Gunnerblog End of Season Awards 2013

Cazorla vs Liverpool

It’s that time again, when I metaphorically hand out fictional awards to players who will never actually receive them or know they’ve won.

Let’s get straight on with it.

PLAYER OF THE SEASON

Last year Arsenal hand a stand-out winner: footballer of the year Robin van Persie. In the wake of Van Persie’s departure, Arsene Wenger made it plain that responsibility would have to be shared more equally throughout the team.

Nevertheless, one man rose above the rest. It’s a good job he rose, because he’s so small that frankly you’d have difficulty spotting him otherwise.

Santi Cazorla has had an outstanding first season in English football. I’d second Arsene Wenger’s sentiments in wondering aloud just how he wasn’t voted in to the PFA Team of the Year. Few players in English football have demonstrated Cazorla’s combination of style and stoicism; technique and tenacity. Cazorla is that rare thing: a flair player with real guts. His numbers aren’t bad either: in the Premier League alone, he managed 12 goals and 12 assists.

The first thing that struck me about Cazorla in pre-season was his remarkable two-footedness. He is genuinely ambidextrous, able to torment defenders by shifting on to either his left or right foot with equal ease. That two-footedness is a hallmark of the astonishing degree of technical excellence which Cazorla brings to all aspects of his game (with the disappointing and typically-Arsenal exception of set-piece delivery).

At the start of the season, Arsene understandably sought to build the team around the diminutive Spaniard, fielding him in a central playmaking role. As the campaign wore on, pragmatism took hold, and Cazorla was confined to the left wing. It is testament to his intelligence and versatility that his influence has not waned.

No player has had a more consistent presence in the first team: Cazorla has started 47 games this season. That underlines his important to the side. We simply wouldn’t know what to do without him.

Cazorla was the obvious candidate for me, although I’d also like to give a quick mention to two other players. Firstly, Per Mertesacker deserves credit for a hugely consistent year. Many expected him to fall behind Laurent Koscielny and Thomas Vermaelen in the battle for places at centre-back, but instead he emerged as the lynch-pin of our defence. I can’t help but feel Steve Bould sees something of himself in the lanky German.

Theo Walcott also warrants praise for his best season to date. In just 31 starts he amassed 22 goals and 15 assists. Our collective frustration with Walcott would be better exercised elsewhere: when we needed him, he invariably produced the goods, and his decision to stay with the club was undoubtedly one of the high-points of the season.

YOUNG PLAYER OF THE SEASON

Once upon a time the Arsenal team was full of striplings, and this category was hotly contested. Previous winners include the likes of Cesc Fabregas, Alex Song and Jack Wilshere. However those kids have either graduated, grown up, or been injured a lot.

The Arsenal team these days has a more grizzled look to it. The likes of Mertesacker, Sagna, Arteta and Cazorla raise the age profile of the side considerably, and even our Carling Cup side this term had an unusual degree of experience.

Of the remaining Arsenal tyros, there were high hopes for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, but he struggled to meet the unfair levels of expectation. Carl Jenkinson had an excellent start to the season that saw him earn an England call-up and a new contract, and he’ll hope to challenge for a first-team spot on a more consistent basis next season.

I toyed with the idea of giving it to Kieran Gibbs, but decided that at 23 he was probably too old. I hate seeing the PFA dish out Young Player awards to the likes of James Milner when he’s well in to his mid-twenties.

However, at the start of this season, Aaron Ramsey was just 21. He was also something of a lightening-conductor for the Arsenal fans’ frustrations. If not every misplaced pass was met with a boo, they were certainly met with a collective tut of disapproval. By the end of the season, however, he had emerged as one of the team’s most important components.

Ramsey’s season mirrors Arsenal’s own. In the first half he looked out of sorts. He was trying things he didn’t necessarily have the skill or the confidence to pull off. In the second half, pragmatism took hold. Ramsey, like Arsenal, kept it simple and reaped the benefits. Alongside the efficiency of Arteta, Ramsey’s energy and effervescence has proved invaluable.

WORST PLAYER OF THE SEASON

There are some players who disappointed this season. Bacary Sagna fell below his previously immaculate standards, and Thomas Vermaelen’s performances lacked the discipline you’d expect of an Arsenal captain and centre-half.

