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Friday, 23 December 2011

Mid-Season Review

Dear Father Christmas...the FA Cup will do

I can honestly say I have never experienced the sort of lows we had to endure at the start of this season in my whole life watching Arsenal. Since then we have seen a new team grow in confidence, and produce some pretty good high points. The severity of the bad days of August has made the wins against Chelsea and the success in Europe seem, perhaps, more sweet than they would normally deserve to be. We can be thankful, however, that we are able to enjoy anything right now after the debacles at Old Trafford and Ewood Park.
The start of the season was incredibly traumatic for Arsenal supporters. It wasn’t just the results that were upsetting us. In fact the results were a direct consequence of everything else that was going on. The squad was in a state of turmoil with the Fabregas and Nasri situations spinning beyond control. Coupled with the lack of players coming in there was a general apathy around the entire place, and this surely transmitted to a group of players who were in some kind of limbo. All of these issues were, of course, problems of our own making. Had the Manager doing his job properly in the earlier part of the Summer then what we endured in the first five weeks of the season would have been avoided. It’s easy to be wise after events, but I think almost everyone (apart from those who believe Wenger can do no wrong) were clear that early resolution to transfer business was what Arsenal needed. We all knew that Fabregas would be leaving and, as he was allowed to leave for a pittance, it should have been done in June. Similarly we saw Arsene enter in to a frivolous game of hard-ball over Samir Nasri, and we were left to enter the season with a disaffected player stinking the place out. When you add in the fact that only Gervinho had been added at that stage it was understandable that the knives were out, even before a ball had been kicked.
What happened at Old Trafford can never be forgotten, and nor should it be. The Manager should have been summarily removed from his position after such a humiliation for Arsenal Football Club. We saw Carl Jenkinson’s career at Arsenal coming under threat almost before it had begun, while Armand Traore’s insipid display was surely because he knew he was leaving 24 hours later. Nobody covered themselves in glory that day, with the possible exception of Francis Coquelin. We also saw the likes of Gilles Sunu on the bench that day, again just hours before being transferred. What did this do to the mind-set of the young players that actually want to play for Arsenal? It was symptomatic of the chaos that was engulfing the Club, and it was very much transmitted on to the pitch. It was the lowest of the lows we have faced. The best that can be said is that things could only really get better from there on, and they certainly have done.
The new signings added some much needed, and much overdue, experience to the squad. It is evident that there is a far more pragmatic approach to defending a lead, and the older heads (coupled with the timely return of Thomas Vermaelen) have brought improvement in the game of all those around them – most notably Walcott, Song and Koscielny.
The main man has, of course, been Robin Van Persie. When I wrote this equivalent review piece last December I questioned whether a fit-again Robin could re-discover his form. I said how, if he did hit his stride (and stay fit) we might witness something special. Robin has certainly delivered in the most extraordinary fashion. Let’s face it, anyone who can equal, or better, the goalscoring feats of Thierry Henry has clearly been doing something quite incredible. It is often questioned as to how Arsenal would be doing without RVP. No doubt we would be struggling, but that’s the nature of football. Would Manchester United have run away with the Title a couple of years back without Cristiano Ronaldo’s goals? Of course they wouldn’t, but nobody wanted to question Manchester United, did they? Having said that, there are obvious deficiencies in Arsenal’s striking options. Chamakh has failed to build on his excellent start at the Club, while Ju Young Park is looking like more and more of an Amaury Bischoff or a Fabian Caballero signing. I almost compared him to Kaba Diawara, but at least Diawara played a lot of games in his short Arsenal career.
The rest of the season could yet bring us success. The FA Cup must be a realistic goal for the players. They need silverware, and Wembley in May is the most likely place for us to find it. The Manager must commit to winning a trophy, and hope that a top four finish takes care of itself.
I was criticised in the comments section the other day by someone who says that I would have settled for fourth at the start of the season. That is utter nonsense, and it remains so. If you are happy with Arsenal finishing fourth, and not challenging for the top place, then you do not deserve to be an Arsenal supporter. We must strive to be the very best, and that means winning the Title. This season, following that disastrous start, fourth place would probably be an achievement of some note. However, that should not be seen as a measure of success in the grand scheme of things. Had the business been done properly in the Summer then we might be a little bit closer to Man City than we currently are. That is an indictment of the way the Club has been managed recently. Arsene Wenger remains under pressure, and a finish outside the top four could yet see his reign end prematurely. I hope that he can prove us all wrong, and that we are celebrating something tangible (not just fourth place) come May.
Before the season started I predicted a sixth-place finish for Arsenal. As I left the game at Ewood Park I felt (and so did many others that were there) that we were in a relegation battle. It is to the credit of the players that we have had an excellent group stage in the Champions League, and that we are more than competitive in the Premier League. We have something to look forward to, and that is more than we had back in September. I’m optimistic for our prospects in the second half of the season, and I didn’t think I would be.

I’ll post a brief preview of the Wolves game tomorrow morning.

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