Saturday, May 26, 2012

The 2011/12 Season Review (2) – Games

A couple of weeks before the season ended, Daily Mail compiled the top 10 Premier-League games of the season (obviously the list didn't include the most dramatic game of the season that sealed Manchester City's championship win nor any of the final-day matches). Out of those 10 games, Arsenal were involved in four (two for wrong reasons from our point of view): namely, those against Manchester United at Old Trafford, Blackburn at Ewood Park, Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, and Tottenham at Emirates Stadium. This means that we, Arsenal supporters, have enjoyed the best value out of this Premier-League season.

We reflect on some of the most memorable games of the season.


The most entertaining game of the season


Chelsea 3 Arsenal 5 at Stamford Bridge

Roberto Di Matteo may have guided his side to the glory of the Champions League victory, but his team haven't produced a game as entertaining as this one they played under AVB. Some attributed the goal fest to poor defence by the both teams, but it was a very open game, in which the two top teams demonstrated their attacking prowess. Although Arsenal went into this game on the back of three consecutive league wins, we started feeling that this was going to be a long afternoon to endure, as soon as the game had kicked off. After 90 minutes, we came away with all three points and boosted confidence. It was a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon.


The best and most important game of the season


Arsenal 5 Tottenham 2 at Emirates Stadium

The stage was perfectly set for this classic north London derby. Arsenal needed to respond to their massive disappointments: namely, the the 4-0 defeat to AC Milan and the early exist from the FA Cup competition. Tottenham supporters were taunting us that "the gap" between the two clubs was to be extended to 13 points after this game, and we, the Arsenal Playa Flamenca Supporters Club, were in Benidorm to watch this game as the focal point of our annual Benidorm trip.

Theo Walcott referred to this game as the "turning point" of his performance this season. Arsene Wenger considered replacing him at half time as the home crowd's frustration towards the Englishman was becoming overwhelming, but he decided against it. His decision was vindicated as Theo went on to score two goals against the north London rivals. We are not totally sure if this was truly the turning point for Theo's performance as he had a few more off-days after this game, but this game certainly reignited Tomas Rosicky's form.

This game was arguably the turning point for the team, as well. Following the heartbreak we suffered in the previous two games, conceding two goals in the first 34 minutes in such an unjust manner could have been a devastating blow, but Arsenal refused to give in and showed their determination not to lose. Their steel demonstrated in this derby match set the tone for Arsenal's run of wins in the coming weeks. Since this game, "the gap" has began closing quickly and eventually turned around.

The best performance of the season

Manchester City 1 Arsenal 0 at Etihad Stadium

Arsenal 1 Manchester City 0 at Emirates Stadium

The game in Manchester proved that there was very little between the two sides and we were unlucky to lose. The both teams produced an excellent performance both offensively and defensively. In the reverse fixture in April, Arsenal were easily a better side as a majority of Man City players looked demoralised. However, it took Arsenal 87 minutes to break the deadlock through Arteta's superb solo effort as Manchester City captain Kompany and keeper Hart put in some courageous efforts. These games showed that when they played to the best of their abilities, Arsenal were as good as or better than the Premier League champions.

The most exciting winner of the season

Arsenal 2 Newcastle 1 at Emirates Stadium

It looked like the game was heading for a 1-1 draw despite Arsenal's efforts to find an elusive goal and then Vermaelen dashed forward to put the ball at the back of the net at the death of the match. Arsenal showed their resilience again, coming from behind in the fourth game in a row. Las Mimosas Bar, our usual venue, exploded with joy.

The bravest effort of the season

Arsenal 3 AC Milan 0 at Emirates Stadium (Champions League Round of Last 16)

Arsenal gave everything to overturn the four-goal deficit from the first leg of the tie and put in an impressive performance, but sadly they run out of steam in the second half and there was no fit players on the bench to refresh the tired midfield. Their determination and spirited first-half performance did us proud. They gave us exhilarating 60 minutes with hopes of progressing to the next round of the Champions League, which we, supporters, had never dreamt of after the first leg. Arsenal bowed out of the Champions League, but their pride was restored.

