield duo of Cesc and Flamini were dominating games. Flamini gave us extra fight and Fabregas was scoring and creating at will.
Up front Adebayor and Van Persie were linking well and scoring goals for fun. Fans were always expectant that these two would score goals and it was highlighted in two games. Away at Tottenham Van Persie was not having his best game but Adebayor stood up to the plate and got two; one sensational one! Against Sunderland Adebayor had been ineffective but Van Persie scored two for himself to win the game.
As well as some exhilarating football, we showed something else that convinced me we would be able to keep it up for a while yet. When we went up against sides who wanted to kick us or bully us out of games, we were able to give it back and grind out results. Away at West Ham we were constantly battered and bruised but had the grit and determination to hold out. We got the goal we need through good link up with the strikers and were happy to get stuck in and do what was required for the three points. The previous season, in the same fixture, we could not get the goal and were eventually beaten as we could not stand up to it.
During this month we suffered what was to be a crucial loss for the whole season. The Sunderland match was to be Van Persie’s last until the Wigan game in March. He did play the odd 20 minutes here and there but never returned for a run of games until then. He had been scoring regularly and gave us creativity, pace, directness and fantastic set pieces. We lost all these things when he left and as the season got into the final months we lacked his ability to produce something out of nothing.
At the end of October our record read as follows:
Played Won Drawn Lost Points GD +/-
10 8 2 0 26 +15
Second third of the season: November 2nd to February 1st
We started November as we finished October, with a game against on the top four. We had played Liverpool off the park but got only a draw for our troubles. The game against United was far more important. It was being billed as a title marker which was amazing so early on. Manchester United had started the season slowly and needed to get something from the game. An Arsenal win would continue the sensational start for us and open up a slight gap.
The game was by no means a classic but once again it showed the never say die attitude that was in the squad. We came away with a point that we probably deserved but it showed United that we would be there till the end. Pundits have harped on about easy games up until this point but the lads proved they were up for the fight of a title challenge. It was crucial to keep the momentum going and keep the pressure on those behind us.
Through November the victories kept on coming and everything looked rosy. Teams were struggling to score against us and we were looking extremely dangerous in the final third. The turning point however, were two games at the end of the month and start of December.
Cesc Fabregas suffered an injury away at Sevilla, in a game he did not need to appear in. It was just Wenger’s luck that one of the few first team players he selected that night got injured. It ruled him out for a few games but, more importantly, it halted him in his run of such great form. He had been scoring regularly but he returned and his energy and dominance faded a little.
The injury to Cesc combined with the one suffered by Hleb caused a bad run of results. Hleb came off injured in the game against Aston Villa which was a game of two halves. During the first 45 minutes we gave a footballing master class (without Cesc) with Hleb at the heart. Up until the 60th minute he had a passing success rate of 98% and we thoroughly controlled the game. Once he went off we lost all attacking impetus and managed to hold on to the 3 points despite a barrage of Villa attacks.
This game emphasised our season as a whole; one half fantastic football, the other the willingness to fight for the points. The problem was that we had lost two of our creative forces in Hleb and Cesc. Van Persie and Rosicky were already out injured and the squad looked thin when it came to creativity and goals.
This showed in the next couple of games as we looked lacklustre up front. Eduardo was still settling in and our squad looked weak. Changes were needed to mix it up a little bit and replace those out, but the second string was nothing like the team who had done so well. We dropped 4 points in two games we could have won. We looked weak up front and in both the games only created two chances of note. Both brought goals and highlighted the fact that Adebayor was getting goals but we lacked ideas to get the ball to him.
The squad had many questions asked of them up until the middle of December but there was to be another major one to come. After stuttering a little the papers were quick to jump on the bandwagon. It was flying around that the team was cracking under pressure and then came the game against title rivals Chelsea. A win was needed to re focus the minds of the p layers on the prize and a 1-0 victory was gained.
This game, along with the 2-1 victory over arch rivals Spurs papered over cracks that were appearing. We scored the winner against the Chavs from a set piece but created nothing from open play until the last 20 minutes as the game opened up. Cesc was back but he was clearly not ready and we lacked ideas. Van Persie made a difference in his 20 minute cameo (injured again in this game). Against Tottenham, we won the game due to another set piece and only created one real chance other than this; we scored from it. Again, Adebayor was scoring but could not do it all alone. We were missing something in the side, then, at Everton it came.
Eduardo Da Silva was that something. He got a rare start away at Everton as Wenger rotated his squad. His two goals were brilliantly taken and gave us a clinical finisher that we could hit should we need to. He linked up well with the tall Bendtner and it immediately gave me hope that Eddy could work well with Adebayor in the new year.. We went into the second half of the year with virtually a new player to call upon
A swagger returned to the side as a new year brought renewed energy. Eduardo had provided a boost and with Hleb and Rosicky returning we began to play better football again. The goals flowed and despite one stupid draw the season was well and truly back on track. Adebayor got his own streak going again as the fans made up the song to go with it:
“Adebayor, Adebayor-or-or, give him the ball and he will score”
Ade looked far more comfortable with a strike partner as he had more freedom to roam and join in with the team play as a whole. Rosicky added dynamism to the side and the trio of Cesc, Hleb and Rosicky were working at their best. Rosicky then got injured and we lost his influence on the side.
