2010-11 Season Review: Thoughts On The Attack

June 28, 2011

I am finding it hard to form any sort of a conclusive opinion about Arsenal’s attack.

Nasri, Walcott, and Van Persie have contributed significantly more than they did in previous years. Arshavin too made a telling contribution in terms of goals and, more importantly, assists.

Arguably, the loss of 11 goals from last year’s tally of 83 does indicate the attack struggled a bit. Fabregas, Vermaelen, and even Bendtner’s contribution was not comparable to last season.

I don’t know how many have noticed this but all the top teams have scored less this season compared to the previous one. United scored 8 less, Chelsea dropped a whopping 34 (they did have an exceptional year last time around), while City lagged by 13. Even the Tiny Totts managed to score a dozen less than their paltry 67 from 09-10. Arsenal’s 11 seems par for the course in this context.

There could be many reasons for this collective slump. Some observers believe the top teams were weak this season whereas others believe the League was stronger. Given the amount of money City have spent I’m inclined to go with the former argument. If the top teams had been weaker Mancini’s side should have run away with the title. The fact that they did not, and indeed struggled to perform against the smaller teams, suggests that the other teams defended well and fought harder.

Another common argument that I have read during the season and in the summer is that the Gunners don’t break at speed anymore. I haven’t found any such opinion backed by actual evidence. Usually it is based on the writer’s feelings which are often triggered by watching ‘highlights’ of the seasons past.

If we believe the WhoScored website, Arsenal scored only 3 goals from a fast break this season. In comparison, United scored 5, Chelsea 4, and City got 2. Now there could be a debate over the definition of a fast break but one thing is certain – the definition is same for all the teams. Why did a team that was assembled at a cost of nearly half a billion and was based primarily on a counter-attacking style score only two goals from fast breaks? Didn’t they score that many or more against Arsenal alone in one game last time around?

Once again we can compare these numbers with the 2009-10 season to get some perspective. City scored 10 goals from fast breaks last season. Arsenal had 9, United 6, while Chelsea managed 8. To me, that is further evidence that in 2010-11, the smaller teams tightened their defences.

Based on the above discussion, I believe it’s safe to say that Arsenal’s attack wasn’t that bad.

The development of Nasri and Walcott was timely and the manager deserves enormous credit for nurturing them the way he has. It is also important to acknowledge the contribution of a little Russian in the success of the Frenchman and the England international. Many of their goals came after excellent work by Arshavin.

The diminutive playmaker often frustrates with his work rate and body language but it’s hard to ignore the value of his contribution. Is it a co-incidence that Nasri and Walcott lost form in the final few months when Arshavin wasn’t playing regularly?

Unfortunately, Arsenal did continue to disappoint with their crossing and set-pieces. I am one of the first to say that both of these methods are highly inefficient ways of attacking but the Gunners seem to have regressed in this department.

This season Arsenal scored 9 goals from set-pieces (excluding penalties). The Manchester sides managed 13 while Chelsea knocked in 18. A year ago, Arsenal finished with 16, United 13, Chelsea 17, and City topped the list with 21. The loss of Vermaelen might have been more of a blow in the opposition box than our own!

Van Persie was unplayable at times but his free-kick delivery was poor. It could be a mental issue and he might have been trying too hard because last season he did excel at corners.

Wenger has to make the set-pieces more dangerous. Even if they don’t lead to goals, Arsenal have to use them as a form of increasing the pressure. These days the opposition finds set-pieces to be a respite against Arsenal’s possession game and are happy to knock the ball out to get a breather and reorganize. Arsene has to infuse more creativity and purpose into the way the Gunners approach free-kicks and corners. This can only come from rigorous and focused training.

Before concluding I want to briefly mention Chamakh. The Moroccan had a respectable start to his Arsenal career after an impressive pre-season. Unfortunately, his form dropped off around Christmas and he failed to make an impression after that.

I believe he wasn’t signed as a typical goal-scorer or poacher but as a player who could bring the others into play more often. The early form of Nasri, Walcott, and Arshavin did justify his style. But, in a long season, there will always be times when the midfield struggles or the wide players cannot contribute as much. In such games one would expect more from a striker. So far, Arsene hasn’t been able to get the best out of Chamakh. Better set-pieces and a change to a more traditional approach every once in a while can help the striker and the team.

