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Monday, 23 May 2016

Season Review 2015-2016 - a chance badly missed

All down hill from here

It all started rather well, I suppose. It was fairly universally agreed that we required a top quality goalkeeper and Arsene and Ivan went out and got Petr Cech for just £10m from an unusually charitable Roman Abramovich. And then we waited for the inevitable arrivals of a really good centre-half, a beast to play in midfield and the much needed top class centre-forward. And we waited. And we waited. 
The pre-season action wasn't overly inspiring, apart from a good 3-1 win over Everton to secure the Asia Trophy, until we reached the Saturday of the Emirates Cup. I took the family to the Lyon game, where potential signing Alexandre Lacazette got a nice reception from the crowd - we didn't sign him and his transfer value has gone up after a stellar season - and we were introduced to Alex Iwobi and Jeff Reine-Adelaide. Lyon were spanked 6-0 in a great display of attacking football. Giroud, Ramsey, Cazorla, Ozil and Oxlade-Chamberlain all joined Iwobi on the score sheet and we looked damn good. The following day gave more of a clue as to the season ahead with a narrow and uninspiring 1-0 win over Nicklas Bendtner's Wolfsburg. Jack Wilshere played 75 minutes of that game, but we wouldn't see him again until he came on as a sub at Man City in May!
There was more silverware on the sideboard before the season started properly when Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain's excellent strike won the Charity Shield at Wembley against Mourinho's Chelsea. Arsenal looked fairly solid, but should have won by more. That fact, and the injuries that kept out Wilshere and Welbeck for the vast majority of the season, were more indicative of what was to come as the failure to put away proper chances, or even shoot when we should have, would become an increasing frustration. Winning at Wembley in the glorified pre-season friendly ended up being one of the few high-points of a largely depressing nine months.
Having gone in to the season with some optimism, despite the lack of outfield signings and the injuries to the aforementioned players, it was a given really that we would lose at home to West Ham on the first day of the Premier League. That it was two errors by Petr Cech that handed them the win was totally unexpected. Cech went on to win us points single-handed for most of the season, starting with an incredible save from Benteke at home to Liverpool, but he has shown signs of creaking badly with anything low to his right side in the last month of the season - age catches up with everyone. Nevertheless, as far as I'm concerned, Cech has worked out as a fine signing and without his performances in the middle part of the season we would not have been in the top six in the Premier League.
It was the events leading up to the beginning of September, off the field, that ultimately cost us. It also cost the Club itself a lot of sympathy from a number of Wenger loyalists, finally fed-up with the lies that come out of his mouth. We failed to sign the defender, the midfield player, or the centre-forward we were crying out for. We had been sold a myth that Welbeck (far from being the answer to our problems, incidentally) was on his way back. Less than 24 hours after the transfer window closed it was finally revealed that Danny was out for at least another 4-5 months. There was no way that Wenger did not know Welbeck's problem was that serious. He simply chose not to sign a replacement, or an upgrade on both Welbeck and Giroud. This was almost criminal negligence from Arsene and Arsenal, as well as the outrageous deliberate misleading of the supporters. The announcement of Welbeck's long-term problem was a disgrace.
Despite all that Arsenal started to get results. We were doing okay and smashed Manchester United in the first 20 minutes at home on our way to a comfortable win. The stadium was bouncing that day, and so were Alexis, Theo Walcott and Mesut Ozil - United simply had no answer to our pace and movement up front. We wouldn't see that football again all season. Mike Dean handed a desperately poor Chelsea the win over us at Stamford Bridge, but we went and beat Leicester in good style away from home, knocking five goals past them to put an end to their early season "challenge" at the top - they would surely fall apart now the bubble was burst. For all that Alexis destroyed Leicester that day we actually were all over the place defensively. For me the alarm bells were ringing at this point despite the fact we were the only team likely to offer any resistance to Manchester City. The League Cup campaign was sacrificed in a scandalously disgraceful October hammering at Sheffield Wednesday.
As we approached Christmas Arsenal were top. On the Monday before the big day we beat City 2-1 with fine goals from Theo and Giroud putting us five points clear at the top. The Premier League was already ours to throw away. Having got away with not signing the players we clearly needed in the first half of the season, January would definitely see the cheque book come out in order to maintain our position at the top. We had even, over the six weeks leading to Christmas, managed to weather the long-term losses of Alexis, Santi Cazorla and Francis Coquelin. And then we went to Southampton on Boxing Day. I don't need to go over what happened. We got to New Year still ahead of the pack, but something was wrong. Still, make those signings in January and we could still take advantage of our position at the top. Of course it never happened, aside from the signing of Elneny - a player who seems to be popular with many fans because of his passing stats, but doesn't stand scrutiny when you look at how many of those passes mean anything and the fact that he is, at the moment, far too easily pushed off the ball.

