JEM MAIDMENT reviews memorable but trophy-less Gunners season
Arsene Wenger s assertion in his final press conference of the season on Wearside, that his side had lost a 100metres race by a fraction of a second may have been papering over some cracks, but there is no doubt Arsenal are a club on the rise. Tipped to
Arsene Wenger's assertion in his final press conference of the season on Wearside, that his side had "lost a 100metres race by a fraction of a second" may have been papering over some cracks, but there is no doubt Arsenal are a club on the rise.
Tipped to be replaced by Spurs in the top four last August, instead the Gunners led the Premier League for most of the campaign, produced a quality of football their rivals could only sit back and marvel at.
Third place may seem disappointing, but is in reality - given the financial clout of Manchester United and, of course, Chelsea - a remarkable achievement.
Unbeaten at home all season, they lost just three times in 38 league games and finished seven points clear of fourth-placed Liverpool - and a massive 18 points ahead of Everton in the Uefa Cup place.
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They still had an outside chance of the title right up to the penultimate week of the league campaign.
Only a wretched six week period in the final third of the season denied the Gunners a fourth Premier League title under the Frenchman - and a possible second Champions League final in three seasons.
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It's all in the fours. Just four points separate his young gems from champions Manchester United. And Arsenal were just four minutes away from a European semi-final date with Chelsea when annoying defensive lapses - ultimately their undoing in a season of delight and despair - at Anfield saw the pendulum swing away from north London.
It is absolutely key Wenger buys - and buys big - in defence this summer if Arsenal are to win their first trophy in four years.
On the flanks he has the finest full-back pairing in the top flight in the faultless Bacary Sagna - a revelation in his first season at the club - and Gael Clichy, whose stunning defensive displays reminded fans of Ashley Cole in less sullen, money-motivated days.
He has also, finally, earned a deserved call-up to the France squad this season despite the left-back position being one of the most keenly contested in Les Bleus' squad.
But it is the middle where urgent surgery is required. Kolo Toure has barely reached his high standards since January's Africa Cup of Nations.
The Ivory Coast's demands have been felt back here in north London, while being moved to cover at right-back on several occasions further reduced his effectiveness. The defender will have earned his summer rest back home in Abidijan.
Then we come to captain William Gallas, known for his eccentricities - it's rumoured he only bathes in Evian - and outbursts. As an all-out defender, there are few finer at practising the art. As a skipper he has been abysmal, possibly the worst in the club's recent history.
A thorough lack of leadership and discipline has contributed directly to Arsenal's demise since the start of spring. He must toss aside the skipper's armband.
The Swiss cover of the perpetually poor Philippe Senderos and Johan Djourou is inadequate. Better reserves are needed.
For the first time in a generation Arsenal cannot keep hold of leads - remember Old Trafford, Anfield and Stamford Bridge? A stronger spine will go some way to addressing this fatal problem.
Wenger has his chequebook ready - and wants to buy before prices inflate post-Euro 2008.
"I know what I want and I am very confident - I hope to turn that around in the next two or three weeks," he said this week.
In midfield the loss of Mathieu Flamini can be absorbed. It took the Frenchman three years to settle into his role and although his workrate was exceptional, better all-round midfielders can complement Cesc Fabregas.
Do not be surprised if Wenger's first summer signing is a partner for the Catalan. Again, though, top quality is needed.
He must rue allowing Lassana Diarra to leave for Portsmouth in the January transfer window.
"Arsene must buy players who are ready for the starting XI immediately, not in one, two or three years," former Arsenal manager George Graham told Wood&Vale Sport.
More physical strength is required in the middle third and in the dynamic Alex Song and injury-hit Abou Diaby - who Wenger has indicated he has high hopes in for a central midfield berth - the Gunners may already possess it. Denilson, on the other hand, has yet to convince.
Guile and flair is needed badly - along with some brute strength. Everything must be done to allow Fabregas to continue to dominate games at will.
In forward positions, when all available, Wenger's attackers are as good as any - 74 league goals is only bettered by the champions.
Eduardo was blossoming in red and white until that sickening leg break at Birmingham in February.
If, and when, he returns, Arsenal could have an exceptional "new signing" to unleash for the business end of next season.
Nicklas Bendtner also offers a more direct alternative and can be pleased with his contribution this campaign, even if he has yet to make many good friends among his colleagues. Emmanuel Adebayor must show this season's 30 goals are no fluke while there are now serious questions being raised over Robin van Persie's long-term future.
Maybe the club's most talented individual when fully fit, the opinionated Rotterdammer has been plagued by injury after injury. Clearly frustrated, van Persie desperately needs an uninterrupted season under his belt to fully flourish.
A fit van Persie would be welcome in any top side in Europe. Wenger knows the difference between success and failure is minute and the bench, as they say, is where titles can be won or lost.
A better class of bums on seats can swing the pendulum back in Arsenal's favour next term.
PLAYER OF THE SEASON
While Bacary Sagna has enjoyed a remarkable debut season and for moments, particularly in the opening months of the season, Cesc Fabregas was a contender for best midfielder in Europe, one player stands head and shoulders above his colleages for me: Emmanuel Adebayor.
The Togo striker has been a revelation from the off and he reached the magical 30 mark with a hat-trick at Derby County on April 28.
Strong, athletic and with an eye for goal, he has effortlessly taken Thierry Henry's mantle as the No.1 striker at the club and would also take the award for most improved player at the club.
VILLAIN OF THE SEASON
Arsenal fans usually have goodwill in abundance for anyone in red and white. It's almost run out for William Gallas. His pathetic display of petulance at Birmingham in February sent out a signal, loud and clear, to Sir Alex Ferguson that Arsenal's resolve was crumbling. His cheerful demeanour, sharing a joke with Patrice Evra as the Gunners were losing 4-0 at Manchester United in the FA Cup, was appallingly tactless. What would "real" leaders such as Vieira, Adams or McLintock have made of it?
MATCH OF THE SEASON
The 2-0 win at Champions League holders Milan saw Wenger's side reach new heights.
Former Gunner Paul Merson confidently predicted after the 0-0 first-leg draw that it was Arsenal's tie for the taking, but few believed it. Instead a controlled, measured display and Wenger's tactical acumen worked a treat. Cesc Fabregas, who scored the first, dominated the likes of Andrea Pirlo and Gennaro Gattusso - and Theo Walcott produced a fine cameo to set up a late second for Emmanuel Adebayor. Stunning work.
DEFEAT OF THE SEASON
A toss-up between the 5-1 at Tottenham or the 4-0 at Manchester United.
On a local level, the White Hart Lane massacre still hurts and will do for years to come. To lose so convincingly just 90 minutes from Wembley was a body blow.
But the FA Cup loss at Old Trafford arguably proved costlier. It gave United the impetus and belief to push on for the title - and it stopped the Gunners in their tracks. Nearly 10,000 travelling Arsenal fans were left dumbfounded at one of Wenger's darkest hours. The lack of fight was disrespectful to both their opponents and those wonderful supporters. Arsenal didn't win again domestically for six weeks.
WHO TO WATCH FOR NEXT SEASON While Wenger expects new signings before the start of the European Championships, the club already possesses some of Europe's brightest prospects. Expect English midfielder Mark Randall, given a squad number this term, to figure more next term. Dutchman Nacer Barazite is another tipped within the club to make a breakthrough and Alex Song could make the biggest impact of them all after impressing in recent matches.