Football is nearly upon us once again, and although it isn’t the warm glow of an Arsenal game to look forward to, it is a potentially entertaining European Championships. Starting, of course, will the stellar fixture of Poland v Greece. Mmm, mouthwatering.
In all seriousness, it should be good, and tomorrow I’ll be previewing it, and reintroducing a feature from World Cup 2010 – daily betting tips (which actually went quite well). But before all that, there is still Arsenal ground to cover, and a season to review. An analysis of the squad will come later, this post is all about the highs and lows of a rollercoaster season, plus a look back at how off-target some of my pre-season predictions were. Let’s get straight to it.
Might as well start with the easy one.
Not only our best player, but the best player in the league. Robin van Persie finally had the season that he had been threatening to have for some time – the previous two were prolific but cut short by injury, but this time that season-ender never came, and he ended up top scorer in the league, almost single handedly dragging us into third place after the most inauspicious of starts. His contract situation loomed over the season like a threatening shadow, but that cannot take away from the magnificent way he has performed, as a player and as a captain. Top class.
That isn’t to say we are a one man team – there were others who were superb this season, but it would be a fallacy to look anywhere but at the Dutchman for this award.
Tricky one, this. The second leg against Milan was one of the most spirited displays of recent years, but it suffers for being ultimately fruitless. The 5-3 victory at Stamford Bridge was spectacular, but Chelsea were defensively so abject that day that it is difficult to know whether it was us being excellent or them being awful. For plain old scorelines, the 7-1 hammering of Blackburn was satisfying too, especially after the awful defeat there early in the season.
But the winner has to the the 5-2 victory in the North London Derby. Two goals down approaching half time, and staring at a potential thirteen point deficit to our fierce rivals, it felt like a tipping point, like the balance of power, so often said to be shifting, was actually headed their way. But a determined fightback followed by a second half carnival put paid to all of that, sent Spurs into a tailspin and proved that North London remains proudly red. Mind the gap indeed.
John Terry slipping to let van Persie in for a winner at Stamford Bridge? Vermaelen running the full length of the pitch to score late against Newcastle? Van Persie scoring a sublime injury time winner at Anfield, after we had been under the cosh?
All worthy candidates, but yet one sticks out, head and shoulders above the rest. January 9, and the return of Thierry Henry. A fairly dire FA Cup tie was heading to a replay we could very much do without, but with an intelligent run, sublime touch and inch perfect finish Henry wrote himself a new chapter in the history of Arsenal Football Club. Every Arsenal fan watching went completely bonkers, and even cynical fans of other clubs were forced into accepting that this was a magical moment.
Walcott’s goal against Chelsea sticks in my mind as one of the most underrated goals of the season, his quick feet weaving his way past defenders after he had confused them by getting up off the ground. Arteta’s strike against Man City was pretty special too. But it was inevitable that van Persie would claim this award too – the only question being which goal? His volley at Anfield was sublime, his curling effort against Spurs crucial. But it was the first of his magnificent volleys – against Everton – that stood out. Song’s chipped ball was perfect, and with one lash of his left boot the ball flew into the corner. A wonderful goal.
Most Crucial: Moment
It would be easy to point to the final day of the season and say the win at West Brom was vital. And indeed it was. But I believe there was one more critical still, way back in August, amidst the worst start the club has seen in years. Holding a single goal lead over an impressive Udinese, they threatened time and time again in the second leg, but we held them at bay, leading 2-1 going into the final stages. But when the Italians were awarded a penalty, our place in the Champions League was threatened. Szczesny pulled off a brilliant save, and we qualified for the group stages.
It doesn’t bear thinking what the consequences of defeat could have been. Finances would have been stretched, signings would have been more difficult, and third place almost definitely would have been missed. There was (rightly) doom and gloom around the club in those moments, but that game remains one of the most important of recent years. We came through.
There were a few candidates for the best performance of the season, likewise there were some abject ones. The 8-2 at Old Trafford is the obvious one, while the defeats at Milan and Sunderland in the Champions League and FA Cup were immensely disappointing. The late season loss at home to Wigan was a classic in our catalogue of taking opponents lightly.
But one match still sticks in my craw – the 4-3 defeat at Blackburn at the start of the season. Make no mistake about it, Blackburn were appalling in the early days of this campaign, and we handed them victory in one of the most self-destructive displays I’ve ever seen. Awful defending, two own goals, and an embarrassing display against a team who were pretty hopeless themselves.
The dreadful start to the season? Jack’s injury? The August departures?