The most magical moment of the season

Arsenal 1 Leeds 0 at Emirates Stadium (FA Cup Third Round)

As Arsene Wenger said, fairy tales seldom happen to us, but this game was a real fairy tale story. In the season Thierry Henry had his statue built, he came back to his old club on a short-term loan to help them out. The legendary striker came off the bench in his first game of his return and scored a winner to send Arsenal into the next round of the FA Cup. Las Mimosas bar erupted with euphoria. Many, including us at the Arsenal Playa Flamenca Supporters Club, were initially sceptical about what impact the 34 year-old striker could make on the pitch, but his short loan spell proved to be priceless even just for this magic moment.

We are going to focus on key players' individual performances in the next post.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The 2011/12 Season Review (1) – Overview

Many Arsenal fans will remember this season as one of their toughest seasons they have ever experienced. Our faith in Arsene Wenger was severely tested at the beginning of the season (or all through the season for those sceptical) and we faced a number of ups and downs throughout the season.

We got off to the worse start to a season in 58 years. Amid the disturbing newspaper reports regarding the departures of Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas, we went into the first game of the season, during and after which we lost Gervinho and Alex Song to suspensions. Things didn't get any better in the following match against Liverpool, as Frimpong was sent off and Arsenal were beaten 2-0 at home partly thanks to a very unlucky own goal. By the time we faced Manchester United at Old Trafford, Nasri and Fabregas had already left us, it had been made clear that we would have to do without Jack Wilshere and Thomas Vermaelen for some while, and the tough battle against Udenese in the qualifying for the Champions League Group Stage had taken its toll on the physical side of Arsenal's game. On top of three suspensions, injuries and illness forced Arsenal to field a largely inexperienced side consisting of mainly second-string players against the reigning champions. The rest is history.

The crushing 8-2 defeat seemed to have served as a wake-up call. On the final day of the summer transfer window, Arsenal signed five new players, including a loan deal. Although none of the new signings overly excited us at the time, we were happy with the fact that Wenger took some action to rectify the present situation. At least, we didn't endure the humiliation at Old Trafford for nothing. If you thought these seven days, starting from the dramatic victory over Udenese to secure a place in the Champions League Group Stage and ending on the busy closing day of the summer transfer window, were an emotional roller coaster, it was only a beginning.

Before the newly-rebuilt team gelled together, Arsenal had to suffer two more defeats, by the hands of Blackburn and Tottenham. On 18 September, Arsenal were 17th in the Premier League table with only four points from five games. On 15 October, they had collected only seven points from the opening seven games. Apparently, no team had ever finished in the top four from such a poor start.

Following the bitter defeat to the north London rivals, Arsenal's unbeaten run started, which lasted for 10 games in all competitions until it was ended by the Carling Cup defeat by Manchester City. However, Arsenal maintained their solid league form, suffering only one defeat in December to Manchester City (which was very unlucky as we played very well and should have been given a penalty).

January was a dismal month. Arsenal did not manage a single win in the Premier League, although they won two FA Cup matches thanks to a great help from Thierry Henry, who rejoined his old club on a short-term loan. The poor form in January was largely attributed to the fact that we had no recongnised full-backs.

In February, Arsenal's winning streak resumed in the Premier League, but they suffered a devastating blow to their hopes of progressing in the Champions League and got knocked out of the FA Cup competition. When Arsenal had been knocked out of different competitions successively in a short space of time, the effects were detrimental as seen in recent years. However, this crop of players showed great characters and responded perfectly to their disappointment in the next game, a massive north London derby.

At this point, "the gap" between the two rival clubs was 10 points (on the final day of January, Arsenal were 13 points adrift of Spurs). The fortunes of the two clubs were to be turned around as Arsenal extended their excellent league form into March and April, while Tottenham's form was adversely affected by speculations that Harry Redknapp might have been offered the England coach position. We witnessed the gap being quickly closed and then Arsenal overtaking Spurs.