Our record at the end of January read as follows:
Played Won Drawn Lost Points GD +/-
24 17 6 1 57 +31
Final third of the season: February 2nd to May 11th
This month started in the same manner as the previous month. Adebayor got two goals and Eduardo one as Manchester City were swept aside. It highlights the difference Eddy made to the side as the goals were all clinically taken. It was so important to keep the run going but then it all went horribly wrong.
It may not have been in the League but the 4-0 defeat to Man Utd played a big part. The team was partly second string and sent a clear sign that it was not the no.1 priority. However, it was what happened the following weekend that made it so much worse. The Date: 23rd February. The Venue: St Andrews (Birmingham City).
This was the day that sent the season crashing down in my eyes. The game was not even 5 minutes old when Eduardo’s leg was horrifically broken. Our most natural goalscorer was brutally ruled out for months and it clearly shook up the players on the field. Most could not look at the state of his leg and all of them could not concentrate for the first half. To pile on the misery, Birmingham went and took the lead from a soft free kick.
The injury was not the only bad thing that day, although it was by far the saddest and cruellest moment. Theo Walcott got his first two League goals at Arsenal but this was overshadowed, understandably, by Eduardo’s injury. The problem was that it was overshadowed by two other things: Firstly, the ref gave a very dodgy penalty which was a final kick in the teeth after the team had fought back so bravely after seeing their friend rushed to hospital in so much pain.
The second trouble came after the final whistle and involved our captain. William Gallas embarrassed himself with immature antics. Not only did he go to the other side of the pitch in a huff when the penalty was given but he lost his cool after the game. Sitting on the pitch after the match, with tears in his eyes, some said it showed he cared, some said it showed weakness and was not the behaviour of a skipper.
There is no doubt the actions of Gallas turned some of the dressing room on him. Teams are supposed to stay together and sort out problems together. Gallas’ public show of frustration was separate from his team mates and only ended up with questions over his position in the squad. During such a hard time, the last thing we needed were questions over the unity of the squad and the position of our captain and his dressing room. There was already tension between Adebayor and Bendtner and it only fuelled the idea that the squad was losing its cool when it most needed to keep it.
What a side needs after a disappointment of this magnitude, is a victory to put things back on track. What Arsenal produced a week later was a performance without ideas, desire and leadership. It only takes two games to spiral a mini collapse and we then went on to draw at home to Middlesborough as well. Teams were easily frustrating us and it seemed we had forgot the changes made this season and were reverting back to our old ways. We knocked at the door for most of the game but looked lacklustre and again a set piece saved us.
This was not the ideal build up to the two biggest games of our season so far. The next few weeks saw us play Chelsea and Manchester away. Sandwiched between these games were games away at Bolton and at home to Liverpool. Chelsea were up first and our defensive failings were punished heavily. We had taken the lead but never really looked like keeping it and lo and behold, as soon as Sagna left the pitch injured, it fell apart. Our lack of strength and aerial presence was well and truly hammered home as Drogba made it an afternoon to forget for Toure and Gallas.
The Bolton was game was our most exciting game of the season and a relief for the squad to win a game after such a long time. To win it with 10-men and having been 2-0 at half time made it extra special and should have been a catalyst to spur us onto greater things. However, the team was rotated and stupid points were dropped. These were points that, had we won that game, would have kept us in the hunt now. There is no time for sentiment to the squad players and we needed our best team for every game.
This short round of fixtures came along with a massive mistake from Wenger. On too many occasions Wenger was using Theo Walcott as his go-to man. At first it seemed clever to leave him on the bench in order to exploit room late on in games. However, it got to a point where Theo could have produced far more had he started. Emmanuel Eboue was useless on the right and Wenger refused to start Theo. I believe he could have given us that added pace and directness we lost without Eddy and Robin.
The Chelsea game was a blow to our title hopes but United’s failure at the Riverside gave us a reprieve but a victory was needed; it was all or nothing. Again we took the lead and not only did we do that, we controlled the game. However, we never looked secure enough to hold out and to plan, we crumbled. Again a lead was thrown away and once we were behind, we never looked like scoring. This highlights once more the need for a solid base at the back. Chelsea and Man Utd have it and once they had the lead, they were confident in their ability to hold it.
That was it…season over. I write this the evening before the Derby match and this statements says it all. The investigations have already begun and people are looking to next season with 3 games to go. Do not get me wrong I am proud of what the side achieved and I think we are still a year away from where Wenger sees the side. It performed well above expectation this season and it is encouraging for next season.
At this stage of the season our record reads as follows:
Played Won Drawn Lost Points GD +/-
36 22 11 3 77 +41
Below are the records from each third of the season:
Played Won Drawn Lost Points GD +/-
10 8 2 0 26 +15
Played Won Drawn Lost Points GD +/-
14 9 4 1 29 +16
Played Won Drawn Lost Points GD +/-
11 4 5 2 17 +6
The tables themselves tell a distinct story. The first two thirds of the season were fantastic but it tailed off seriously in the final third. To win 4 out of 11 matches is not good enough and our haul of points was far less than the other two. Granted, the losses were away at our main rivals but the draws were all games that should have brought victories.
The first two thirds of the season should provide great positivity for next season and I do believe lessons have been learnt this season that we can build on for next. The last two seasons have been huge learning curves and hopefully next season, everything can be brought into one successful title challenge.
The summer will be crucial and hopefully we get no fresh injuries during Euro 2008. Anyone injured currently should be back (except Eduardo) and we will need a squad balance next season. Wenger has a duty in the window to strengthen the squad and I am sure he will do as he sees fits.