Yesterday we saw the closing act of a season which promised so much up through the end of February but ultimately saw us finish empty-handed.
February saw us lose the Carling Cup final in calamitous circumstances, sending our side into a tailspin from which they never really recovered.
Exits from the European and FA Cup followed in quick order, as did our hope of the League. We should probably be grateful that the season ended today – another two matches may have seen us fall out of the top four, such was our end-of-season form…
One significant positive from this season is that coming into this afternoon’s match, we were the Prem’s best away team, leading the league in wins (8), points collected (30) and goals scored (37). If our away stats are so good, then it is quite obvious that our home stats are not: we lost as many matches at home (4) as away, gained only 7 more points at the Ems, and actually scored four more goals on the road.
No-hopers do not compile such strong away numbers, and I see this as evidence our squad has the capability to win things. The difference between the home and away form shows we still lack the necessary consistency, and I would say our players have yet to fully develop the “mental strength” and maturity to put it all together. When they accomplish this, trophies shall follow…
Throughout the season, there was much debate regarding the home support and the effect on our players. In our own Emirates version of the Chicken – Egg conundrum, some sections of support blamed the fans for creating an inherently negative home atmosphere, which stifled our players, sapped confidence, and inhibited play through fear of making mistakes.
Other sections felt the team’s underwhelming home form gave supporters little to cheer about, and directly led to an often toxic atmosphere in the stands. This section held up the wins over Chelsea, Barcelona and Man United as examples where the supporters drove the players on to signature wins. We can probably debate this endlessly with neither camp budging from their stated positions. What we shouldn’t debate is that a significant improvement in our home form is absolutely critical for next season.
If we are going to win anything, the Ems needs to well and truly become a fortress – not just for certain visiting teams, but all visitors.
We cannot afford, however to become roadkill in the process of making the Ems a fortress; we simply have to marry the two halves…
That will be an issue for the upcoming season…
We still had one more match to complete this season, a trip over the Craven Cottage to face Fulham. Flash back a year, and Fulham were our final day opponents: a year ago, the match was at the Ems, Roy Hodgson was Fulham manager, and they were focusing on the Europa Cup final versus Atletico Madrid. We were battling Spurs for Champions League seeding: in third place, we needed to win to ensure we held Spurs off. Then, we got the job done.
Yesterday we were fighting for third place, a win was needed and a bit of help from Bolton.
So we travelled across London knowing Cesc would be unavailable, with Samir, JD, Diaby, and Kos facing fitness tests. Of the latter four, only Kos did not make it.
We lined up:
Szczesny, Gibbs, Verm, JD, Sagna, Ramsey, Diaby, Jack, Samir, Robin, and Chamakh. Our bench was Jens, Squil, Miquel, Eboue, Denilson, Theo, and Arsh. Neither Song nor Nik made the squad, and Denilson’s inclusion may have been a surprise, taken in the context of his midweek interview when he emphatically stated he is done at our club.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, we started slowly. Fulham got a couple of early hefty fouls in through Johnson and Hangeland, but we couldn’t do anything with the resulting free kicks. We made the first chance ten minutes in, Jack crossing for Samir, who could only weakly head straight at Schwarzer.
A few minutes later, the unlikely source of Gibbs got in a much better header, this time forcing Schwarzer into a more difficult save. Just as we looked like we were getting to grips with things, the opposition capitalized on a piece of poor defending. This time it was JD – who looks nothing like the composed, assured defender we saw for much of the season – who played Zamora onside.
The latter got away down the right and cut back for Sidwell – one of a seemingly endless procession of former Arsenal trainees who couldn’t make it here, yet have scored against us this season – to place his shot under Szczesny from a few yards out…
Fulham almost doubled the lead a minute later, with Zamora once again beating JD, but this time firing wide…
For once we mustered a quick response. Diaby won the ball in midfield, played a quick one-two with Chamakh, before putting Robin clear. Our number ten calmly beat Schwarzer with a low shot into the left hand corner for a quick equalizer, while extending his league record (now at 9) for scoring in consecutive away matches…
Instead of pressing on, we allowed Fulham to quickly put us under pressure. Verm had to clear off the line from Murphy, who placed his shot past Szczesny. We had a mini-surge in the final few minutes of the half, but did not carve any quality chances out.
There were no changes at the interval, as we looked to take the lead and hopefully overtake Man City to reclaim third place. The first significant event saw Robin booked for dissent. Off a foul on Robin, Samir produced an excellent free kick, forcing Schwarzer to tip wide for a corner (which we yet again wasted).
Then Samir was fouled and Robin sent his kick narrowly wide of the top right corner.
Yet again, we suffered a lapse in concentration, allowing Fulham to reclaim the lead. This time, Greening was given too much time and space on the edge of our box to cross for Zamora, who converted a simple header.