Then there are some players whose contribution was plain poor. Our record signing Andrey Arshavin failed to make a single Premier League start, and even when called upon rarely looked like a player itching for 90 minutes of action.

Then there is Andre Santos. When it comes to this award, it’s impossible to see past the Brazilian – and that’s not just because of his expanding waistline. I actually think the stick he received for his half-time strip session with a certain Dutchman was way overblown, but it remains impossible to defend some of his performances on the field. Although his loan spell with Gremio is about to come to an end, it seems Santos’ Arsenal career reached its own conclusion the moment we signed Nacho Monreal.

GAME OF THE SEASON

There was a period before Christmas when Arsenal played with all the self-destructive madness of a radicalised lemming. The consequence was a series of unbelievable matches. The 7-3 with Newcastle is noteworthy not only for the unusual scoreline but also Theo Walcott’s breathtaking hat-trick.

Beating Tottenham 5-2 is hard to surpass, although seeing as it’s becoming an annual thing there’s no need to lavish it with another award. Like that swotty child in school, it can’t win the Maths prize every year.

I’m going to opt for Reading 5-7 Arsenal: The game that nearly broke me. This match had everything – even a Marouane Chamakh goal. Arsenal came from four goals down to win in some style. As I wrote at the time:

The first half was abject, then apocalyptic, then embarrassing. The second half was acceptable, then alluring, then astounding. Extra-time was just plain bonkers.

WORST GAME OF THE SEASON

This season managed to provide far too many contenders for this category for my liking.

The home defeat to Swansea was probably as volatile an atmosphere as the Emirates has ever experienced. I remember leaving the ground that day wondering if Arsene would be forced to resign. The players were apathetic and the crowd were apoplectic.

However, the cup defeats to lower league opposition take the biscuit. Blackburn was bad; Bradford was worse. To lose to a team in League Two, with effectively our best team on the field, was humiliating. The fact that defeat also robbed us of a fantastic chance to win a trophy merely rubbed salt in to the not inconsiderable wound.

Also, this:

HIGHLIGHT OF THE SEASON

I was so stuck for what to write in this bit that I opened it up to Twitter. As ever, there were some cracking suggestions: Per Mertesacker’s thumping header against Spurs; Tottenham fans celebrating an imaginary goal on the final day; Jack Wilshere’s long-awaited return.

In the end, I’ve simply had to plump for the end.

This was not a vintage season for our club. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t glad to see the back of it. We celebrated on the final day, but it was more an escape than an achievement. Fourth place is often compared to a trophy, but for a club of our stature it’s more comparable to surviving a relegation scrap. We felt relief rather than joy.

DISAPPOINTMENT OF THE SEASON

There were so many – and sadly, so many that are now horribly familiar. Our utter failure to contest the major trophies is something that is becoming soul-crushingly customary.

For the sake of variety, I’ve decided to opt for an unusual choice: the plight of Abou Diaby.

When scrolling through our statistics to make my choice for Player of the Season, I was genuinely jolted by seeing Diaby’s name: I had forgotten he played for us. That rapid decline is all the more remarkable when you consider that at the start of the season he was turning in man of the match performances against the likes of Manchester City.

Sadly, since then he has succumbed to another major injury.  I’m not sure how many more there will be in his career.

Arsene Wenger has shown enormous faith in Diaby throughout his struggles, and Diaby himself has shown tremendous courage to fight back from a succession of blows. However, after this latest blow I can’t help but feel that Arsene’s faith and Diaby’s courage will be wearing as thin as the cartilage in the Frenchman’s knackered ankle.

So there you have it. Tomorrow I’ll be taking a look at the season as a whole through the prism of the blog. Till then.

Sunderland 0 – 1 Arsenal: He’s Bac

Sunderland 0 – 1 Arsenal
Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

This win was absolutely essential…
With Chelsea and Spurs both picking up wins, it was vital that we maintained the pace in the race for Champions League qualification. The next month or so sees us face both Tottenham and Everton, sandwiched by cup ties with Blackburn and Bayern. We are entering the period that will define our season, and momentum is crucial.

