Arsenal FCAi??have finished in the top 4 for the 16th year running, beating out rivals Tottenham Hotspur in the race for a coveted Champions League spot. It has been a tumultuous journey for the Gunners. Chaitanya LakkapragadaAi??reviews the season’s highs and lows.

Arsenal FC Season Review 2012/13
As Arsene Wenger, Arsenal fans and players shine in the afterglow of finishing in the top 4 of the Premier League and thus clinching Champions League football for the 16th consecutive season, it is easy to forget that it has been another season of fretting, fuming, joy interspersed with moments of fingernail-biting frustration and ultimately a season of deja vu. On the face of it, Arsenal had a better outing this season compared to last season: they conceded 12 goals fewer, secured 3 points more and lost 3 games fewer. Having lost their captain Robin van Persie to Manchester United, they scored only 2 goals fewer than last season: 72 this term and 74 last time.

But stats only tell part of the story. This was a season of hope, despair, inconsistency and ultimately sheer bloodymindedness triumphing in the face of adversity. As Arsenal dragged themselves over the line, pipping arch-rivals Tottenham Hotspur to the post in the process, let’s look at some of the underlying themes of the season just gone by.

A season of two parts

While one generally looks at a season from a pre-Christmas and post-Christmas perspective, for Arsenal it was pre-Tottenham and post-Tottenham. Or twisting the words of Andre Villas Boas, “pre-negative spiral” and “post-negative spiral”. A 2-1 defeat at White Hart Lane had left Arsenal 7 points adrift of their North London rivals with 10 games to go. While the Gunners had overhauled a similar deficit last season, the quality of performances and personnel this season had left even the most optimistic fans without much hope. But a league-topping record of 8 wins and 2 draws in the remaining 10 games dragged them over the line.

The contrast in performances between the two parts was there for all to see. The “pre-negative spiral” performances had defensive uncertainty, individual errors and a lack of belief written all over them. The “post negative spiral” performances were characterized by defensive stability, confidence, belief and work rate. For the 3-3 draw at home to Fulham in the first part there was a 2-1 win at West Brom. For the 2-0 defeat at home to Swansea there was the 2-0 win at the Liberty Stadium.

In many ways, as pointed out by the manager and the players, the 2-0 win at Bayern Munich heralded a turning point of sorts. Having struggled to put together a decent run of unbeaten form all season, the result against the German giants gave Arsenal the much needed injection of belief. Before the Tottenham defeat, the maximum they could achieve in the Premier League in terms of an unbeaten run was 5 games and that too at the start of the season. They ended the season with a 10 game unbeaten streak including a 5-game away winning streak equaling the record set by the mighty Invincibles.

The quest for balance

With the sale of Robin van Persie and Alex Song to Manchester United and Barcelona respectively, Arsenal lost two of their primary attacking components from last season. With the arrivals of Podolski, Cazorla and Giroud, Arsene Wenger needed to shuffle his pack and that showed in the team’s performances. With the world class Van Persie leaving, a distinct lack of top quality was always evident in Arsenal’s attacking play. While they continued to dominate stats like possession, passes completed which indicate a domination of sorts, it was, in Arsene Wenger’s words, “sterile domination”.

But at the start of the season, it seemed to be going pretty well. Arsenal shunned the pressing game in favour of a more sedate approach when it came to defending. Ceding possession and forming two banks of four while defending and counter-attacking seemed to be their strategy. It worked well at Anfield where Cazorla and the defence excelled and at the Etihad where Arsenal walked away with a deserved point.

But there was a distinct lack of attacking threat in all these displays and it seemed that Arsenal struggled to strike a “balance” between attack and defence which culminated in not getting a single shot on target in a 1-0 loss at Norwich City. This was followed by an even more inept performance in a 2-0 defeat of Schalke at home when they failed to muster a single shot on target until deep into injury time. Add to this the continued exclusion of Theo Walcott owing to his contract dispute, and the continued struggles of Olivier Giroud in leading the line, Arsenal’ s attack lacked pace and incision. Playing with the proverbial handbrake, Arsene Wenger decided to shift gears after this game and though they improved in an attacking sense, defensive frailties started showing up. The 7-5 madcap win against Reading in the Carling Cup and the 7-3 win at home against Newcastle where some of the examples of this conundrum. Against better teams they continued to struggle as illustrated by the 2-0 loss at home to Swansea.

Jekyll & Hyde

If only second-half results were taken into account, Arsenal would be table toppers. A constant headache for Arsenal in the “pre-negative spiral” part of the season was that they rarely seemed to be up for it until the opposition scored. For a team which prides itself on keeping the ball and dictating the tempo of play, a general lack of intent was all too evident in their first half performances. It was as if a goal concession was needed to wake them out of their slumber.

The 2-2 draw at home to Liverpool was a perfect illustration of that. Putting up a poor performance in the first half, they roused themselves in the second half after going 2-0 down, restoring parity in a matter of 2 minutes. It was classic Jekyll and Hyde.

The “Steve Bould Effect”, pragmatism and grinding out results

When Arsenal kept 3 clean sheets in a row, everyone was quick to credit the new assistant manager Steve Bould, who replaced Wenger’s trusted lieutenant Pat Rice, for the newfound resilience. It looked like everyone jumped the gun. While we can speculate on and on about the perceived differences between Arsene Wenger and Steve Bould, it seemed the Bould effect was short lived. Arsenal slipped back into poor habits and individual errors cost them time and again in the “pre-negative spiral” period. Be it the 7-3 win at home against Newcastle or the 2-0 defeat against Swansea, the defence looked dodgy and the team as a whole did not take its defensive duties seriously.

