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.