For me, it was none of those, but the FA Cup defeat to Sunderland in February. With the league form stuttering, and coming three days after a battering in Milan, the FA Cup was our last realistic shot at silverware. Furthermore, the competition was opening up – Man City had already gone out to their city rivals, who had then lost to Liverpool in the next round. But despite all of that, the performance was flat, and we crashed out. A really poor day.
Overall, it was a season packed with highs and lows, but in the cold light of day, third place wasn’t that bad. The gap between us and those above us is concerning, as is the nature with which we claimed third spot, relying heavily on the inconsistency of our rivals. But in a season that started so poorly, third was a remarkable recovery.
So how did the season stack up against my predictions from August? Time for a bit of a recap. This could be embarrassing…
League Prediction – 3rd (Man United champions)
“We’re better than Liverpool and Spurs, we’re behind United and Chelsea, and City will get distracted by a Champions League run. Third it is.”
Not too bad. We were indeed better than Liverpool and Spurs, and we were behind United. We did also finish third, as I had predicted, but I got the two nouveau riche clubs the wrong way around, believing Chelsea would be challenging for the title while Man City languished behind. The lifting of the Premiership by the latter remains my biggest surprise of the season amongst the top teams.
Cup Prediction – kids in the Carling Cup, and a run in the FA Cup
The domestic cup performances were some of the most disappointing of the season. Out of the Carling Cup early to Man City, we lost weakly to Sunderland to exit the FA Cup (which I really fancied us for this year). The Champions League was better – we got through a tough qualifying round and a tricky group before losing heavily in Milan. Let’s hope for better next season.
Transfer Prediction – Cesc, Nasri, Almunia, Bendtner and Eboue to leave, one central defender and one central midfielder to arrive
Not far off. Four of the five left, albeit one on loan, while Almunia has now followed. Mertesacker and Arteta filled the spots I was expecting, but Santos and Benayoun were bonuses. The less said about Park, the better.
Player of the Season – Thomas Vermaelen
“A fit season could see him establish himself as one of the finest defenders in the league.”
Yes and no. Vermaelen is a crucial member of our team, but while his spirit and his surges forward are terrific, he did have more defensive lapses than would be expected of a defender touted as one of the best around. Ironically, I don’t actually believe his performances were the best of our centre halves this season, which leads neatly to…
Breakthrough of the Season – Laurent Koscielny
“I’m plumping for another defender, a man who impressed me greatly last season, and could really push on this year. He was inconsistent as times in his debut season, but I expect bigger and better things this time around.”
Bingo! I got one right, at least. Koscielny was fantastic this season, his quiet efficiency at centre half bringing calm and stability to our defence when all around was chaotic. Yes, we conceded a lot, but finger cannot and should not be pointed at the Frenchman, who was not only one of our best, but one of the league’s best.
Press Target – Jack Wilshere
“The media love to build someone up and then pull the rug from under their feet, and it feels like they’ve pushed him as high as they are willing to. Expect a media bashing when he has the inevitable dip that all young players have.”
I stick by this one, and will carry it over to next season. Wilshere is still a young man, and will now have the challenge of coming back from a long term injury, never an easy thing, even without being labelled the most exciting young English talent of a generation. He will be up and down when he returns – all young players are – and the press will strike.
Fan Target – Marouane Chamakh
“Chamakh can expect some unhelpful abuse from the unhelpful idiots who think lambasting a player short of confidence is someone conducive to helping your team.”
The form of van Persie prevented the Moroccan being on the field enough to really spark the ire of the fans, so instead their anger was turned on Aaron Ramsey, one of the most baffling fan decisions I’ve known. In recent years we’ve seen many turn on Denilson for his laziness, Bendtner for his arrogance, and Eboue for his theatrics. Those are all reasonable in their own way, as each of those players could be incredibly infuriating.
But we have always claimed that we would never turn on a player who is trying their best, who is putting in the hard yards to make the most of their ability – the Ray Parlour rule, if you like. Yet this season we broke that rule spectacularly by vilifying a man who never hides, never ducks out, but whose youth and recovery from a serious injury meant that his form was patchy.
With every scream of abuse the Welshman received, my heart sank a little more. He simply didn’t deserve it.
And that is it for 2011/12. A season packed with incident, it will not be looked back on with much fondness, save for some memorable moments. Ultimately, we escaped with third, and must now embark on a summer unlike the last.
Tomorrow I’ll be back with a European Championship preview, and will try to squeeze in a squad analysis at some point too. Football returns!