We tried to respond and had a chance when Schwarzer fumbled Robin’s cross. Chamakh was on hand, but wastefully poked the loose ball wide…
A couple of minutes later, Arsene made a triple sub, with Gibbs, Diaby, and Ramsey hauled off for Eboue, Arsh and Theo, Hughes responded by bringing Etuhu and Davies on for Greening and Murphy, respectively. He then made his third and final change with 18 minutes remaining, as Zamora limped off to be replaced by Gera.
The Hungarian’s first contribution was also his last, as he earned a straight red for a high, late, two-footed lunge on Verm. That was a definite sending off and Verm is lucky he was not seriously hurt. Sidwell then followed Gera into the book for bringing Chamakh down. A minute later, Robin was flagged for offside when he was clearly on.
With the extra man, we upped the pressure and forced Fulham further and further back into defence. Arsh then shot narrowly wide. It looked as though Fulham would hold out until a minute from time, when Theo cut inside and fired home off the inside of the post. We had three minutes of stoppage time, but did little and it ended all square.
Manchester City had won their game at Bolton, meaning we had to settle for fourth place.
And so our season ends in all-too-familiar fashion: drawing a game that we really needed to win. A win would have sent us into the off-season feeling a bit better about things. Perhaps – in that context – not winning will serve the club and us better.
While I continue to maintain there are specific areas in which our team made progress, on the whole, it is difficult to say we have progressed overall. We finished with an underwhelming 68 points, dropped one place in the final standings and conceded more goals than last season.
While these can be somewhat balanced out by the emergence of certain players (Jack, Szczesny, and JD to name a few), three signature wins, and the best away record in the league, we still finished empty-handed despite being in the hunt for all four available trophies on the morning of February 27th.
In early April, we were neck-in-neck with Man United for the league title – the proverbial “two horse race” – today, we finish fourth, a massive 12 points behind the champions. With the pressure on, we were able to win only three of our final fourteen matches (from the start of March).
In an appropriate ignominy to the final eleven weeks of our season, we threw the Carling Cup away against a side which has just been relegated…
Much has been – and will probably continue to be – made of that final Sunday in February, as when everything fell apart for us. Certainly, Arsene and many of the players – the latest being Denilson – have stated we just never recovered from that loss. Post-Cup hangovers are not unique to us!
Our hangover has lasted three months – surely our players should be able to pick themselves up at some point. With the exception of the home win over Man United, they never did.
This belies Arsene’s continued claims of “mental strength” (thankfully muted as the season wound down) far more than words from any supporters could…
So now we head into what is bound to be an uncertain off-season.
I have to laugh when I see speculation regarding how much money Arsene will have to invest in the squad, who he will sign, what his strategy is, etc. As we all know by now, he gives NOTHING away – never has, never will. So he may radically alter the squad, or he may bring it back more or less intact. We won’t know for a while yet. I shall not get worked up over it only a couple of hours after this season’s final whistle; no point in it…
Friday evening saw sudden widespread speculation that Velez Sarsfield Argentine winger Ricky Alvarez had agreed to sign for us. Then it died down as suddenly as it started. Shortly after the final whistle today, reports emerged suggesting that he would be unveiled as an Arsenal signing once the Clausura finished. More on that if/when Alvarez’s signing is actually confirmed.
On the other hand, we know Denilson is gone – he said so himself. There are a few other members of the squad – some conspicuous by their absences today – who will probably depart. But until movement is confirmed, it remains speculation…
On the basis of the last several weeks, I think most of us can agree that there is lots of work to be done this summer. If not adding players, then certainly adding another dimension to our playing style; one that makes it harder for teams to nullify us as easily as they did at times during this season.
The players will be headed into their off-season now, and here is hoping they all do something they enjoy – something that will allow them to take their mind off football for a few weeks, rest, recharge, and come back ready for training and the upcoming season…
On the subject of breaks, I don’t think anyone needs one more than Arsene. For his sake – and the club’s – I hope he gets himself away from it all. He looked worse and worse as the season wound down: tired, stressed, discouraged, disillusioned. A walking melt-down, if you will…
There are no more matches to play for this season, so surely he can afford to get away from the thick of it all and stay in email (bring your crackberry this time) or phone contact? Surely there are competent people now at the club who can handle player transactions and any other squad-related issues that may arise?
If not, and he cannot afford to be away, then we have a very, very unhealthy situation, for both the club and Arsene personally. There is plenty of work to be done, but surely his hands-on involvement can wait for at least a couple of weeks while he recharges, can’t it?
I have my thoughts on what may help us get over the proverbial hump next season, as well as on certain players who were part of this season’s squad. I’ll save all that for another post. The season is over, and there is plenty of time to collect, formulate and express these specific thoughts.
For now, I head into the offseason disappointed for having so little to show for a fine first 2/3 of the season; but also knowing that time heals these sorts of disappointments and that the new season will bring new hope.
Let’s hope that Arsene and the players return rested, fit and ready to do four better this upcoming season…
Written by Oliver