Arsenal's scintillating form continued through to early April until they lost Arteta to an ankle injury against Wigan. The last four games of the season were very nervous affairs for Arsenal and us supporters, too. Arsenal could have secured third place before the final day, had they not dropped so many points in the previous four games. Nonetheless, we got what we wanted in the end on the very final day of the season. The team showed that they could still get the job done, even when they could not play beautiful football.

This season will also be remembered as a year of comeback. A new Premier League record of four successive comeback wins established by Arsenal speaks volumes for their resilience. Stats show that Arsenal gained 24 of their 70 Premier League points (34.3 per cent) from losing positions, winning seven games from behind. In fact, the season itself was one massive comeback story, rising up the table from the 17th to finish third spot. Combined with the evidence on the last day of the season that this season's crop of players can grind out the result even when they cannot play well, this mental strength is a positive we can take from this season.

After the disastrous start, our goal for this season was always a Champions League spot to build on for the next season. In October, many doubted that we would even finish in the top four. We are aware that there are quite a few fans moaning about another trophy-less season, but there are only three trophies worth winning and they are hard to come by. Liverpool's dismissal of Kenny Dalgleish implies that a Carling Cup success is not good enough to make up for a disappointing Premier League result. Considering what Arsenal have been through this season, a third-place finish is not such a bad thing. Besides, the "worse-ever" Arsenal team finished above the "best Tottenham team since 1961". That's something to shout about.

We will look back at games that marked the 2011/12 season and reflect on our key players' performances in the next posts.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

West Brom 2 Arsenal 3

It was not our best performance, but we got the result we wanted, which was all three points. In fact, we were disappointed as we expected Arsenal to turn up with a big performance in order to secure all important third place, which would be the only way to ensure the next season's Champions League football. After they were given a second and last chance to do it last Sunday following both Tottenham and Newcastle dropping points, we were hoping our team would appreciate the chance even more and give it everything to seal third spot. With last Sunday's results going our way, we were filled with some kind of optimism that we were destined to finish third, apart from a few pessimistic members, of course. However, Arsenal being Arsenal, any long-standing Arsenal fan knew that they would not make it easy.

In hindsight, probably it might have been a good thing that we didn't play very well because it is clear even through rose-tinted glasses that some of our second-string players are not quite up to the level required for the title chase yet and we lacks depth in squad. Hopefully, Arsene Wenger realises the need of a couple more new signings.

One of the pre-match talking points was the team selection as usual. We expected Jenkinson to deputise injured Sagna. This proved right, despite's preview, which predicted Coquelin's deployment at right-back. To our surprise, Conquelin took Ramsey's place in central midfield. As posted previously, we thought Wenger was not keen on playing two defensive midfielders together. Perhaps, Coquelin was fielded to cover inexperienced Jenkinson. Santos came in for Gibbs, who dropped to the bench. Maybe Arsene expected an open game? It turned out to be a right decision by the way how the game developed. Theo was fit again, but only made the bench. Gervinho and Benayoun were given the starting places on the flanks.

As for a West Brom side, we were aware that captain Christ Brunt would be out after having his tonsils removed and Odemwengi and Thomas were both doubtful. These were all handy for us, but we didn't realise until the kick-off that Ben Foster was sidelined due to the injury he sustained during training. Their number-two keeper, Fulop, came in for him, which turned out to be a goof fortune for us.

We must admit that we were lucky and probably owed at least two out of our three goals to Fulop's mistakes (Santos' effort was powerful, but probably a good keeper would have saved it on a good day). When our main goal source did not have many chances, it was lucky that other players were gifted with chances to score and they took them. Opposition keepers always have good games against us, so it was a welcome change that the West Brom keeper had a bad day in the office on the particular day.

