Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Arsenal Season Review

The season is over and it's time for my annual look back at how Arsenal did and how they matched up to our hopes and aspirations for the season. When I wrote my season preview I said I thought the Premier League was beyond a squad which lacked balance and just didn't have enough defenders to cope with injuries or suspensions. I did hope for a last eight spot in the Champions League and possibly to retain the FA Cup and the team lived up to the cup hopes, but fell short in Europe.

As always a top four finish is seen as a trophy by some, but of course it's not and never will be. It does bring Champions League football though which vastly increases income and increases the profile of the club which has to make it a more attractive prospect to possible signings. We have already seen plenty of reports of players looking to leave their current club because they want to play in the Champions League and it's the same every summer.

Arsenal's start to the season wasn't helped by yet again having to play in the final Champions League qualifying round as a result of their fourth place finish the previous season. They weren't helped by players coming back late from the World Cup and Mesut Ozil in particular suffered after winning the trophy with Germany and missing virtually all of pre season training. Thankfully Per Mertesacker wasn't affected as much as he didn't get as much game time as Ozil.

For me it meant the season came too soon for Arsenal and their early performances and results reflected just that. With Chelsea flying out of the blocks Arsenal lost crucial ground early on as they drew far too many games for their own good. They did overcome Besiktas in their Champions Lesgue qualifying round though and that was a very important result.

The players coming into the club in the summer all looked like very good additions with Alexis Sanchez the mouth watering prospect among them. Besides him those who came didn't add to the overall strength of the squad though as they were matched by players going in the other direction. Mathieu Debuchey was a ready made replacement for Bacary Sagna (until injuries ruined his season), David Ospina replaced Lukasz Fabianski and I'm still not sure if he's better than him or not and Calum Chambers replaced Thomas Vermaelen (well not really as he isn't a central defender yet at least).

Arsenal had finished the previous season one central defender short of what is required to compete at the top and the loss of Vermaelen made the shortage in central defence even more glaring. He may have gone on to miss the whole season through injury, but the failure to replace him and add another central defender was a crucial blunder for Arsenal last summer. Arsene Wenger said he would bring at least one player in, but it didn't happen and we can only assume it was because the right players couldn't be found or their clubs couldn't be convinced to part with them.

He did address the issue in January with the purchase of Gabriel Paulista and I think he will go on to prove a great purchase. Unfortunately for Arsenal the worst happened and Laurent Koscielny picked up an injury which meant Mertesacker had to play with a succession of full backs who played centrally for the first time. Nacho Monreal and Chambers suffered in the role and Debuchey picked up an injury too which meant the choices were severely limited and it affected performances. Maybe if the mythical DM had been signed in the summer the defence might have had more protection, but he wasn't and it was too easy to get at the Arsenal defence for my liking. 

I thought there was a need for another striker last summer too, but it was never going to happen until Olivier Giroud got injured just before the window closed and the need for a striker increased drastically. Despite the signing of Alexis Arsenal's transfer policy still wasn't up to scratch for me and it didn't auger well for the new season. Danny Welbeck did arrive from United on deadline day to bolster a struggling front line and at a pretty good price too

The Champions League group started badly with Arsenal well beaten in Dortmund, but it got better after that and Arsenal progressed in second place with relative ease. It wasn't the strongest group though with a very poor Galatasaray team and a talented but inexperienced Anderlecht making up the numbers. Arsenal easily beat Gala both home and away, but they found the going a lot tougher against Anderlecht and we're lucky to win away to them with two very late goals. The home game was even worse with Arsenal crushing at 3-0 up, but somehow or other managing to draw the game 3-3.

They returned the favour Dortmund had paid them with a 2-0 win at home, but the points dropped at home to Anderlecht meant they finished runners up. That game showed all of the old failings were still there and it looked like so many of the harsh lessons of recent seasons had been forgotten. As fans we found that result hard to take and feared a tough draw in the last 16.

The team exited the Capital One Cup in their first game when they lost at home to a Southampton team who looked very good at the time. With the injuries the team had at the time it wasn't a bad thing to go out of a competition which is very much at the bottom rung of the trophy ladder. 

The most worrying thing for me in the first half of the season was the lack of consistency. By the time the team lost to Southampton on New Year's Day their best run in the league was two wins in a row and three in a row in all competitions. If they were going to do something they had to find a way to win games consistently and find it fast.