To be fair, Arsenal do try going wide and putting crosses in but it is a style they haven’t mastered as a collective. The team lacks cohesion on such occasions. More often than not there aren’t enough bodies in the box or in the right areas for a cross to at least cause confusion/panic. Once again, training is the only realistic solution.

On the whole, I was impressed by some developments in attack but felt there is room for improvement and flexibility. Arrivals and departures will affect the possibilities for next season so I’ll revisit the topic just before the start of the season.


Bored Beyond Belief!

June 24, 2011

There was a time when I spent a few hours every day browsing the Arsenalsphere. In the last 10 days or so I don’t think I have totaled an hour of surfing. There is so little going on.

First a random player is linked. Then the supposed transfer moves forward. One day, according to unsubstantiated reports, a player is close to signing as terms are settled. Then he miraculously vanishes from the news cycle for a few days. Another quote appears out of nowhere and the cycle repeats. I have lost count of the number of times Hazard was close to a move, Gervinho more recently, Samba, and so on.

Then there are the usual Cesc stories with some Nasri ones thrown in for additional flavour.

The part that surprised me was that right now the only feeling I have is boredom. No excitement, no anguish, no hope, no anxiety, nothing.

I don’t know the exact reason for this. In the past the Cesc stories used to leave me on edge. Now I am pretty certain where all parties stand on this issue. The Daily Noise doesn’t mean anything at all even if it includes a joke of a bid, and a mild rebuttal followed by senseless overanalyses.

I guess the other reason could be that having seen the transfer activity of various teams over the last few years and the results of those, I just don’t care much about most of these stories. As I’d mentioned earlier, Nasri leaving the club doesn’t bother me. In the same vein, the likes of Samba, Cahill, Gervinho, et al. signing for Arsenal will not be a big deal either. This isn’t likely to be a popular opinion but I don’t see any of them significantly improving the Gunners.

One thought, or a question, that has been ingrained in my mind for a while now is – Can Arsenal really afford the truly big signings?

Pastore, Neymar, Alexis Sanchez, and similar players are being valued at astronomical sums despite the fact that they are yet to prove themselves at the highest level. The fact that clubs like City, Chelsea, and Real can pay a king’s ransom makes it hard for Arsenal to compete for any player with genuine class and real quality.

While few really know what’s going to happen, most of us can reasonably guess that teams will be busier in this transfer window as the UEFA Financial Fair Play rules come into effect. In the coming years we will know how meaningful these rules turn out to be and whether the administrators have the courage and sense to enforce them or not, but this window will certainly be a crazy one for buyers and sellers.

Those with precious goods might feel this is their last chance to sell for a big profit. Those in the market might want to pick up the loot before the stores close.

Arsenal seem to have three choices; to buy overpriced players from the Premier League, to scour the earth for undervalued talent, or to compete with the moneybags on their strengths.

Gary Cahill is an excellent example of the first option. I wonder why Mancini hasn’t signed him yet. Is he relying on Lescott to perform next season? Won’t Toure be missing a number of games at the start? The reported £17-20M range can’t be a deterrent for the well-oiled finances of City. Could it be that he has learnt his lesson after looking at the likes of Lescott and Milner? One could also wonder why Ferguson paid a similar fee for a younger player with limited experience?

We have seen the results of the second option. Arsene is by far the best at scouting and identifying unpolished gems but the approach is inherently risky and doesn’t always pay off. So someone like Ricky Alvarez might look like a talent on youtube, but it is hard to form an opinion before watching him perform while dealing with the rough and tumble of the English game.

I have maintained for a while that in order to win the big trophies Arsenal need at least one player capable of winning the Player of the Year award. I’d love the next Ronaldinho or Kaka to come to the Gunners but that would put us in the third bracket. Honestly, I cannot see us competing against City, Chelsea, or the likes. That’s all the more reason for Cesc and RvP to stay fit and deliver, but these things are beyond our powers sometimes.

Don’t get me wrong. This is not an attempt to say that there is no hope of  improving this team, or that Arsenal don’t need new players. In a way I am just trying to understand this unbearable ennui. Those who have been following the transfer saga for years might be better accustomed to it but I have only had access to the web and these news sources for the last few years. Initially, I used to get sucked into it and reacted to every article. Over the years different patterns have come to the fore. Now it feels like being in a locked room with nothingness personified and floating around all around me, hammering my brain with an empty hammer that seems to bear the weight of the world. Strangely enough, it no longer hurts but there are times when I find it hard to breathe. The only viable option, and one that I am about to revert to the moment I publish this piece, is to run away from it all and immerse myself in something else, anything but this.


