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Thursday, 22 May 2014

Season Review (and what's coming up)

The truest measure of success

At the start of any season my ambition for Arsenal is to see them win a trophy (no jokes about 4th place, thanks). My preference is always that we will be Champions. Following that I want the FA Cup, the European Cup or the League Cup, in that order. That being the case I can say quite unequivocally that 2013-2014 has been a successful one for Arsenal Football Club. Put together with the minimum requirement of qualifying for the opportunity to play in the European Cup there can be no doubt that we have done okay this year. There is also no doubt that, despite the great feeling that an FA Cup brings, there is disappointment that things could (and probably should) have been even better. Overall, with our first silverware in so long, it is not a disappointment that will particularly haunt me as it did in 2008 and 2011.

The worst start imaginable

I think most of us were hopeful that we might make a good start to the season despite the lack of new faces. Villa at home should have provided a fairly easy three points, but a terrible Arsenal display and a terrible refereeing display saw us beaten 3-1 (Antony Taylor didn't officiate at any of Arsenal's other 45 domestic matches all season - that's as close to an FA admission of incompetence as you'll ever get). The boos and chanting that were directed squarely at Arsene Wenger should have been the wake up call to him that the fans had had enough of the transfer prevarication. Wenger is nothing if not stubborn and we would be made to wait.
In truth the players reacted superbly to the opening day loss and went on a good run. Most of us feared the worst ahead of the home game with a rejuvenated Spurs (though I wrote at the time that Tottenham had yet to score in open play). On the day Arsenal produced an utterly dominant first-half and only retreated in to their shells in the final 15 minutes or so when we were fielding just about every defender in the squad. Mathieu Flamini returned that day and immediately added steel and organisation - it has been bizarre and disappointing that he has been used less and less in the final furlong of the season. We were but hours away from the mood of the Club changing completely.

When it all started to change

Arsene told us after the Spurs game that he might have a nice surprise before the transfer deadline the following day. He wasn't lying. For the first time ever Arsenal went mad with the cash and signed Mesut Ozil for £40m+ from Real Madrid. I honestly don't think he was the player Wenger really wanted to sign last year, and I firmly believe the Board pressured Arsene in to making a massive signing. Yes, we really needed a centre-forward before another small, creative midfield player. But the boost of signing a genuine World star boosted Arsenal Football Club and everyone associated with it. Not since Bergkamp (or to a lesser extent Sol Campbell) had joined us had the fans experienced the excitement generated by Ozil's arrival. With that change in mood came a great run on the pitch.
Ozil made an immediate impact at Sunderland, setting up an early goal for Giroud and spent the rest of the first-half putting Theo Walcott in on goal (Theo couldn't hit a barn door on the day, and would then get injured which robbed Ozil of his most obvious target for incisive passes). That first month or so that Ozil was with us made us think he was the natural successor to Dennis. He would score a sublime goal in the best team performance of the season at home to Napoli and the spell was only broken when he missed a penalty against Marseille. He was forming a devastating partnership with Aaron Ramsey, best evidenced in the win at Cardiff where Rambo was given a standing ovation by the supporters of his former team.
Still Arsenal were getting stick from the pundits. That idiot Shearer kept telling us how we hadn't yet played a decent side and all that. Ultimately it would be our record against decent sides that would be our undoing, but when we won in Dortmund, through Ramsey yet again, you got the feeling that this team had a real hope of doing something special. In the back of my mind, however, was the lack of alternative to Olivier Giroud - he'd been flying since pre-season but fatigue had to set in at some point.
In the Premier League the fine run had put us up to the top the table. When Everton visited in early December we had the chance to open up a 7 point gap to the rest of the Premier League. Ozil gave us the lead and it looked like we were about to lay down a marker. Sadly a wonderful piece of skill from Deulofeu would be our undoing. The next three games ultimately shaped the season. A weaker team lost 2-0 at Napoli, costing us the group win in Europe and then we were to suffer a shock 6-3 loss at City (losing wasn't a shock, but conceding six goals was a huge surprise - but for incorrect refereeing decisions, however, we would have tied 6-6 and Yaya Toure would have been sent off early on). Nine days later an insipid 0-0 draw against a Chelsea team uninterested in winning was punctuated by the familiar sight of Giroud missing a sitter in a big game. On such moments are the big matches decided. On the big matches is the Premier League decided.

