Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Arsenal Season Review Part 2

I started my season review of Arsenal a few days ago, and I went through all the major events up until the end of December 2011. At the turn of the year Arsenal were on 36 points, and they were still in contention for a top four finish. They had also qualified for the last 16 of the Champions League, and they had an upcoming FA Cup third round game at home to Leeds United.

Despite beating both Leeds and Aston Villa to progress to the fifth round of the FA Cup January was a very bad month for Arsenal in the Premier League. They took the lead away to both Fulham and Swansea, but ended up losing both games. They also lost at home to Manchester United, and their chances of a top four finish were fading rapidly.

Thankfully some of the other teams fighting for that top four finish were having troubles of their own, and Arsenal didn't completely lose touch. They did start to slip very far behind Spurs though, and it looked like they would have a very tough task trying to finish in their usual place ahead of their local rivals.

Things went in reverse in February when Arsenal got their league form back on track, but their cup results were far less impressive. They went out of the FA Cup away to Sunderland only a week after taking all three Premier League points on the same ground. Only a few days before that defeat to Sunderland they were beaten 4-0 away to AC Milan in the first leg of their Champions League tie.

The bleak days of January and February were of course brightened up by the temporary return of Thierry Henry on loan from the New York Red Bulls. The three goals he got increased his lead at the top of the all-tike goalscoring records for Arsenal, and it was great to see him in action for Arsenal again. He may not be the player he was a few years ago, but his last minute winner against Sunderland was absolutely priceless.

Those back to back defeats against Milan and Sunderland were followed by a home game against Spurs, and it was a game Arsenal had to win. They went into the game 10 points behind Spurs, and any other result would have been nothing short of a disaster. The game didn't start well for Arsenal, but they managed to come from 2-0 down to win 5-2.

Arsenal's comeback on that day was quite incredible, and it shifted the momentum in the race for Champions League places in their direction. They went on to win their next four Premier League games, and stretch their run to seven wins in a row. Arsenal's fantastic sequence of results coincided with a collapse from Spurs, and suddenly they were third in the table and looking good.

In the middle of that run they played their return leg with Milan, and very nearly managed to overturn the four goal deficit. They led 3-0 at half time, but they ran out of steam as well as fit players on the night. They may have gone out of the competition, but they had managed to regain some of their pride at least.

Things were looking very good for Arsenal when they went to struggling QPR at the very end of March. The other face of Arsenal was on display in that game, and they were beaten 2-1 by a team that just wanted it more. The usual questions about the desire and commitment of the players were being asked again.

Title chasing Manchester City were Arsenal's next opponents, and they were outplayed by an Arsenal team which had found everything they were missing against QPR. A late Mikael Arteta goal gave Arsenal all three points, and a win away to Wolves a few days later looked likely to see them tie up third place with a few games to spare.

With five games to go Arsenal were clear favourites for that third spot, and it was theirs to win or lose. Three of their next four games were at home, and surely Arsenal could get the points they needed in those games to end the season on a high. However, Arsenal fans know that their team rarely do things the easy way, and Arsenal failed to win any of their next four games.

It was no coincidence that the very influential Arteta hobbled off after only eight minutes in the first of those games, and didn't play again for the rest of the season. Robin van Persie's goals were crucial to Arsenal all season long, but the influence of Arteta was another factor in their recovery after their disastrous start to the season. No matter what players Arsenal sign this summer Arteta should be the first choice player in their midfield next season.

In their final home game of the season Arsenal needed a win over Norwich City to stay ahead in the race for third place with Spurs playing away to struggling Aston Villa the next day. The game against Norwich seemed to sum up Arsenal's whole season, as they took an early lead before falling 2-1 behind. They fought back in the second half to go 3-2 up, but in true Arsenal style they allowed Norwich to score a late equaliser.

A win for Spurs away to Villa would have seen Arsenal fall back to fourth place with just one game left to play. Arsenal fans were biting on their fingernails on that Sunday afternoon, but thankfully Villa managed to get a draw and keep Arsenal in pole position with one game to play.

Arsenal's final game was away to West Brom, and a win would have guaranteed them third place, and a spot in the group stages of next season's Champions League. Any other result would have left Arsenal in fourth place, and their hopes resting on Bayern Munich beating Chelsea in the Champions League final. Thankfully Arsenal managed to beat West Brom, and it was Spurs who were demoted to a Europa League place next season when Chelsea beat Bayern last Saturday night.

Of course Arsenal didn't do things the easy way against West Brom when they threw away an early lead before coming from behind to win 3-2. The winning goal came from Laurent Koscielny, but he had a lot of help from the West Brom keeper.

I had felt Arsenal had been unlucky on a few occasions throughout the season with refereeing decisions in particular.Swansea, Spurs and Liverpool all got penalties against Arsenal when their players had clearly dived, and Arsenal didn't get a single penalty at home all season long in the league. However, the performance of Martin Fulop in goal for West Brom in that final game made up for any perceived bad luck during the season.

Arsenal were far from their best in that game, and stumbled over the finishing line with some huge slices of help from Fulop. He handed Arsenal's first and third goals to them on a plate, and he deserves a place in the Arsenal hall of fame.

It meant St. Totteringham's Day arrived yet again, as it has in every single season under Arsene Wenger. That's 16 years in a row that Wenger has led Arsenal to finish above Spurs, and not many of them were as close as this season's finish.

The signs of Arsenal taking their transfer dealings seriously this summer are there already with the arrival of Lukas Podolski. Hopefully he will get to play alongside RVP rather than instead of him, but only time will tell whether RVP chooses to stay or not. I hope he does stay, but I also hope Wenger has other players in mind if the worst does happen and RVP leaves.

Overall a third placed finish was not a bad one for a team which seemed to lurch from one crisis to another at times during the season. I would have liked a better run in the FA Cup, but it wasn't to be and unless the team is considerably strengthened it remains Arsenal's best chance of a trophy for next season.

There are 17 other teams in the Premier League who would gladly have swapped places with Arsenal despite the turmoils of their season. Qualification for next season's Champions League is not everything, but it certainly beats not qualifying when no trophies have been won. There are only four trophies on offer to Arsenal every season, and Arsenal managed to win as many of them as most other teams.

The biggest failure of the season was their inability to genuinely challenge for any of those four trophies. They were never in the running in the Premier League, and all of their cup campaigns finished relatively early. It would be great to see the team right up there with a chance of winning something next season, and that's what the fans really want to see.

That's it for today.

See you tomorrow.

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