Arsenal Should Sign Usmanov’s PR Team, Cesc Commitment Commendable

June 15, 2011

Apologies for being two days behind a story once again but having given a great deal of time during the season, I am trying to balance it during the summer. And while I do let a lot of rumours and events go by without comment, this PR stunt from Alisher Usmanov is hard to ignore.

I don’t want to repeat the comments as they’ve been all over the internet. Just in case you missed them the link above provides the full statement.

Telling people what they want to hear – it is usually an art mastered by successful politicians but any entity, be it an individual or an organization, that is connected with the masses has to, at some point or the other, rely on this skill to steady the ship or get the weight of popular support.

In the past I have mentioned that the Arsenal manager and players often give very honest and intelligent interviews that come back to bite them in the, well, arse. While the discerning readers/listeners appreciate their comments, they get twisted by the media and the mass opinion is often manipulated to the detriment of the club and the squad.

The point is not that people are stupid. But I strongly believe that collective or popular opinion is often ill-informed and illogical. It works on the principle that if a lie is repeated often enough it becomes the truth. Those who scan the internet with a perceptive eye will have noticed how many people voice an opinion just because they think everyone else is saying it. An individual’s power to rationally judge right or wrong is indirectly proportional to the number of times he or she reads a particular twist on a story.

Let’s consider the Usmanov statement. To me it appears to be a blatant PR exercise where his team have captured the pulse of the disgruntled fans and succinctly captured the sentiment expressed by many. Such a simple exercise has done a lot to increase the support for the Russian who was widely regarded as untouchable just a few months ago. Many fans now think it might have been better if the current board had sold out to Usmanov instead of Kroenke. Some are even demanding similar rhetoric from Silent Stan.

But does the Russian oligarch really have Arsenal’s best interests at heart? His actions don’t support his words which seem hollow, appeasing, and meant to lure in the gullible.

Lady Nina wanted to sell her shares but there was no taker for a long while. One might wonder, why didn’t Usmanov make her an offer she couldn’t refuse? What is the point of offering £14,000 per share now when such an offer earlier could have taken him in the 40-42 per cent share bracket? Subsequently, he could have released a statement like the one he has done now, and with promise of significant investment he might have been able to acquire a portion of the minority shares. Who’s to say he would not have crossed the halfway mark? Some of the directors opposed to him might also have been tempted by such a generous offer. After all, doesn’t the Russian claim that they were in it for the money?

The simple fact is that Usmanov didn’t act when he could have and was probably caught off-guard by the suddenness of the deal between Kroenke and the others. So it is safe to say he didn’t put his money where his mouth is.

Then there was the other publicity stunt where Usmanov offered to donate shares to the AST if Kroenke matched him. What prevented him from donating a few shares unilaterally and unconditionally? Surely, it would not have put a dent in his considerable fortune! That would have shown his intent and put the ball firmly in the American’s court. It’s just another instance where his words were not backed up by action.

Ultimately, this is a big money game and fans would be naive to assume anything else no matter the spin put on the story. I have my issues with the previous owners who were not perfect and could undeniably have done better. But that doesn’t mean Usmanov is different nor is he the saviour.

In another public statement of significance, Cesc Fabregas has reaffirmed his interest in joining Barcelona and his loyalty to Arsenal. Those who have seen through the unabashed lies and concocted tales surrounding this saga have always known the few hard facts that matter.

Fabregas wants to go to Barcelona. To be honest, I don’t grudge him that wish. It is natural to dream to be part of something great. Which football player worth his salt would not want to play with Messi? More so if one has grown up playing with the phenomenon.

Equally important is the fact that El Capitan has immense respect for the club, the manager, his team-mates, and the fans. He does not want to throw a tantrum to engineer a move he craves. Only a man with impeccable values can behave in the way that Fabregas has done. Those values must be cherished and respected, especially in the modern world. Fans have to give him space for his individual desires and hopes while admiring his principles and collective based actions and decision making.

I don’t think anyone will be surprised when this transfer eventually happens. It could still happen this summer but only if Arsenal are convinced such a move is in their best interests. That is the key. For that, Barcelona have to cough up a small fortune to sign the only player in the world who can significantly improve that superb squad. I am not sure the Catalans can afford that after the Ibrahimovic fiasco. And I am absolutely certain Wenger will not succumb to the incessant pressure tactics from Spain, or the baseless rumours in the media followed by meaningless but extremely annoying noise on the internet, none of which is likely to cease anytime soon.