After the Tottenham defeat though, Arsene Wenger seemed to realize that given the lack of genuine quality in the attacking third, it was better to keep it tight at the back and then build on it. And it worked. It was pragmatism over philosophy. Arsenal rode their luck in quite a few games and ground out one result after the other. Be it the 2-1 win at West Brom where they played with 10 men for the last 20 minutes or the 1-0 win at Craven Cottage where they played against 10 men for 75 minutes and yet could not create anything of note, it was more about doing the dirty defensive work and converting the few chances they created. While these wins were greeted with a bit of cynicism by many, one of Arsenal’s problems over the past few seasons has been the inability to grind out results when playing badly.

The stats speak for themselves: in the last 5 games Arsenal conceded a mere 5 goals, keeping 5 clean sheets in the process. Not since the 2006-07 season have they conceded as few as this season. They also conceded a miserly 15 goals out of the 19 away games this season, giving them the best defensive record in the league. They ended up with the second best defensive record in the league conceding 37 goals in 38 games. They recorded their best goal difference (+35) since 2009-10. Post the Spurs defeat, they only conceded one goal from open play. While it would be incorrect to say that Arsenal have completely solved their defensive issues, this season has shown that when they put their mind to it Arsenal can be good at defence. Whether it’s due to the Bould Effect or not is open for debate.

Cup shame and big match freezes

While outrage seems to be the default reaction of football fans after a defeat, Arsenal’s League Cup exit at the hands of League Two Bradford City and FA Cup exit at the hands of Blackburn Rovers ai??i?? that too at home ai??i?? deserved the severest of criticism. With the gulf in class between the sides Arsenal were expected to win easily. But the performances on those days were so poor that Arsene Wenger’s insistence of the squad’s “mental strength” felt like a cruel joke. The Gervinho miss from a couple of yards at Bradford, the lack of intensity in performance against Blackburn, pointed to a much deeper malaise in the squad: a total lack of belief. Considering the fact that both Bradford and Blackburn got easier draws in the next rounds, it was yet another opportunity missed to win some silverware.

Equally worrying were the performances against the top 6 sides. Arsenal picked up a mere 7 points out of a possible 30 against the other 5 sides in the top 6. Especially poor were the performances against Chelsea, both home and away, and at Old Trafford where they seemed to be wrecked by fear. Last season Arsenal picked up 20 points against the top 6 sides. If this side wants to show it really means business, then it has to start winning the big games and the knockout games.

Is Arsene still the right man?

After the final whistle at St. James’ Park, Arsene Wenger got out of the dugout and gave a huge embrace to Mikel Arteta. For someone who made winning a habit in the first half of his 16-year reign, it was strange to see him get so emotional for a “fourth place trophy”. This was probably the least talented squad he has had at his disposal in his time at Arsenal, and while it is a bit exaggerated to suggest that this was one of his greatest achievements, the comeback in the “post-negative spiral” period showed that there is still some life left in the old dog.

This season also saw many un-Wenger-like moments. Who can forget the tempestuous press conference before the Bayern Munich game in which he seemed to target specific journalists questioning their stories. It was almost Jose Mourinho-like. Wenger continues to elicit extreme opinions from Arsenal fans. There is the “Arsene Knows Best ” brigade on one side and the “Wenger Out” brigade on the other. The reality is somewhere in between.

Wenger continues to achieve the bare minimum but continues to flounder in the cup competitions. He has money to spend and refuses to spend it unless it is of “top top quality”. His frequent flip-flopping about the strengths and weaknesses of his squad during the January transfer window left every Arsenal fan tearing his/her hair out. What has become clear over the course of the past two seasons is that there is considerable money to spend.

This season also saw Wenger take off the kid gloves in terms of player management. Known to indulge young players and persist with non-performers, his decision to drop the captain Vermaelen and bring in Koscielny in the centre of defence paid dividends. As did his decision to drop Szeczney who needed a kick up the backside. His transfer window business too has been a success this season.

Cazorla, Podolski and Giroud have settled down well and more can be expected from them next season. Yet his move to bring in Monreal on the final day of the January transfer window reeked of panic buying. The move has been a success though with the Spaniard settling down fairly quickly.

There’s a myth Arsene Wenger does not do defence, which is incorrect. Arsenal’s notable Champions League campaign of 2005-06 when they lost to Barcelona in the final was built on a rock solid defence. He has shown glimpses of being flexible in his approach amidst his dogmatic attachment to philosophy.

Even casting sentimentality aside, Wenger probably deserves another go to build a title-challenging squad. With financial constraints mostly off, new sponsorship, kit deals bringing in more money and other top clubs experiencing a change in management, next season might be Wenger’s biggest chance to bring Arsenal closer to the top and win some silverware.

Arsenal Season Stand-outs

Best signing: Santi Cazorla

Most consistent player: Mikel Arteta (followed by Per Mertesacker)

Most improved player: Aaron Ramsey (followed by Carl Jenkinson)

Poorest performer: Bacary Sagna

Player who delivered in the clutch moments: Laurent Koscielny

Season rating: 6/10

Manager rating: 6/10

Best moment of the season: Spurs fans celebrating the hoax goal at St. James’ Park before realizing it was, well, a hoax.

____

Written by Chaitanya Lakkapragada

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