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.

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