Looking back at the events of the summer so far, it seems to be heading in the right direction.


2010-11 Season Review: Thoughts On The Midfield

June 11, 2011

As I did with the defence, I looked at my review of the midfield from last season. It isn’t as relevant now as the one about defenders was but there were a few points I could borrow,

Our midfield is integral to the way we play and the performance of the three men in the middle often decides the sharpness in our attack and the solidity of our defence.

I think our defence is strong when our midfield is alert to the threats from the opposition…

There have been quite a few games this season when the midfield has gone AWOL and we’ve seen the defenders hoofing the ball up-field only for it to return in a matter of seconds.

These are relevant points, especially the first one, but there is a lot more we can discuss with regard to the Arsenal midfield.

I guess we have to start by acknowledging that Wilshere has truly been like a big signing this season. I don’t think Wenger could have acquired that kind of quality even if he’d spent 30M or so. The youngster has offered a lot to the team with his technique, tenacity, tirelessness, and temperament.

Unfortunately, what we gained from Wilshere we lost elsewhere, perhaps more.

Cesc had a few good games but was a shadow of his self in many. He still was the best player in most of those games and that only highlights how good Fabregas is and why Arsenal need him to perform all through the season. I have said this before and will repeat it again – unless the best players in the team have seasons worthy of winning awards the club will struggle to achieve the big targets.

El Capitan wasn’t the only one who disappointed. Diaby struggled with injuries all through the season and never looked near the kind of form he showed last season when he was able to string together a run of games.

These issues were compounded by the loss of form for Rosicky who’d started brightly on the back of a good pre-season. And it got worse as the likes of Denilson and Ramsey failed to perform when called upon, albeit for different reasons. Some would say Song too had an inconsistent year and Nasri didn’t really fill in Fabregas’ shoes when required.

Now you could take that as a damning indictment of a number of players but I prefer to see it as a combination of different problems.

For instance, Nasri didn’t really play in a single position on a consistent basis. This made his work that much harder. Ramsey was coming back from injury so his inconsistency and mistakes were understandable. Song was solid for most parts even though he struggled to adapt to the rotating triangle in the early stages. Diaby suffered three horrendous tackles which is hardly his fault. With Cesc it’s difficult to judge whether the impact of injuries was higher or his mental turmoil was too much for a young mind even if he wanted to do the right thing.

If we think about it, every player has a different story to tell. Each story has some bloopers, a few disappointments, moments of quality, and reasons for hope. The problem for the manager is that he has to knit it all together and keep it going all through the season. That is where the system is so important and is an area where Arsene has struggled.

Wenger always says he has to adapt the style of play to the players he has. That is the sensible approach no doubt. But a fairly valid argument is that he has to adapt the squad he has so that he can have more flexibility in the system. This is an area where Arsenal can improve.

Due to the similar nature of so many players, Arsenal don’t really have the ability to change the style as often as necessary. The midfield tends to struggle in certain games. As mentioned above, it affects the sharpness of our attack and the solidity of our defence.

People blame the defence for conceding the four goals at Newcastle but we have to ask why the team failed to hold on to the ball in that period. Did the Barcodes suddenly morph into Barcelona to win the ball back within seconds? No, the midfield went AWOL and failed to contribute in attack or defence. Ball retention is a key aspect of both.

Of course, that will make the next season that much more complicated. If we want to play two defensive midfielders and need greater height, will Wilshere have to sit out (assuming Cesc stays)? What about Ramsey? It’s not an easy decision, is it? I will cover this further while discussing tactics and formation.

No one can honestly deny the need for greater depth in midfield. In this regard, Denilson’s desire to leave can only be a positive. Hopefully, Wenger’s interest in Phil Jones was the signal of intent that the Boss is looking for the right players to shore up the defence and midfield. I am convinced the defence will look much better if the midfield offers the right support consistently.

I’d love to see a player of the quality of a younger Michael Essien added to our squad but it’s just not easy to find that kind of talent with so many clubs around that can outspend Arsenal.