How a Wembley winner is celebrated

Arsenal had an exceptional Christmas which kept us up at the top, and then got off to a stunning start in the FA Cup with a 2-0 win over Tottenham. By that point Ramsey was injured and wouldn't be back until April. Theo Walcott got crocked that day, just as he was starting to get fit and find his best goal scoring form, and wouldn't be back at all. This is where the Premier League challenge would ultimately falter, despite being top going in to February.
With Giroud knackered, Ozil gone way off the boil, and Theo and Ramsey out injured there was an obvious need to sign the striker we'd failed to secure the previous Summer. Wenger had the whole of January to get business done. I hear people asking "who could we have signed that was available?" The fact is that everyone is available if you pay the necessary to get them (Messi and Ronaldo might be the only possible exceptions). And do we not have this extensive scouting network that has its tentacles spread right across the globe? The fact is that we were looking for any striker that could relieve the burden from Giroud. Bendtner, never the answer in any case, was out injured and going in to meltdown again. Sanogo was miles away from being available (and was also not the answer, this season at least, as has been proven). A gamble on someone like Rickie Lambert or Shane Long might just have got us over the line. Instead we died wondering.
Of course it was February and March that would totally destroy hopes at home and in Europe, despite keeping the FA Cup fire burning. Losing 5-1 at Liverpool was unforgivable. Not even trying to beat Manchester United the following Wednesday was probably even worse, even if it was then followed by another excellent team effort to beat the scousers in the Cup. Bayern Munich were handed victory by an Ozil penalty miss (the first 15 minutes of that game saw Arsenal doing to Bayern what Madrid would do later in the competition), a dodgy referee and our own naive play in pushing for an equaliser. We were done for in Europe, though the draw in Munich should not be discounted for restoring some belief in the players. Things came to a head with Ozil in that first leg, and he would be "rested" for a couple of weeks thereafter. 
As well as the injuries and everything else we suffered with, the tactics and team selection of the Manager was largely to blame for the implosion in the Premier League. Going to Stoke and leaving Flamini on the bench was ridiculous as were kicked off the pitch with nothing more than a whimper. Going to Chelsea and suffering deja vu of the Liverpool game was even worse. Wenger must surely adapt if we are to be successful with the sort of players we currently have available.
In the FA Cup we had the bright spots, of course. The 4-1 win over Everton in the quarter-final was a high point of the season for me. A tremendous display, including some quality from a resurgent Ozil boded well for the remainder of the season. That Chelsea defeat was then to happen, followed by a 1-1 draw with Man City in a game we should have won, if only we'd had that extra quality in front of goal. With the Title now gone we were suddenly looking over our shoulder uncomfortably at 5th place. Everton had the Champions League qualification in their own hands, especially after stuffing us 3-0. Then they caught a nose bleed just when they needed to push ahead. Arsenal's finish to the Premier League season was imperious, with Ozil and Ramsey adding sufficient class to the side in the closing fixtures. It was surprising to have 4th wrapped up with a game to go, and frustrating to think that, despite our various thrashings, we finished only 7 points back from the Title.

This is what a big Club looks like on parade day

The semi-final of the FA Cup should have been easy. It says a lot about the pressure of nine years without a trophy (and the constant media reminders of it) that this Arsenal team couldn't swat aside Wigan in the way they had most of the weaker Premier League sides all season. It was a tortuous afternoon that was ultimately enjoyed by the 50,000+ Gooners inside Wembley. If the relief was huge that afternoon, it would be surpassed ten-fold by what would follow in the Final. I would say that, had Arsenal lost that day, there is no way that Arsene Wenger would have still been at the Club. It shocks me and disappoints me that there are people out there who claim to be Arsenal supporters that would have been happy with that outcome. These same people tell you that it's "Arsenal FC not Arsene FC". I'm not sure how they square that argument when preferring us to lose a semi-final to bring about the demise of the Manager. I an no Wengerite, but that's a stance that sickens me. Frankly, if you would rather see us lose any game in order to hasten the departure of the Manager you are simply not a fan of our Club.

My favourite picture of Saturday - I'm in it with our banner

I won't go in to what it was like on Saturday - I said it all the other day so there's no point. Suffice to say that it made a perfect end to the season. If someone had offered me a comfortable top 4 finish and the FA Cup after that Aston Villa game I'd have taken it with open arms. The frustration lies in the fact that we might have done the Double had Arsene just spent some money when we needed him to. There may not be a better chance to win the Premier League against the oil-rich Clubs. To have blown that chance when it was presented on a plate hurts. However, there is nothing like winning a trophy and we did that. I am happy with the season we had, whatever the frustrations may have been. Well done Arsenal.

The close-season is now upon us and that means that things go quiet. It seems amazing that it's almost a week since the FA Cup Final already but that means we're a week nearer to the pre-season schedule. As it stands we are only 65 days away from the first pre-season fixture in New York (who knows, there might be another set up more locally before then). In between times we have the World Cup to look forward to. There is plenty of Arsenal interest to be had in Brazil and I'll be focusing on that throughout the tournament. As much as I am not a fan of international football I do love the World Cup. How can you not like wall to wall football on your TV for a month?
As usual there will be no comment on speculation on this website. I'm not that interested in the "hits" the site gets as I don't get any money out of writing it. If something becomes a done deal, or looks certain to be one, then I will write accordingly. Other than that, if you want transfer b***sh*t on your screen you'll have to go elsewhere.
In the next few days I'll be doing the annual squad review pieces. I'll stick to the normal formula with that, starting with the goalkeepers, then defenders, midfielders and strikers over the course of four different articles. I'm considering doing an "awards" post as well but I'll have to give that a little bit of thought so it might not happen that way. Between that and the World Cup we'll be at pre-season training and new Puma Arsenal shirts before you know it. In the mean time, continue enjoying the FA Cup victory - I know I am.

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