Arsenal added the motto ‘Forward’ to the bottom of the club’s crest for the 125th anniversary season, and for a large slice of the season, that was looking like an embarrassing move. It seemed like we were a club in decline, and one that was definitely moving backwards. No-one could have envisaged that we’d end the season with a higher points total than the previous campaign, and finish a place higher.
It might only be a small step, but we have gone forward as a team and as a club this season. Whilst we should be rightly pleased at how we recovered from the dreadful start, this achievement shouldn’t be looked at as the be all and end all for this group of players. It needs to be the start of something.
We’ve stumbled over the line, but finishing third not only puts us back in the Champions League group stage, it gives us more clout when negotiating new contracts for certain members of the current squad, and helps us in the transfer market to attract players. One of the reasons for the ill-advised trolley dash at the end of last summer was that we weren’t able to guarantee potential signings that they’d be playing in Europe’s top competition because of the Champions League qualifier with Udinese. We won’t have that problem this summer.
The win at West Brom to confirm our place in third was hardly convincing, and arguably doesn’t give us much hope for the future considering some of the elements of the performance. However in the last match of the season, the performance is irrelevant. If there is something significant to play for, so long as you get the right result, no-one really cares.
We undoubtedly got significant slices of luck with some interesting goalkeeping from Marton Fulop. It seems like Manuel Almunia has been embarking on a little tour of Premier League clubs in the last couple of weeks. After giving Wojciech Szczesny some tips ahead of our game with Norwich, he then got Marton Fulop to deliver an Almunia master class.
The first mistake was slightly reminiscent of Almunia’s spectacular error that he made at the same end of the same ground in the previous season. Yossi Benayoun deserves credit for closing Fulop down and putting him under pressure, but Fulop couldn’t have tied the bow on the present any better if he tried. The second mistake wasn’t catastrophic, but Santos’ shot was still saveable. The Brazilian’s effort was well struck, and it was good to see an Arsenal player shoot from outside the box, but Fulop gave it a helping hand.
Fulop then saved his best until last. His punch back towards his own goal was quite impressive, and Laurent Koscielny was well placed to flick the ball in. It was scrappy, but it was vital.
Defensively, once again we were horribly open. The first West Brom goal came about from our high line getting caught out as the offside trap didn’t work. Shane Long did look like he’d started his run a fraction too early, but we took a risk with our high line. Plus, Andre Santos was absolutely nowhere to be seen. Had he been in the left back position, he could have covered round and Long wouldn’t have had a clear run on goal, offside or not. Santos has clear ability on the ball and when going forward, but his positional sense defensively simply isn’t good enough to be a regular Premier League full back. I love his character, and he’s a good squad player, but Kieran Gibbs will have to be our first choice if fit at the start of next season.
Thomas Vermaelen’s radar has gone seriously awry in the last weeks of the season, and he was hopelessly out of position for the second goal. He tried to play offside, whilst the others dropped deep. That really shouldn’t be happening at the end of the season when the centre backs have played with each other enough times.
Some individual players deserve a mention from the match. Wojciech Szczesny had a nightmare against Norwich, but recovered well and apparently played through the pain of an injury to take the field against West Brom. He didn’t have much hope with either of the goals, but made some good saves in the second half to keep us ahead. Despite the knock his confidence could have taken, he still looked to command his area and didn’t look phased, compared to the man between the sticks at the other end.
Kieran Gibbs has also suffered from a dip in form in recent weeks, but his tackle at the end of the match embodied why this group of Arsenal players are different to the more disjointed teams we’ve had in recent seasons. At that stage of the season, players could have been relaxed and been thinking of the beach, but Gibbs put everything on the line with that tackle. He had to time it right and put his body in danger, and he did it. At the end of last season, when we were in a similar position to claim third, I doubt the players would have been willing to make such a risky challenge and be ready to put themselves in danger in that way.
We’ve acknowledged it during the whole season, that generally the team have been down on quality, but the team spirit and commitment to the club has seen them through in some tough situations. Quality can be added if we’re smart in the transfer market, but that spirit can be harder to build up. We’ve already got plenty of it, and should our captain stay, it’ll serve us well next season.
There are many moments that could be picked out as crucial to the season, crucial to finishing one point ahead of Spurs and crucial to avoiding the agony of fretting throughout the Champions League. Vermaelen’s winner against Newcastle, Henry’s winner at Sunderland, van Persie’s winner at Liverpool and Benayoun’s header against Aston Villa all stand out, however I can’t help but look past the North London derby at the Emirates as the match that truly turned our season.
We’d had some good results up to that point, but were on a poor run of form and could have gone 13 points behind Tottenham. Indeed at 2-0, it was looking like that would be the case. However the fans and everyone at the club seemed to truly unite, and from the moment Bacary Sagna powered in the header, there seemed little doubt that we’d go on to win the match and ultimately preserve the footballing equilibrium in North London. We’ve stuttered at the end, but the confidence gained from that match meant that the team still knew they had enough in them to beat West Brom as they were determined to see a St Totteringham’s Day this season. Tottenham have had a good season, and if we were going to finish above them, it was always likely to mean a place in the top three, so having the extra incentive of chasing them down undoubtedly helped this team.
It’s not a cliché or an exaggeration to say this season has been really up and down for Arsenal fans. Has it been a successful season? Realistically, no, as we should be constantly trying to push on as a club, and be looking to win trophies. However no team has a divine right to win trophies or finish in the top three. We were in a seriously sticky situation at the start of the season, and to finish in a higher position in the league, and with more points should be viewed as a success, even if it isn’t a major one.
Arsene Wenger was written off so many times by the press, but he has shown great commitment to Arsenal and to his own style of management, and helped blow away a few of the dark clouds that gathered over his head at times this season. He deserves a rest after the stresses and strains he’s been through this season, but he’ll know more than anyone that his job doesn’t stop while the players are either on the beach or at the Euros. Having worked hard to maintain our place at Europe’s top table, he has a good platform on which to build on for next season. If he does that, we can be looking towards a more major success in 2012/13.
A final word for Pat Rice. The way the players hoisted him up in front of the travelling Gooners on Sunday was recognition of the respect they have for him as an Arsenal legend, as a colleague, and as a man. He’ll be greatly missed, but should always serve as an inspiration to others who work or play at Arsenal. Thanks Pat.
I’m going to rate, and in some cases slate, the Arsenal squad for the past season in some end of season exam blog posts, after a two week break for my own end of year exams! Thanks for all of your comments on this blog during the season. To say it’s been eventful would be an understatement, but we’ve come out of it alive and with a hint of progress. Roll on August!