The game panned out in a very similar way to last week's. Benayoun scored an early goal after taking advantage of Fulop's mistake. Then we were soon trailing 2-1 inside 15 minutes. However, fortunately unlike the previous game, we were level before half time thanks to Santos' superb shot. Theo came off the bench at half time to replace Rosicky. Just 8 minutes into the second half, we got our third goal thanks to Fulop's gaffe once more, but 36 minutes plus injury time was a very long time to hang on to the narrow lead. We could not even hold the one-goal lead for 10 minutes last week. We knew it was going to be an agonisingly long 36 minutes plus and it was.

Arsene Wenger substituted Gervinho for Gibbs to prop up the defence, an important decision that paid off when the left-back made a match-saving late challenge on Billy Jones. Ramsey came in for Santos in 80 minutes as Wenger looked for Arsenal's fourth goal, which never came to calm his nerves and ours.

After the game, few seemed to have been interested in talking about the game itself or Arsenal's performance. If this had not been the final game of the season, we would be analysing the game, discussing why they failed to put in a decent performance for the past five games and identifying solutions to the problems. However, all that mattered for this game was the result and the performance was almost irrelevant. How we got those three goals did not matter. What mattered was we got three goals to undo the two goals we conceded and held the lead for the remaining 41 minutes.

The victory on the final day of this season sealed third place, which meant that we are guaranteed next seasons' Champions League football, no matter what the result of Saturday's Champions League final will be. Securing a place in the Champions League for the 15th consecutive season is a very proud achievement. We have collected 70 points from this season's campaign, 2 points more than last season, and finished one place higher than last season when we were in the title race for most of the season. Not bad for the so-called worst-ever Arsenal team. Sunday's win also meant that we finished above our north London rivals again. This means a lot to us Gooners. Even RVP couldn't help pointing out this in his post-match interview.

The automatic qualification spot for next season' Champions League should help to keep our captain and attract world-class players. RVP made it clear that a Champions League spot is vital to his decision over his future. Various newsaper reports suggest that M'Vila deal is just awaiting the confirmation of Arsenal's Champions League qualification. (We cannot see Wenger spend £17.7 million on a defensive midfielder, when we have Song, Frimpong, and Coquelin. That said, if the reports are true, we will be delighted with his addition to the squad as he seems to be a good player.) Should Tottenham fail to qualify for the Champions League Group Stage or end up in the lesser competition, Europa League again next season, why should Jan Vertonghen choose to join them, especially when his current club Ajax have already secured thier place in the Champions League Group Stage by winning the Dutch Eredivisie?

Apparently, there have been a few articles being sniffy about Arsenal fans celebrating third place energetically. We have received a disdainful comment from a local Chelsea fan, too. They don't know what third place means to us nor what we have gone through this season from the disastrous start to the anxious last four weeks. Arsenal fans have every right to celebrate and be proud of the Club's third-place finish.

The 2011/12 season is over. Our eyes are now on RVP's contract talk and transfers.

Player ratings

Szczezny: 6
In the post-match interview, Arsene Wenger revealed that the Polish international had been playing through injury for the last five weeks. He has been carrying a shoulder problem and has an injection on the day of a game. That might explain those uncharacteristic mistakes against Norwich. He wasn't decisive enough for West Brom's first goal. At one stage, Arsenal conceded a series of corners, at least two of them shouldn't have been needed if he had shouted. Made an excellent save of Andrews' late attempt, though. Hope Euro 2012 will help him restore his confidence.

Jenkinson: 5
Clumsy with some tackling. He needs to improve, but we still think he will make it. Look forward to seeing more of his crossing.

Koscielny: 7
Apart from West Brom's second goal, he was solid. Scored the winner.

Vermaelen: 7

Santos: 7
Scored the valuable equaliser in the 28th minute. Upon the introduction of Gibbs in the 67th minute, he moved to a more advanced position on the left wing and eventually was replaced by Ramsey in the 80th minute.

Rosicky: 7
Worked hard to win the ball and played a cenral role in Arsenal's offensive in the first half. Replaced by Walcott at half time.

Coquelin: 5
Was he better than Ramsey as Arteta's replacement? Maybe just marginally.

