Hello all. I am back from the wilderness and from a very pleasant and memorable trip. Yellowstone is just a breathtaking place in so many ways and we were very lucky with the weather as well. Mendocino too was great fun as we went there with a close friend and his family. Don’t know how but I managed to pick up a flu bug soon after returning and that’s kept me down for the last couple of days. Seems to be getting better now so it’s time to focus on the season review series. But first a Thank You goes out to Martin Fulop and a belated happy St. Totteringham’s day to all readers. And just in case you haven’t seen it, ArsenalVision’s photo special on the subject and the related media coverage throughout the season is an absolute must see.
Moving forward, I guess few will forget 2011-12 in a hurry. Yes, there were some forgettable moments but those scars run so deep they’ll take a while to heal completely. Then there were some absolutely amazing games that spread waves of delirium across the Arsenalsphere. It was a roller-coaster all right and it’s come to a stop on a relative high with qualification to the Champions League secured without the hassles of the play-offs or reliance on Bayern, which would have been fatal as some team found out.
Broadly speaking this was one of the most entertaining Premiership seasons in recent memory with many surprising results and extraordinary performances. Technically and/or tactically many teams were arguably weaker but from the point of view of competitiveness and drama it was just sensational till the thrilling climax in injury time on the final day.
The following discussion has a somewhat arbitrary division of the season into three parts but it provides some talking points. To begin with, Arsenal were abysmal in the first few games. Questions about a relegation battle were ill-advised and premature but the possibility of a title challenge in the League was defenestrated very early on. After the first 7 games i.e. after Arsenal’s loss at White Hart Lane early in October, the Gunners were 15th in the table and 12 points behind the leaders.
At that stage the voices of doom and gloom were out in full force. The late signings were being dismissed by many as panic buys. Only the truly faithful believed in the Gunners.
Of course, the previous summer had been a disaster as far as transfers were concerned. Cesc, Nasri, and Clichy were big departures. The replacements were late and not necessarily in the same class although the newcomers did bring their own valuable qualities to the squad, not least of which was experience.
A couple of new signings took a month or so to gel with the starting eleven but once they clicked Arsenal’s commendable turnaround began in earnest.
The following table is from the 3rd of October to the 10th of April. It includes 25 or so games played by all teams during that period, which is roughly the same as two-thirds of the season. And so as not to limit this to only the successful periods for the Gunners, it also includes the horrific time they had in January when all the full-backs were injured and all three League ties were lost.
Take a moment to reflect if you haven’t seen this or a similar table before. Arsenal actually collected more points than the Premiership champions City and scored more goals than Mancini’s side in this period. Even defensively Arsenal were not that far behind the eventual top two. Only United bettered the Gunners. Spurs, Chelsea, and Newcastle were a fair way behind.
Such an effort does lead many to question the timing of the signings. Why couldn’t Arteta and Mertesacker, for instance, have been signed earlier? Was it simply a matter of a few million pounds or were other factors involved? Since the real facts behind these transfers are not available it would be unfair to ascribe any blame to individuals but the questions remain pertinent.
However, while valid, any inquest should not take anything away from the manager or the players who produced this remarkable fightback. Depending on one’s mindset this can be seen as a lost opportunity, an inspiring revival that fuels hope for the future, or just a balance of positives and negatives that are bound to exist in every season.
Finally, in money time as Arsene might say, the Gunners once again saw a slump in form. In the final 6 games they only managed 9 points and will remain thankful of the slender buffer they’d built up over so-called title-challengers Tottenham.
Arsenal, United, Spurs, and Newcastle will all think they could have done better during that period. Chelsea were distracted by crucial Cup ties so their performances are probably excusable. Only City ended the season strongly but they too needed a last-gasp push.
Arsenal lost 12 points more than champions City at the start and 9 more at the end. The two gained in the middle still left a hefty 19 point differential. United too had a blip at the end but they’d gained 6 more over the Gunners in the central period to go with the dozen at the start.
All teams saw a dip in form at one point or the other. For City those blips were tiny ones while for United there was just one costly drop towards the end and a very small one in between. Arsenal had a very difficult start and a poor end. Similarly, the other teams in the top six also had relatively large periods of struggles. Once again it highlights the difficulties in finding consistency at this level. Sir Alex knows how to get points in the Premiership, Chelsea and now City have reached there after spending nearly half a billion pounds. Few others have found the consistency needed to challenge for the title every year since the arrival of Abramovich.
It’s also worth looking at the League table between the top 6.
There is no denying the fact that the league is contested by 20 teams and 3 points against a big side are the same as 3 against a relegation candidate. But looking at the table above one can get some indication of how the teams stacked up against each other.
City were clearly the outstanding side as they did the double over United, Tottenham, and Newcastle while sharing points with home wins and away defeats against Arsenal and Chelsea. The negative goal difference of so many sides was down to the number of uncharacteristically high-scoring tussles that we saw this year and the fact that the bottom 3 in that list only managed 2 wins each in 10 games.
That table could be the basis for a long and interesting debate but I don’t want to dwell on it too much at this moment . Of the four games that Arsenal lost, 2 came in the opening period of 7 games when the side was really suffering. The loss away to City was hard fought and compensated by a similar win at home. The only other defeat came against United at home during that torrid run in January.
A never-say-die spirit seemed to typify Arsenal’s season although a pattern of one defensive gaffe after another ran it a close second. The Gunners recovered an astounding 24 points from losing positions but that also indicates that they routinely found themselves behind in games. Arsenal also lost 13 points from winning positions which was worse than all bar Chelsea in that table. As an aside, United, Newcastle, and Tottenham were the three teams at the bottom of the Points Gained When Losing table with 3, 4, and 6 respectively. Ferguson’s side probably didn’t get into too many losing positions but the other two could surely have done with some of Arsenal’s spirit and mental strength.
On a related note, it is worth noting that even in the middle of strong runs the results were more of the ground out variety than a consequence of outstanding dominating football. For instance, even in the 7-game winning streak, the result at Anfield was a smash & grab while the team needed late winners against Sunderland and Newcastle and had to battle for a win over Everton. In all, there were few games that Arsenal completely controlled from start to finish and that meant the opponents almost always had a hope. This was not the case with the top two and that is a gap the Gunners have to make up.
A good indication of this comes from the fact that Arsenal only managed to win 9 games out of 38 by 2 goals or more. Spurs had 15 such wins, United 18, and City 19. Interestingly, in contrast, the Gunners only lost 2 games with a margin of two or more goals. Both of these were in August, one against Liverpool at home and that game at Old Trafford. The other 8 losses were by a single goal. In total, 27 or Arsenal’s 38 games were either drawn or decided by a single goal. For City, United, and Spurs this number was 19,18, and 19 respectively. The Champions didn’t lose any game by a margin of two or more goals. 2 of United’s 5 defeats came from a margin greater than two goals. Spurs had 4 such defeats.
Considering this was another season of recovery after losing big players Arsenal’s results were laudable, but for the side to be considered genuine contenders they’ll have to impose their quality on matches a lot more often. That will of course demand much better defending as a unit as well as a more potent attack that has multiple threats. Improvements will have to be made on the training pitch and possibly in terms of squad strength as well.
More detailed analysis of defending, attack, tactics, Cup performances, and some players’ efforts will be covered in forthcoming articles under this season review series.Follow @goonerdesi