The meltdown since the 2006 Champions League final in Paris continues at the Emirates Stadium, with the mighty Arsenal FC of North London ending yet another year without any silverware. That is of course if you ignore the preseason victories which included the Marcus Leibherr Memorial Trophy and some silverware on their South East Asian tour. This should partially be blamed upon the European Championships in the summer, which caused Arsenal to cancel their annual Emirates Cup tournament, a trophy they can at least call as a ‘serious something’. Well, well.
If it wasn’t a surprise in the previous season, Arsenal lost yet another talisman of a player to their bitter rivals, Manchester United, in the form of a Robin van Persie. Robin seemingly left for the lure of victories and has since been kind enough to gift bitter Arsenal fans an autographed copy of a picture, depicting him holding the EPL trophy. Good for you Robin, good for you indeed.
Post the fiasco that saw van Persie leave north London, Arsenal managed to make three top signings, with one of them being confirmed before the end of the 2011-12 season itself. That would be the capture of German international, Lukas Podolski from relegated Bundesliga-side FC Cologne.
This was followed up by the quick captures of Malaga midfielder, Santi Cazorla, who had to forcibly leave the Spanish side due to their financial troubles. And then came the player who was touted to be the immediate replacement for the exited Dutchman, Olivier Giroud. These three marquee signings partly overshadowed the return of good old (and bald) Arsenal legend, Steve Bould to the first team. As the assistant manager of course to replace Pat Rice, who could not be coaxed away from his decision to retire by Arsene Wenger anymore.
To look back at 2012-13, there are quite a few things that have handed Arsene Wenger’s boys a 16th successive run-in into European football’s top tier.
Technically, Arsenal started the season with three conventional center forwards in the squad and a supremely talented Englishman who was mutinying to be deployed in that role ahead of the rest.
As a fact, Arsenal used a different center forward in 14 of the 38 league games.
In Giroud, Arsene had the option to deploy the classical center forward. A tough, muscular player who could hold up the ball, was rapidly adapting to Arsenal’s pass and push forward game and was an aerial threat too. Statistically so, a sizeable chunk of Giroud’s 17 goals this season have come via aerial means.
Podolski though usually placed on the left side of the pitch can be used as a centre forward and led the attack for Arsenal on numerous occasions. Though the relatively diminutive Podolski lacked the raw brute force personified by Giroud, the German made up for it with a show of blistering pace, high precision crosses and a powerful long range shooting ability.
In Gervinho, Arsenal had the typical flair player who could drift across the front-line, even after starting up front, with an expectation to dig into the box from the sides to latch on to crosses from the wingers or to provide a certain amount of aerial dominance when necessary. Though primarily seen by many as a play-maker cum striker, Gervinho’s poor finishing and lethargic attitude towards counter-attacks has marred his ability to dominate Arsenal’s lone center forward slot.
The presence of three strikers allowed Arsene to choose a center forward suited to the type of defense tactics fielded by the opponents. In the game versus Southampton, Gervinho’s role created much trouble for the Saints who usually play a high line of defense. The result was, Gervinho ended up scoring two from inside the box.
A little while later, Giroud put in a splendid performance against Fulham, which saw him earn a place in the Premier League Team of the month. Giroud lacks pace but his dynamism up front caused troubles to the deep set defense of Fulham marshaled by the likes of Brede Hangeland.
Theo Walcott, let’s talk about you now. After many seasons of being a product under development this was expected to be the season when Arsenal’s alleged talisman would carry the club on his shoulders.
Of the two Soton boys in north London, Bale is undoubtedly the one ahead in the race carrying Tottenham single-handedly for a third season in a row. Bale is all about details. While both players are typical speed merchants, the Welshman is the more accomplished of the two when it comes to killing with the ball. Walcott on the other hand can be lethargic in attack or misses out on easy-as-pie goal scoring opportunities.
With 14 goals and 10 assists in the league, Walcott may not be the season savior he is touted to be, but he does offer Arsene options up front when necessary, with his ability to start on the sides or as a lone poacher up front.
Two and a Half Spaniards
The author claims all responsibility for the above subtitle and it is a subtle reference to the two Spaniards who have contributed majorly to Arsenal’s half-decent fortunes this season. Santiago Cazorla and Mikel Arteta. The half-Spaniard reference has been attributed to Arsenal’s Welsh chocolate-boy, Aaron Ramsey.