Song: 7
Stepped up his defensive game from the previous match.

Gervinho: 6
He did everything right and well, except for his final ball. His decisions in the final third were poor.

Benayoun: 8
Scored the opener. Our Man of the Match. He was good in all aspects. We should award him a one-year contract to keep him.

van Persie: 7
Had a quiet game as he was marked tightly by West Brom defenders. He had two good chances: a free-kick from just outside the box, which hit the wall, and a shot after getting behind the West Brom defence line, which flew far over the bar. His frustration nearly got the better of him. Shown a yellow card.


Walcott: 7
Second-half substitute for Rosicky. Lively. Got involved in some good attacking moves.

Gibbs: 7
Made a match-saving challenge.

Ramsey: 6
I didn't notice him in the game, but he seems to have played reasonably well from what I've heard from other people.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Arsenal 3 Norwich 3

It was 90 minutes of an emotional roller coaster, which mirrored our whole season. We were 1-0 up in just 66 seconds through Yossi Benayoun's beautiful curler. This should have been an ideal start for Arsenal to build on and a perfect birthday celebration for Benayoun. However, after the early goal, we soon found ourselves totally outplayed by a newly-promoted side and at half time, we were trailing at 2-1. We were disappointed with Arsenal's below-par display. After the break, the game could have gone beyond our reach, with Norwich threatening our goal on several occasions. Arsenal then stepped up the gear, pressing forwards with the sense of purpose. They got a well-deserved equaliser and another goal by RVP followed. We were ecstatic with a belief that we had all important three points in the bag. Then, what happened next was beyond our belief. Norwich grabbed an equaliser in the 85th minute. We tried to find the net one more time, but the time was up.

We thought we had grown to maturity though difficult times this season, but it was very disappointing to see Arsenal throwing away a precious lead with just 5 minutes left to the end of normal time. Even our captain tried a cute back-heal pass in the Norwich half only to be intercepted. It was a crime that we failed to keep the ball in possession and just run down the clock.

This draw was definitely two points dropped rather than a point gained without question. At the final whistle, we were left with a gut-wrenching feeling. There was no wonder why this year's end-of-season lap of applause that took place following the match was a relatively muted affair.

All the positive signs we saw in the previous game did not materialise in this game. Passing was slow and we were the second best on loose balls in the first half. Our defence that looked so solid against Chelsea and even a physical Stoke side appeared shaky on Saturday.

It was no coincidence that we haven't won a game since we lost Arteta to an injury. The balance and stability in midfield and cohesion throughout the team seem to have been seriously undermined by the absence of Arteta. We thought Ramsey had a better game against Stoke, but in this game he was clearly attack minded and slow to get back to defend.

After Arsenal's defensive fragility was exposed, some fans argue that Song should devote his entire attention to defence, like Makélélé to Chelsea. However, we think his qualities as a playmaker, including his vision and skills to deliver those killer passes, are so valuable to us that it will be a shame to restrict his role to just a defensive midfielder. Besides, the current system worked fine with Jack Wilshere or Mikel Arteta alongside with him, as he and his midfield partners had excellent understanding between them. When one goes forward, the other drops deep to cover the defence. Unfortunately, no one has successfully filled the void Arteta left yet. As Diaby has been ruled out for the rest of the season due to a calf problem, the Ox and Coquelin may be alternative options for Areta's replacement. However, Wenger is not keen on playing another defensive midfielder alongside with Song, as it makes our midfield too defensive, so Coquelin may not be the boss' choice. The Ox came off the bench to replace Ramsey in this game, but he actually played better after he had moved to the right flank.

Another post-match tactical talking point was if Arsenal should revert to the 4-4-2 formation since it seemed to have revitalised Arsenal attack upon the introduction of Chamakh, with the Ox and Gervinho providing the width. Especially with Arteta's replacement still to be found, this is a very interesting option. It may be too late for this season, but when our new signing, Podolski, who can play up front as a lone striker, just behind a main striker, or on the left wing, joins the squad next season, his addition will widen the scope for Arsenal's attack.