In an earlier post, I’d also mentioned that Arsenal could do with the signing of an experienced player like Seedorf. I don’t believe that is possible anymore, nor is the acquisition of Pirlo, but if Wenger can find a player of that stature it will help the younger players immensely. It doesn’t have to be someone who starts many games but just a player who can come in and make a difference in the final few minutes when the team needs greater composure and stability in defence or imagination and decisiveness in attack.

This whole discussion could be rendered meaningless if Fabregas and Nasri were to leave the club this summer. That would force the manager’s hand in the market and will also prompt a change in system. We will have a good idea about it only after the transfer window closes so I’ll refrain from speculative analysis.

For now let’s just see how the summer evolves while hoping we get a lot more from some midfielders who disappointed this season.


Welcome Carl Jenkinson. Mixed Feelings About The Jones Transfer

June 9, 2011

The official website announced the arrival of young defender Carl Jenkinson. I would like to join other Gooners who have already expressed a warm welcome to the youngster. Wish you a great career in Red and White Carl.

According to the Charlton Chief Executive, the lad comes from an Arsenal supporting family. That ensures excellent DNA I suppose.

I haven’t seen much of the kid, in fact I’ve just seen one youtube video where he played at left-back, so don’t really know how advanced his development is. To be fair to him the jump from League One to the Premiership will not be easy so we should not start out with high expectations at the outset. It is interesting to note that even the official website has filed this under the ‘Reserves News’ category.

Pre-season should give us a good idea and I’d like to reserve judgment till then. After that we will know whether he can be relied on to be a valuable squad player next season or he will need some nurturing before any real responsibility is thrust upon his young shoulders.

Wouldn’t it be a delight if he turns out to be the ‘Finnished’ product with English grit, determination, the works! On a more realistic note I will be happy if he has the technique of a continental player and the physicality of an English brute.

In a separate story, you must have read by now that Arsenal made a substantial bid for Phil Jones but the Blackburn defender chose United. I had mixed feelings about that attempted transfer.

Firstly and most importantly, it shows that Wenger is ready to spend and is willing to pay over the odds for an English player. If this particular transfer didn’t work out we can realistically hope there will be other targets. I believe any Gooner, irrespective of their current attitude towards the club and the manager, will look at this as a highly positive development.

Secondly, he fit the bill of what is required, well almost. My guess is that Wenger was impressed by his versatility and that would have made him a very useful squad player who could have developed into a first team regular over the next couple of years. He would have been the kind of player that can be brought on, in defence or midfield, when a lead has to be defended. From the functionality point of view and considering the needs of the team, it would have been a very useful acquisition. Indeed, he was just the kind of signing I had been hoping for all of last season.

Having said that, I must also say that I did have some reservations about signing Jones. Those were not related to his talents. If Ferguson and Wenger want a player then he has to be top notch. I am just not sure he is ready to take a first team spot right now and I’m not convinced big money should be spent on anyone who isn’t going to nail down a starting birth. While I find it hard to accept the cost for a squad player, that thought makes Wenger’s willingness to invest that much more encouraging.

Liam Brady told talkSPORT Arsenal will be spending some money this summer,

There will be a lot of business done this year and I think we will be spending a bit more money than we have done in past seasons. I think Arsenal will spend this year.

But he also warned about the lack of quality players in the market,

Where are the players to go around everybody? It is not only the clubs in England, but also all the big European clubs are in the transfer market.

I believe if Arsene sustains his willingness to spend big on one or two players he will find the right quality. Le Boss likes the word ‘decisive’ a lot and it’s time for him to show he can be decisive as well. Whether that will be sufficient or not is a matter for another day.


2010-11 Season Review: In Defence of Arsenal

June 8, 2011

I thought it might be a good idea to read what I wrote while analyzing the problems and weaknesses in defence at the end of last season. A quick glance told me that I could just copy paste some parts of that article and it will still be just as relevant.

Sample this,

…many of our top players have made big individual errors in important games. At times it’s been an error in positioning, on occasion it’s been poor awareness, sometimes they’ve panicked or had a lapse in concentration, and some are just painful bloopers.

 

The other problem we have defensively is on set-pieces. Too many of our players just don’t have the ability or physical attributes required to win the ball in the air. This has forced us into a tactic where we put 7-8 men in our own six yard box and hope that the bodies will block the goal.

 

The full backs have been left exposed on a regular basis, especially on the left with very little help from Arshavin.

It is not hard to see why many fans feel nothing has been done about the defence and the same issues are harming our chances every season. But I think that is an unfair opinion that doesn’t do justice to the work that has been done over the last year because it trivializes the whole debate.