Post recovery from the Shawcross incident, Ramsey had cut a somewhat sorry figure in the heart of Arsenal’s formation, except for the occasional goal that saw the likes of Osama bin Laden and Kim Jong Il lose their lives. The most dominant of Ramsey’s follies had been his ability to squander possession or to go down easily on the slightest of touches. This can be mainly attributed to the psychological impact Shawcross’ lunge had on Ramsey’s game after recovery. But slowly and steadily, Ramsey has grown into a completely new player over time and has been an integral part of Arsenal’s post February recovery this season.
After being relieved of his god-knows-why duties on the right wing, Ramsey was paired alongside Arteta in a midfield diamond, with Wilshere or Cazorla often alternating ahead of the two. Ramsey’s position was more dynamic compared to Mikel Arteta, who possess the discipline to maintain the shape of the formation and is by far the more intelligent tackler. In the absence of Abou Diaby, Ramsey was also expected to jog up ahead in attack, becoming a box-to-box midfielder of sorts.
Ramsey is essentially becoming the prime cog of Arsenal’s midfield. Arteta shores up the first line of defense that was vacated by the departure of Alex Song. Cazorla, Wilshere or Rosicky are burdened with the creation of chances or running the business end of things behind the front-line. Walcott and Podolski on the flanks do the infrequent runs in towards the center while usually delivering crosses after collecting the ball from the midfield. Ramsey on the other hand does a little bit of it all. He covers for Arteta when necessary, presses forward during an emergency or simply passes to maintain distribution. A typically Spanish, all-in-one role as embodied by the legendary Xavi at Barcelona. Though not at the same level, Ramsey does maintain the ability to reach at least a fraction of the Spaniards greatness.
After having been voted as Arsenal’s Player of the Season, there is no reason to take away any of the glory from the highly underrated diminutive player from the Asturias region of Spain. While his stats might not weigh up to the level of Juan Mata or Eden Hazard for Chelsea, or Philippe Coutinho for Liverpool in the second half of the season, Cazorla has been worth thrice the value the club have paid for him.
Immediately after his arrival in north London, Cazorla was dropped into a role that was never suited to his style of play. Just behind the lone center forward, in the hole. A role that was neither that of a traditional second-striker of that of an attacking midfielder. Yet his stellar performance against Liverpool that saw him bag a goal and assist another, made him Arsenal’s new talisman for the season, and hopefully for many more to come. Until December, Cazorla was the sole star in a squad that was plagued by defensive issues and goal-scoring problems. Cazorla was creating chances and winning games single-handedly as well. Cazorla’s match winning performance in October against Man United supplemented his credentials as the best passer across the top five leagues in Europe, ahead of Xavi, Schweinstiger and Mata. It was a sheer game of tactical brilliance, as Cazorla’s deployment as a second-striker meant he dropped back to collect the ball and then surging upwards to score with his sweet left foot.
With Tomas Rosicky available for selection post-Christmas, the burdened was eased off Cazorla’s shoulders and the duo could split creative duties. While not as significant, Rosicky’s contribution to Arsenal’s creative side of affairs must not be undermined this season.
It remains to be seen if Wenger will purchase another creative midfielder to support the ageing Rosicky. This will certainly take the pressure of Cazorla further who can then be deployed on the flanks allowing him to cut in occasionally and join in attack.
Mikel Arteta. This man is the glue that holds them all together. Last season was about Robin scoring goals freely with a number of other structural deficiencies being masked by the overall brilliance of the Dutchman.
Arteta and Alex Song were a midfield pair with no cohesion often causing Arsenal to leak goals at an alarming rate. Song’s inconsistency in jogging back to cover the defense, coupled with Arteta’s focus on playmaking post the departure of Fabregas meant that Arsenal had no co-ordination or discipline in their midfield.
But with the loss of Alex Song and Abou Diaby, Arteta was the one man Wenger turned to save his season. Apart from his abilities as a natural leader, Arteta is a visionary passer and can dictate attacks on his own terms. All Arsene had to do was reverse engineer the attacking nature and have Arteta use his intelligence to break down attacks from the opposition. At 3.2 tackles per game and an average of 3 interceptions, he was easily Arsenal’s best defensive player this season, while also retaining his crown of being one of the top 10 passers in the league and across the top five leagues in Europe.
