A new type of Review for Gunnerblog this year, which helps me (and hopefully you) to gain a bit of perspective on an up-and-down campaign. Fear not – the traditional End of Season Awards will soon follow, but for now: Hold on tight folks – here we go…
Although it doesn’t technically fall during the season, July is typically when a lot of the transfer shenanigans occur, and last summer was no different. Emmanuel Adebayor, whose dreadful form and worse attitude in the previous campaign had made him a target for the boo boys, confirmed his status as an eternal villain by joining mercenary outfit Manchester City for £25m. He was soon followed by a fading but still popular Kolo Toure, leaving us with a £40m Arabian windfall. Fans wondered how Arsene would choose to spend the cash – so far he had only brought in Belgian centre-half Thomas Vermaelen – and turned up their noses as the press linked us with a little known Moroccan striker called Marouane Chamakh…
In August, Arsene continued to fox us all with his capacity to avoid actually signing a player. In fact, the only guy at Arsenal spending any money was Nicklas Bendtner, who refunded all those people with a ‘Bendtner 26′ (yes, both of them) shirt as he switched to number 52. We’re still not really sure why – accusations that he decided upon the number after a trip to the North-East are as yet unproven.
The season got underway in impressive style – a new 4-3-3 formation brought a 6-1 opening day thrashing of Everton at Goodison Park, before qualification for the Champions League was assured by defeating Celtic. It was in that game, however, that the first negative stones were cast in our season: Eduardo’s exaggerated fall over Artur Boruc made him an ‘enemy of football’. The Croatian was not the same again all season long. Perhaps he never will be.
The end of August saw us lose our first league game, after an Abou Diaby own-goal decided a 2-1 defeat at Old Trafford. It was a game we ought to have won, in which Arshavin had given us the lead from distance before a Rooney penalty and Diaby’s moment of lobotomic decision-making swung the match. It was a game memorable for the iconic image of Arsene Wenger being forced to stand among the abusive crowd. “Sit down you paedophile”, they cried, “but not there”.
Transfer Deadline Day came and went without incident, leaving Gooners everywhere wondering if the board had lost Man City’s £40m cheque and were too embarrassed to ask for another one. Our tough start to the domestic campaign continued as we lost 4-2 away to Man City – our second defeat in our opening four games. It was a match notable for two things: firstly, a disastrous performance from Manuel Almunia which saw him absent from the side for the next few weeks, and secondly, the violent manifestation of Adebayor’s insecurity and paranoia.
The defeat seemed to awaken some fight in an Arsenal side who produced a stirring comeback in Liege and went on a decent run until the end of the month, with the outstanding performance coming from third-choice goalkeeper Vito Mannone in our 1-0 win at Fulham, leading some pundits to compare him with other great Italian shot-stoppers, and idiots like me to compare him with Chesney Hawkes.
The good run continued in to the early part of October, with Cesc Fabregas in particularly breathtaking form as he scored or masterminded each of six goals past Sam Allardyce’s Blackburn. However, there were signs too of the deficiencies which would return to haunt us later in the campaign, as we conceded a 93rd minute equaliser to AZ Alkmaar, then let a two goal lead slip at Upton Park. On the latter occasion, I was moved to say:
“However well this Arsenal team do, however many games we win, however many goals we score, there will be those in the press who will insist that we do not have the requisite character to challenge for major honours – that we lack defensive organisation and concentration, and are unable to hold leads or sneak winners when not playing at our best. I loathe it when we prove them right.”
That loathing and pain would return as the season wore on.
We did, however, manage a joyous derby win over Spurs – a game at which the inaugural edition of 2Halves was available outside the ground.
November is traditionally a nightmare month for Arsenal, and if we as a club are notable for anything, it’s for observing tradition. Results on the pitch were bad: there was a hugely dispiriting defeat at Sunderland, in which Arsene fielded a front six made up entirely of achondroplasia sufferers (google it). The winner was scored by Darren Bent, which sparked comparisons to having Ramon Vega steal your girlfriend, or Christian Gross marry your mum. Then there was the 3-0 home defeat to Chelsea – a match best summed up by this youtube video:
We weren’t helped in those games by the absence of Robin Van Persie – after the Dutchman picked up his annual serious injury during the International break, we were left without our three first-choice front-men: RVP, Bendtner, and Eduardo. That unfortunate series of events saw the birth of the bizarre creation that became known as Andrey Arshavin: Target Man.