This season we did see some critical changes,

  • The goalkeeper didn’t come out to gather/attack crosses or set-pieces as often as last year. As expected this made Fabianski and Szczesny look a lot more reliable than anyone custodian did last season.
  • Directly related to the point above was the fact that the central defenders and others took a lot more responsibility (Blackburn and Sunderland away are excellent examples). If the Keeper wasn’t going to come for the ball someone else had to deal with it. Unfortunately, this hasn’t solved the problem but the blame has shifted from the Keeper to the defenders.
  • The number of counter attacking goals conceded has reduced. There were some lapses on that front which resulted in some defeats (West Brom at home, United in FA cup, and so on) but the problem was controlled better than last season. This change enabled the Gunners to halt and conquer the embarrassing run of results against some of the big sides.
  • The number of suicidal reverse clearances has gone down. Last season the Gunners were hesitant when it came to knocking the ball out for a corner or throw in the defensive third. This season they were more willing to take the safety first approach with Koscielny making a key contribution in this regard. This hasn’t been completely eliminated as we saw when Clichy attempted a crazy clearance against Sunderland early on in the season. But the improvement is noticeable and worthwhile.
  • The rotating triangle in midfield has evolved into a better system than the solitary, designated DM from last season. This could be one of the key changes that led to the reduction of counter attacks. I do feel there are games when Arsenal should play with two distinctly defensive minded midfielders. More on this while discussing the midfield.

These observations tell us that a lot of work has gone in on the training pitches. Clearly, that is a positive change. Evidently, it isn’t enough.

I am not a believer that buying a big, tall, commanding, central defender who can lead and organize will solve all or most of Arsenal’s problems. Such a player doesn’t exist. If you don’t believe me, just watch John Terry and Rio Ferdinand playing for their national team.

The single most important factor in creating a solid defence is the system. Barcelona have evolved a system wherein they don’t let the ball reach their defensive third that often. Most other teams focus on defence ahead of attack. Arsene has been in a limbo and hasn’t been able to create an attacking system that suits his vision while having defensive solidity.

Part of the problem is definitely in the size of the players. In England, no team can win major trophies purely on technical merits. That does not mean players of the calibre of Cesc, Wilshere, Nasri, Arshavin, et al. should be discarded. The trick lies in finding the right balance.

Analysis of this season’s performances is not straightforward because the final few weeks have been awful in an unprecedented way (haven’t checked the facts but I don’t think Arsenal have had a run of 11 games under Wenger when they’ve managed only 12 points). It’s difficult to ascertain the contribution of individual errors, systemic problems, and mental issues in this collapse.

At the start of the season and during the January window I’d mentioned that buying a versatile defensive player should help. With the benefit of hindsight that seems like one of the areas where we missed out on. A stronger player suited to the English game could have contributed a lot to this season especially when Diaby was struggling with injuries, Rosicky lost form, and Denilson regressed. There is no guarantee that it would have led to trophies but the number of mistakes might have gone down and who knows how that would have affected the mentality of the players.

Transfer dealings can always have an impact but I don’t want to speculate at the moment as the possibilities are endless. I have never been against buying quality players but don’t be under the assumption that those who are successful in other leagues will deliver in England. Squillaci too had won titles in France and Spain before coming to Arsenal! Similarly, there is no guarantee that a player, like Cahill, who looks good in a smaller team will succeed at a big club. There are plenty of examples where big money signings from English clubs have been flops. Since the fans don’t really have anything remotely resembling detailed information it seems foolhardy to raise hopes based on lazy and ignorant pundit opinions. In this regard I completely trust Wenger’s knowledge, the information that he collects, and his judgment/method.

On the whole, I think the defence has moved in the right direction. The work will have to continue in pre-season training. I think this is an area where Arsenal can use a fresh voice with a different perspective. A new coach can do wonders for the squad but finding the right person – in terms of knowledge, mentality, and ability to integrate with the current staff and players – will not be easy. For now we can only wait and watch.


2010-11 Season Review: The Broad Picture

June 3, 2011

The Gunners ended the season with relegation form – 2W,3L,6D – in the final eleven games of the season. The fact that this form came straight after a horror fortnight that saw heartbreak in all the Cup fixtures, including the Carling Cup final, means that even the most positive of Gooners are finding it hard to sustain the faith.