While he had a number of partners in midfield over the season, Arteta’s relationship with Ramsey has been the most effectively forged one against those with Jack Wilshere or Abou Diaby.
BFG-Kos and the Belgian’s Loss
With three top notch center backs in the side, it was only valid that the likes of Johann Djourou and Sebastien Squillaci would never see the light of day at Arsenal this season. While they duo did make a couple of lowly Cup appearances this season, their time at Arsenal was nearing an end due to the presence of Per Mertesacker, Laurent Koscielny and Thomas Vermaelen.
The pairing of Per and Kos was not an act of tactical genius on the part of Arsene Wenger, but a simple by-product of mix and match tried out by the Professor at the heart of his team’s defense.
For some inexplicable reason, Arsenal went without shipping a goal in their first three games of the season but were a massively leaky bucket for a major part of it until mid-February again. The first three goalless draws were attributed to the genius of Steve Bould, though Arsene did seem to muddy things up on the managerial front after he did seem to bring his own attacking strategies to the fore.
Mertesacker being dropped in the 2-1 home defeat against Chelsea could be considered as AW’s first major gaffe of the season. While he was deemed to be to slow to rein in Chelsea’s attack, Per returned to the side and was a mainstay thereon.
Arsenal’s new captain, Thomas Vermaelen was to be a figurative leader from the start of the season itself. And with the added burden of captaincy, it took a toll on his defensive responsibilities and post-Christmas Vermaelen saw himself being hurled down the pecking order, below Laurent Koscielny.
Per and Kos were the perfect pair after the defeat to Tottenham. With ten games to go, Arsenal racked up eight victories and two draws. During this period, the defense boasted of five clean sheets and only a single goal conceded in the 1-1 draw against Man United. The other highlight of this period was a string of 1-0 victories that was reminiscent of George Allison’s famous quote about Arsenal’s defensive minded play of years past,
“It’s 1-0 to the Arsenal, and that’s the way we like it.”
Koscielny and Mertesacker’s complementing style of play aided Arsenal’s case in the Champions League place run-in. While Koscielny is quick footed and a hard tackler, Mertesacker’s is more composed and marshals the backline with a certain air of wisdom. Koscienly can snuff out attacks more dynamically while Per is Arsenal’s guard in the air, consistently winning tougher aerial duels.
Vermaelen may not have had his spot in the sun this season, but the Belgian boulder shall make his way into the side next season and claim his place in the heart of the defense.
Lukas Fabianski deserves praise for stepping up his game during Wojciech Szczesny’s absence and for effectively overcoming his frayed-nerves syndrome, that earned him the moniker, Flappyhandski.
Natcho Monreal and Kieran Gibbs for effectively ridding Arsenal of the plague that has marred Arsenal down the left flank since the days of Ashley Cole’s exit.
Carl Jenkinson for being an exemplary player when called upon, though his rise has been subdued by the presence of the more experienced, Bacary Sagna.
Robin van Persie for being nice enough to take a successful dig at Arsenal’s most hated fan, Piers Morgan.
The individual brilliance of a handful number of players does not cover the fact that time is fast running out for Arsenal. The paper that was covering the cracks has given away and the clubs miseries are gaping in the face of their fans. The local fans are being priced out of home games, due to price tickets that have been tailored to suit the needs of tourists.
Arsenal are losing their essence as a club. While Highbury was recognized warmly as the Home of Football, the Emirates Stadium is an ugly corporate entity that overshadows the beauty of football being played in its bosom. Though the club claims to be reaching out to fans more than before, it is simply a statistic. The falling attendances at home games are a stark reminder that even the most loyal Arsenal fans are being irked by the policies being implemented.
The next season would probably be the last one for Arsene Wenger to bring home some major silverware, before the Arsenal faithful cry out for his neck. A couple of smart, Wengeresque signings in the right areas, especially the goal-keeper crisis and the lack of a free-scoring striker, need to be resolved.
We love you Arsenal, oh love you we do.
Graphs via Squawka.com
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