The month started with us dropping gently out of the Carling Cup to Man City. It wasn’t a result that mattered hugely, but coming as it did so soon off the back of the Chelsea game disillusion among the fans was growing. Things soon began to pick-up, however. One of the themes of our season was our ability to drag ourselves back in to the reckoning when written off, and with Andrey Arshavin, ‘The Pygmy in the Middle’, scoring vital goals against Stoke and Liverpool we were on the march once more.
Since hammering us at the Emirates, Chelsea had won just one game in their last seven, and suddenly we were within touching distance of the leaders again. A win against Aston Villa was required to propel us back in to contention, but our talismanic skipper, Cesc Fabregas, was only fit enough for the bench. No matter: with Arsenal struggling to break down an organised plain negative Villa, Fabregas was introduced for a twenty-seven minute cameo in which he scored two fantastic goals before hobbling back to the bench. Arsenal were four points behind Chelsea, with a game in hand. The title was dangling deliciously before us.
January began with an FA Cup win at Upton Park, in which the crucial equaliser was scored by one Aaron Ramsey. In my write-up, I predicted that “the next twelve months will see Ramsey become a regular in the Arsenal side – whether or not Cesc departs in the summer”. We’re now in a position where we could start next season with neither available to us. Whoops.
January, of course, means Transfer Window. In Robin Van Persie’s absence, most expected a striker. With Alex Song away at the African Nations Cup, some anticipated a midfielder. What we got was a defender. And for once it wasn’t a francophonic unknown, but a familiar face, as Sol Campbell returned from his exile in the footballing wilderness to the familiar bosom of the Champions League. We tried to add another defender in the ungainly shape of Fulham’s Chris Smalling, but Manchester United pipped us to the post. Gunnerblog confirmed that we had signed young Bolivian midfielder Samuel Galindo, whilst Philippe Senderos and Jack Wilshere went out on loan to Everton and Bolton respectively – though even then we knew that of the two, only Wilshere was ever going to come back.
Results were solid – whilst we went out of the FA Cup at Stoke in Campbell’s second debut, we nicked an undeserved draw against Everton, picked up a pair of impressive wins over Bolton, and won a hard-earned point at Villa.
Going in to the game at home to Man U, there was a sense of deja vu. We were heading in to a home game against a title rival full of hope, expectancy, and with the chance to make a real statement about our title credentials. Victory would take us above our opponents and within two points of leaders Chelsea. Last time we’d had such an opportunity, we’d been thumped 3-0. This time, it was different: it was 3-1. It was clinical. It was painful. And it was familiar.
The United defeat hit us hard, and before fumble for our spectacles and stagger to our feet, Chelsea stuck the boot in with a 2-0 win at Stamford Bridge. Before that game, I backed us to fail to score, reasoning that a team picked without a recognised striker was unlikely to trouble one of the world’s better defences. It wasn’t a win I took much pleasure in.
More pain was suffered in the Champions League. We’d cantered through to the knock-out stages, but the first-leg of our tie in Porto saw the beginnings of the clown routine Lukasz Fabianski was destined to perform between then and the end of the season. He had shown hints of his capacity for calamity in the FA Cup exit at Stoke, but this was full blown awfulness on a scale not yet seen. Fear not though, readers – the show didn’t end here. Fabianski had more to come. Lots more.
The month ended with a game which put a fire under our title challenge once more – though the fuse was formed out of tragic circumstance. The leg-breaking challenge of Ryan Shawcross on Aaron Ramsey inspired the remaining Arsenal players to a momentous comeback, and helped solidify the team behind a cause. “Do it for Aaron” was the cry, and Arsenal players and supporters united behind a literal and metaphorical banner to hit out at the pundits who attempted to excuse Shawcross’ lunge, and to fight to bring home a medal for our Welsh midfielder.