It was confirmed that Bacary Sagna suffered a broken fibula, which rules him out of Euro 2012. It was a blow as the return of the regular full-backs was the major factor behind our excellent run of form in March and early April. However, we don't mind Jenkinson getting a chance to show what he is capable of. As he was not on the bench, Coquelin came in for Sagna, but Wenger may prefer a specialist right-back. Whoever takes Sagna's place, hopefully, Arsenal will prepare themselves well for the next game and sort out their defence before next Sunday.

One of few positives to take from this game was that we scored three goals. After the previous match, Wenger pointed out that his team's inability to find the net one more time against Stoke was due to the lack of confidence because they hadn't scored many goals recently. Hopefully, three goals against Norwich should have helped to boost their confidence. Especially, it was a huge relief that RVP has rediscovered his goal-scoring form. In personal terms as well, RVP made a massive step forward towards winning the Golden Boot by netting two goals in this game, which increased the gap to second-placed Rooney to four goals. With just one game left, it is almost certain that he will be crowned as this season's Premier League top scorer.

Tottenham's draw with Aston Villa and Newcatle's defeat to Manchester City on Sunday meant we were let off for Saturday's slip-up and given one last chance to secure third place. It's all in our hands once again now, but nothing less than three points guarantees next season's Champions League football. We have to make sure we will win the next game. As Norwich proved, a middle-table club that has nothing to play for is hardly a pushover. However, we can beat any team when we play to the best of our abilities. Since the superb performance against Manchester City, Arsenal haven't really played to their full potential yet. It is about time for Arsenal to put in some decent performance. If the next game is not big enough to motivate them, what else would be? Let's hope they will turn up with the level of commitment that matches the magnitude of the match and deliver the result this time around.

Player ratings

Szczezny: 4
He had a poor game. Norwich's first goal was a goalkeeping error. We think he could have done more to stop their third goal going in. Did he think it would go wide? Hope it was just his off day.

Sagna: 5
Sustained a fracture in his right leg and replaced by Coquelin in the 33rd minute.

Koscielny: 5
Nearly gave away a penalty by pulling Russell Martin's shirt. On the other hand, he put in some crucial challenges.

Vermaelen: 5
Had a quiet game. The two centre-backs were easily split up.

Gibbs: 5
Unlucky deflection that led to Holt's goal.

Rosicky: 6
Not as sharp as in recent games.

Ramsey: 4
Maybe he was lucky to stay on the pitch. He got off with a talking to, after he had already been shown a yellow card. It was disappointing after he showed some improvement against Stoke. Missed a couple of goal-scoring chances. Replaced by the Ox in the 63 minutes.

Song: 6
Defensively not up to his standard, but delivered an inch-perfect pass, which set up RVP's first goal. Attempted an Henry-esque back-heel shot, which was denied by Ruddy.

Gervinho: 6
Lively in the second half. Good link-up play with RVP.

Benayoun: 6
Scored a goal.

van Persie: 7
Scored two goals, but missed some good chances as well.


Coquelin: 6
33rd-minute substitute for injured Sagna. Worked hard. We agree with the referee's decision to turn down Norwich's penalty claim against his challenge on Hoolahan.

Oxlade-Chamberlain: 5
Replace Ramsey in the 63rd minute. Some good movements, but failed to make a difference.

Chamakh: 6
Came on in the 69th minutes to replace Benayoun. After the shift to the 4-4-2 system upon his introduction, Arsenal's attack seem to have stepped up. Missed a couple of chances, but had his best game in recent months.


Anthony Taylor: 4
RVP should have been awarded a late penalty. Why should he have to go down when he only needed a tap-in unless he was pushed over. It was definitely a penalty. That said, Norwich had a strong case for a penalty against Koscielny's shirt tagging, so some may say that it has evened out the things, although the shirt-pulling happens all the time and many of them go unpunished. Also, a Norwich player's handball totally went unnoticed.