The best moment of the season

The period between the beginning of January and the last game of the season was often purgatory. As regular readers will know I felt the football being played simply stunk the place out most of the time. It was insipid, boring, lacking in imagination, and with no desire to go forward properly. A rare good attacking display at Anfield was undone by a characteristically woeful defensive effort in a 3-3 draw. The ability of the team to implode so spectacularly in defence became a regular and uncomfortable feature. Shipping three goals and more is not an irregular event with Arsenal these days and it happened again at Old Trafford. Before that particular cock-up we had somehow managed to lose at home to Chelsea - again ably assisted by questionable refereeing (Clattenburg on this occasion - on such performances are FA Cup Final's and European Cup Final's awarded and totally messed up). 
I have moved on past the one moment that brightened things after Christmas and, at the time, had us all believing we were going to do it after all. Danny Welbeck fought his way back to something approaching fitness - the ice-packs applied to his previously injured knee after every appearance reveal, to me, an ongoing serious problem aside from his latest injury to the other leg - and was thrown on in desperation as Wenger finally went with two men up front! What followed was an incredible moment as Welbeck flicked home the injury-time winning goal that once again would ultimately put an end to Leicester's extended period of fun at the top. Of course the Old Trafford game I've mentioned and Swansea at home were still to come and scupper us totally.
We threw away what should have been a third straight FA Cup win with another scandalous display, this time at home to Watford. That meant the genuine hope of a proper trophy in 2015-16 was finally gone. We did spoil Tottenham's hopes a bit with an excellent ten-men fighting draw (we should actually have won the game really) at White Hart Lane, and put in a superb display at Everton just three days after a battling defeat at Barcelona had put us out of the Champions League. Alex Iwobi was now in the side and combining well with Welbeck and has laid down a good marker for himself for next season.
For a short time in the closing weeks we suddenly looked under pressure for even a top four finish. However, a couple of wins and the failure of our challengers saw that secured before the final day after all. What happened on the last day against Villa was the stuff of pure comedy gold and meant that things ended with us having a smile on our faces. 
It should be said that, for all we have failed this season, Arsenal are not the only ones. The fans have been criticised by the media for being upset that Arsenal have not won the Premier League and the more prevalent feeling for "Wenger Out" etc. However, this same media have berated Arsenal at every turn for our "failure" this season. Yet somehow the other clubs have been spared such vitriol. Let's not forget that Arsenal finished above Chelsea, Man Utd, Man City, Liverpool and Tottenham this season, finishing behind only Leicester. An opportunity not taken? Of course. But the same should be levelled at all those other teams. If someone had told you in August that you would be finishing above those sides you would have been certain you'd be Champions. We should have been, but we were as bad as Leicester were exceptional for most of the season. They deserve to be Champions, but Arsenal perhaps don't deserve to be taking all the flak for "allowing" them to be so. 
With three months to the new season we have the chance to relax, watch the European Championships, and prepare for a new assault on the Premier League crown. Now all we need to do is sign a centre-back, a beast of a midfield player (Xhaka is in the bag it seems) and a top class striker. We've been here before I feel...

A personal season highlight with some old friends of mine

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