We overcame our 2-1 deficit to Porto with a thumping 5-0 victory – which we achieved even without Cesc Fabregas. In the absence of the skipper, many expected Arsenal to struggle for fluency. Instead, they were liberated. Take the conductor out of the orchestra, it suggested, and they start playing jazz. Samir Nasri was chief among the unexpected soloists, scoring what was probably our goal of the season with a hammered cross-shot after a jinking run.
That win meant we would face holders Barca in the Champions League Quarter-Final – a result which prompted the release of some special edition ‘Cesc We Can’ Gunnerblog t-shirts. Keep your eyes open for more designs throughout the year.
Nicklas Bendtner was fit once more and after a hatful of misses against Burnley fired a hatrick against Porto before a vital last-gasp winner against Hull which not only kept us clinging on in the title race but also cost Phil Brown his job. That’s my kind of goal.
March’s final match saw the start of a run that would dismantle our season. Leading at St. Andrews through an 81st minute Nasri strike, we conceded a stoppage-time equaliser when Manuel Almunia pawed a Kevin Phillips strike up in to the air, comically back-peddling as both he and the ball ended up in the net. On the very same day, Chelsea thrashed a complicit Villa side 7-1, and J’Lloyd Samuel scored a suspiciously clinical own-goal as United hammered Bolton. Hope was flickering and the light was dying.
April opened in dramatic fashion with the show-piece occasion of the season. Barcelona came to town, replete with all the bells and whistles and knobs that we’ve come to expect from the Catalans. Simply put, they were awesome. Only a fantastic performance from Manuel Almunia and some last-ditch defending from the likes of Alex Song prevented a mauling. As it was, we somehow got to half-time at 0-0 before some casual defending allowed the casualler Ibrahimovic to score twice. However, in the last twenty minutes, we mustered a characterful comeback, with sub Theo Walcott netting before Cesc Fabregas won then converted a penalty. The messianic symmetry with the Villa game was clear, as he immediately limped off the pitch with what was later confirmed as a broken leg. It was a captain’s contribution. The fear is that it may have been his last for the club.
Without the likes of Cesc, Gallas, Song, Arshavin and Van Persie the second leg was always going to be difficult, and despite taking an early lead through the in-form Bendtner, we fell victims to an extraordinary individual performance from Lionel Messi. The tale of the tie, however, was told more interestingly by the statistics.
With injuries piling up, our league form suffered. We required a 94th minute goal to beat Wolves, which when combined with United failing to win at Blackburn suggested we still had an outside shot at glory. Opportunity knocked at the door, but it seemed the players didn’t hear it, slumping to a 2-1 defeat at Spurs from which only Sol Campbell emerged with any distinction. Not even the return of Robin van Persie could save us, as Gomes denied him an equaliser with two stunning reflex saves.
The fates continued to toy with our emotions, allowing Tottenham to defeat Chelsea a few days later. However, they were merely setting us up for the season’s nadir. 2-0 up at Wigan with ten minutes to play, we somehow conspired to lose 3-2, with Lukasz Fabianski producing the most extraordinary party-piece of his diabolical season by dropping the ball on to the head of Titus Bramble for the crucial equaliser.
A tame draw with Man City was notable only for the diverse receptions afforded to the returning Adebayor, Toure, and Patrick Vieira. Not only the month but the season was essentially over.
Fabianski, who by now had essentially given up on the prospect of being a professional goalkeeper and was now looking at his options as a full-time Tumbler, unfurled some more hideous tricks from the sleeve of his jersey in another dispiriting defeat at Blackburn.
As the final game rolled around, a degree of drama was injected by the possibility of Spurs overtaking us for third place. We were fortunate that we came up against a Fulham side with their eyes, ears, mouths and feet firmly set on the Europa League Final, and were able to seal exactly what we deserved: third place. No worse, but certainly no better.
It’s been an epic journey. Writing this, I mean. The season wasn’t half-taxing either.
There were proud moments when the team showed togetherness and fight – the game at Stoke where Ramsey was injured springs to mind. It was a yo-yo season: one where we were ‘in’ then ‘out’ of the title-race more times than I can count. The players played hokey-cokey with our hearts. Sadly, however, when it came to the crunch not enough of the players had the sheer determination required to forges winners.
Awards to follow later in the week. A bit of reflection is required: it can be tricky handing out prizes to players who don’t win any.