Just about at that time the injury problems started to improve with Ozil and Giroud returning and Theo Walcott making his first appearance in a year. The most crucial difference to the team for me was the introduction of Francis Coquelin to the team when all other options in a defensive midfield role had been exhausted. He was on loan to Charlton at the time and the chances are he would have been on his way out of the club at the end of the season.

With Mikel Arteta injured and Mathieu Flamini out too Coquelin took his chance and showed what a player can do when he understands the role of a defensive midfielder and is prepared to put in the hard work needed. He wasn't afraid to put his foot in or put his body on the line for the good of the team and it was exactly what the team needed. With so many flair players in the team it was refreshing to see a player who relished doing the donkey work and was prepared to put the team before himself.

The results started to come together after that Southampton defeat on New Year's Day and the missing consistency was found at last. They put a run of five wins in a row together and went to White Hart Lane just above Spurs but still outside the top four for the game which would decide the local bragging rights after a draw at the Emirates earlier in the season. Unfortunately the team put in another horror show and lost despite taking an early lead.

That result got Spurs hopes up and the backlash from Arsenal fans was severe with calls from many quarters yet again for the manager to go. The team bounced back though and won their next four games before the home leg of their Champions League tie against Monaco. The draw had favoured Arsenal or so it seemed with the best teams avoided and they were favourites to make it through to the last eight. 

With things looking up yet again the team put in another performance to forget and the naivety they showed would have been shocking if it happened too regularly before. There were more questions about lessons not being learned despite the better results against the other teams in and around them in the table. The humiliating defeats away to Chelsea, Liverpool and City of last season had been improved on greatly, but the team still had the ability to shoot itself in the foot just as they looked like they were making real progress.

The team went on to win their next nine games in all competitions though and climbed up to second in the table as they closed the large gap on Chelsea. They won the away game against Monaco in that run, but went out on away goals and continued to progress in the FA Cup too. Welbeck repaid a large part of his fee in that run with the winning goal away to United in the FA Cup quarter final as Wembley beckoned yet again.

When they drew their next game at home to Chelsea any chance they had of catching them went, but they weren't realistic hopes anyway. Any chance they had in the league was gone well before the turn of the year with the team reaching the half way point with only 33 points from 19 games and a long way behind the leaders. The league form dropped after that and the chances of finishing second faded with them too.

As the cup final approached the team dropped back and there was a distinct possibility of them finishing as low as fourth, but they got a very important point away to United before winning their last game easily to guarantee third place and bypass the qualifying round for next season's Champions League. Third place was one better than last season, but second would have been so much better and was a distinct possibility with only a few games to go. It has been 10 years since Arsenal finished as high as second and it was a blow not to match that mark.

The season came down to the FA Cup final yet again and this time Arsenal did not disappoint. Last season was a nerve jangling come from behind victory, but this season they played Villa off the park and thoroughly deserved their fantastic 4-0 victory. The team made history by being the first team to win the cup 12 times and the manager tied the record for most cup wins with the team winning it for the sixth time under him. 

Overall the team got exactly what I hoped for when the season started and while that has to be a good thing considering it included a trophy it could have been and maybe should have been more. Their away performances against the other top teams in the league were so much better, but they didn't take enough points off the teams directly below them. The 13 points dropped to Spurs, Swansea and Southampton were far too many points to drop to those clubs and it's something which has to be addressed for next season.

There was a time before the turn of the year where Alexis carried the team almost on his own and he was the star turn of the season. The emergence of Coquelin was brought about by sheer chance though and was certainly not a master stroke in any way, shape or form. The signs for next season are certainly encouraging and there is a genuine feeling that this squad can really compete with the right additions.

It's time for the team to compete though and there can be no excuses next season. They have to show they have a chance of winning the Premier League or changes will have to be made. In the last 11 seasons Arsenal have come close a few times, but have always fallen away when the chips are down and they need to make the next step.

There's plenty to be done in the summer to make the squad that little bit stronger and it includes players leaving as well as new purchases. Hopefully those players can arrive sooner rather than later and the team will start next season in a much better place than they started this season. Any season which brings a trophy has to be judged as a success though and Arsenal did just that for the second season in a row.

That's it for today.

See you tomorrow.

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