Arsenal season review: Hope for the future as Gunners get back to basics
Jem Maidment reflects on Arsenal’s campaign after Arsene Wenger’s side rediscovered their steel to confound Tottenham’s head coach Andre Villas-Boas.
That was some “negative spiral”.
Five successive away wins – their best run since 2004 – one Premier League defeat in 15, four clean sheets in six, eight wins in 10, the top flight’s second best defensive record (and the best defensive away record), the top scoring home team … yes, that was some negative spiral alright.
Not for the first time, Arsenal came good when it mattered, pipping Tottenham to the final Champions League place and condemning their rivals to more Thursday nights on ITV4.
Those celebrations after a surprisingly comfortable win at Newcastle – with Arsene Wenger even showing rare emotion on the final whistle – were criticised by many in the national media for being OTT. Where was the trophy, they asked?
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They rather missed the point; this was about a local spat here in north London. Frankly, the rest of the country could go to hell in a handcart.
How Spurs boss Andre Villas-Boas must regret putting the boot into Arsenal – highlighting a perceived downward turn - after watching his side win the derby 2-1 on March 3 to go seven points clear of the Gunners.
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The Portuguese’s amateurish attempt at mind games backfired spectacularly. Think again, Andre.
Arsenal’s form since has been sensational, accumulating 26 points out of a possible 30. In fact, going back even further to a 2-1 loss to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on January 20, it’s been title-winning, providing what Wenger this week called a “springboard” for next season.
So again, frustrated fans are being sold the future. But for the first time in quite a few years, there is genuine cause for optimism – despite a mammoth 16 points separating Arsenal from champions Manchester United.
And it’s down to the welcome return of that dear old friend, defensive resilience.
Only 2012 champions Manchester City conceded fewer than the 37 Arsenal let in. Even more encouragingly, the Gunners’ rearguard was breached only 14 times in 19 away league fixtures. Last season they conceded eight in one game.
That defeat at White Hart Lane two months ago – when complete dominance was ruined by two abysmal defensive lapses in three first-half minutes – ironically seemed to reinvigorate Arsenal.
The central defensive partnership of Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny – the latter, for many, Arsenal’s outstanding performer this season – has since solidified. Club skipper Thomas Vermaelen can’t get a look-in.
In addition, the midfield finally offers adequate protection to its back four. Silly errors are being eradicated. Aaron Ramey, a target for the boo boys, has grown considerably while Mikel Arteta provides wise counsel in the engine room.
Fluid passing – the Gunners completed 21,111 in the league, 1.051 more than their closest challenger Manchester City – is now married to a solidity and steel not seen in a decade.
Wenger spoke of the “special” spirit within the club, but until his charges begin to show more against their immediate rivals, and not just inferior opponents, doubts will remain. Critics will continue to point out obvious flaws.
The Gunners took just two points out of a possible 18 from the three sides who finished above them. Lamentable.
A draw against Chelsea – instead of a pair of 2-1 defeats – would have elevated them to third place. Convert a 2-0 Emirates defeat to Manchester City into a win, and the Gunners would have finished runners-up to Manchester United. Such are the margins.
With Santi Cazorla the pick of the new signings following an eye-catching debut season, Olivier Giroud providing a crude but effective battering ram and Theo Walcott’s glacial development finally taking a huge leap forward after signing a new deal, the Gunners have a varied attacking threat.
Jack Wilshere, again, missed significant chunks of the season after initially returning from long-term injury with a series of outstanding displays. When fully fit, England’s great new hope provides an edge no other Premier League team can boast. Expect, injuries permitting, a big year from him with Brazil 2014 on the horizon.
Goals are not a problem; Arsenal netted seven on two occasions in league and cup – against Reading and Newcastle. Coventry and Southampton shipped six, West Ham and, most memorably, Tottenham five. Arsenal’s goal difference was plus 35 while Spurs’ was plus 20.
But what’s really left a bad taste is some critical lapses of concentration, games that should provide easy pickings ending in failure. Feeble pre-Christmas losses at Norwich and at home to Swansea should not be forgotten, the defeat to League Two outfit Bradford in the League Cup was unacceptable and a 1-0 FA Cup reverse at home to a desperate Blackburn Rovers sparked ugly hostility in the stands.
Wenger’s attitude towards domestic cup competitions continues to infuriate. A trophy is a must - any trophy - because supporters remember successful days out at Wembley, not dreary Champions League group games.
Whoever he buys in the summer – and a top quality goalkeeper, defensive midfielder and a quality striker would be a step in the right direction – they have to hit the ground running.
As do Arsenal. Another lame start, with points dropped and costly, avoidable, defeats will not be tolerated again. With the top three all changing managers, next season could be there for the taking.
The club say there is money to spend. Then spend it.