The uncertainty surrounding some key players’ contracts and transfer rumours aren’t helping matters. Fans are looking for a glimmer of hope but so far, unless you count the departure requests of Denilson and Bendtner, there hasn’t been much encouragement.

However, I do believe this season wasn’t a complete failure and there were a number of positives. If we can shake off the memories of the last few weeks from our minds – it’s not easy, I know – we can look at the season more objectively.

Up until February 27, the season was going above the general expectations. Arsenal were in the Carling Cup final, challenging for the league title, and had just beaten Barcelona at home – something many never imagined possible.

While it wasn’t perfect, it’s only fair to say that till that moment the positives were outweighing the negatives of the season.

Nasri and Walcott delivered more than most expected, Fabianski and Szczesny did more than a respectable job in goal, Arshavin was making meaningful contributions even when his work rate wasn’t always up to scratch, Chamakh and Koscielny performed admirably in their first season, Wilshere was a revelation, Djourou had a very impressive run in the side, the rotating triangle in midfield provided better solidity and link play than the sole DM from the previous season, Wenger rotated the players more than he had done in previous seasons, the number of counter attacking goals conceded had been reduced, and Van Persie was just getting into top gear.

There were some problems as well. Cesc was struggling with fitness and never consistently hit peak form. Wenger was learning about rotations on the go and his 8-9 player changes often backfired resulting in needless replays and a second place finish in the Champions League group phase. The Gunners had already thrown away some points at home in games that should have been won.

On the whole it was looking like a good season in the making.

Normally, it’s hard to pinpoint at one or two pivotal moments that affect the course of a season. This time it’s the exact opposite. The 89th minute mix-up between Koscielny and Szczesny at Wembley dealt a severe blow to the psyche of the players. I believe the negative impact was amplified because everyone (players and fans) had sort of assumed this game will be won and the monkey will finally be off their backs.

As if that wasn’t enough, the red card for Van Persie at the Camp Nou completely killed the spirit of the players. After that it got progressively worse.

I believe the hard work and determination of the players was masking some of the inherent systemic weaknesses up until that moment. Once the joie de vivre, so to speak, was lost the team unravelled and some of the systemic problems came to the fore. The defence was exposed more often and rather easily; the attack seemed to lack sharpness; and the possession game felt laborious and tedious.

The Gunners conceded 16 goals in the last 10 games while accumulating 11 points. I haven’t checked but I won’t be surprised if that turns out to be the worst run of form in the Wenger era.

It is easy to blame the players’ mentality, their manager’s tactics and choices, and so on. But if you really think about it such things are very difficult to control once they get out of hand.

Just look at Chelsea. They got off to a flying start and looked destined to run away with the league. From the middle of November though, they had a two month period in which they actually did worse than Arsenal’s relegation form! In nine games they managed – 1W, 4D, 4L – 7 points while conceding 14 goals.

They had the same experienced, proven players with winning mentality that won them so many titles over the last few years but it didn’t help.

What it shows is that there can be times when something goes horribly wrong with a team. It’s hard to pin point just what the problem is and solving it is that much more difficult. For some fans it’s easy to vent their frustration by blaming the players’ effort or attitude, the manager’s policies, etc. For those who are actually trying to do something it is a lot harder than that.

Of course there are a number of issues that need to be addressed. I have my own thoughts on the perceived problems and have shared them all through the season. I will also try to summarize some of those issues in the coming days. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t about protecting Wenger or the players. I wish they needed my services but they patently don’t. This is about being objective and rational. Any balanced analysis has to explore reasons behind the problems and must look at the issues from all possible point of views. I am just trying – trying being the keyword – to do that.

Wenger recently mentioned that in 2003 Arsenal had the best away record but didn’t win the league. In 2004 they were able to improve on certain issues and we all know the result. In 2011 we have again finished the season with the best away record (although not comparable to 2003). If 2012 comes anywhere close to the performances from eight years ago, it will be a memorable season.

For that to happen Wenger has to achieve something he hasn’t been able to do in the last few years. The team has to take two steps forward without taking a step back. In the last few seasons the Gunners have toggled between various states. For instance, this season Arsenal topped the mini-league of the top four sides. Last year they were bottom. Last year the Gunners had a very good home record but this year it’s been dismal. Arsene has to ensure the away form and the performances of the big games remain constant while the home form improves and fewer mistakes are made. Now I’m getting into a discussion of the next season so more on this in the coming days.