In the first half, Arsene’s tactical tweak worked a treat…
I was very surprised to see Lukas Podolski on the bench again, with Aaron Ramsey handed a start. However, Arsenal’s midfield dominated the game, and there was a slightly different shape in evidence too.

Ramsey sat in a deeper role alongside Arteta. Jack was playing as the advanced midfielder, with Cazorla ostensibly starting from the left-wing. In truth, Cazorla spent almost the entire game playing inside, combing with Jack and the strikers. It was a less a midfield three and more of a four, replicating the ‘magic square’ that the Brazil national team have been known to use.

Wilshere’s injury changed the game…
Jack’s combination play with Santi had been mesmerising. When we lost Wilshere, we also lost our way a little bit. It was noticeable too that Sunderland improved significantly when they replaced the thuggish Cattermole with the more technical Larsson.

This game highlighted the gulf between Bacary Sagna and Carl Jenkinson…
I appreciate that Carl only knew he was playing 15 minutes before kick-off. I also appreciate that we came across a referee who seemed only too happy to hand out cards to our players while letting their Sunderland equivalents get away with (attempted) murder.

Despite that, Carl Jenkinson’s sending off was very silly indeed. Having picked up a booking inside the first ten minutes, he was always walking a tight-rope. When walking a tight-rope of any kind, it is not advisable to make any sudden lunges. Unfortunately, Carl did just that at Stephane Sessegnon, and a second yellow duly followed.

By contrast, Bacary Sagna was a rock at centre-back. Like Jenkinson, he didn’t know what role he’d be playing until shortly before kick-off. Unlike Jenkinson, he excelled.

I think some of the criticism aimed at Sagna in recent weeks has been extremely harsh. Yes, his recent performances have fallen below his own impeccable standards, but he remains one of our best players.

The idea that Jenkinson is ready to displace Sagna is nonsense. I for one hope that we keep the Frenchman by giving him the long-term deal he craves. If he leaves this summer, as appears increasingly likely, we’ll need to bring in someone with the requisite experience to fill that spot.

I love Carl, but a few good games earlier this season do not make him an international class defender.

The whole defence deserve credit…
Nacho Monreal coped well, Per Mertesacker organised an unfamiliar defence, and Wojciech Szczesny had his best game of the season. Aaron Ramsey also deserves enormous credit for filling in superbly at right-back when required.

Our finishing…
…ought to have been better. Olivier Giroud and Santi Cazorla both squandered glaring opportunities to seal the game on the counter. Fortunately, we were able to fall back on an outstanding defensive display to get the three points.

Some thoughts on Andre Santos…
As I write this it seems the “false three” is on the verge of joining Gremio on loan. It’s remarkable to think that on the final day of last season, he was preferred to Kieran Gibbs and scored a crucial goal in our ascension to the Champions League places.

His fall since then has been spectacular. I can’t help but feel that the infamous shirt swap incident with Robin van Persie was a huge catalyst towards his departure. On that day, he lost the fans, and it’s almost impossible to come back from that – just ask Emmanuel Eboue or Nicklas Bendtner. Every mistake is highlighted; every indiscretion scrutinised. I’m not sure that Santos has been more error-prone than many of our other defenders, but the tide turned against him on that November day.

I wish him all the best. He seems like a very decent guy, if not a great defender.

I also have to question our policy of continually weakening our squad. When Arsene signed Nacho Monreal, he suggested it was because he needed two left-backs at all times. Why has that changed in the space of ten days?

The fact we’re playing Sagna at centre-back suggests that loaning Djourou out probably wasn’t the smartest move. I hope we don’t pay for allowing other players to leave at a time when it’s impossible to replace them.

Arsenal 2 – 2 Liverpool: Another day, another destiny…

Arsenal 2 – 2 Liverpool
Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

It strikes me that there are three topics of discussion today.  The positives of last night’s game, the negatives, and the impending transfer deadline.  I’ve decided to hit those one at a time.

THE POSITIVES

The fight-back
Perhaps because this side are becoming so accustomed to falling behind, their heads never really dropped, even at 2-0 down.  We clawed our way back in to the game with one of those flurries of goals we seem to have been producing of late – this time it was two in two minutes.  Our goalscoring potential seems to be far greater right now, and that’s down in no small part to the improved form of…

Olivier Giroud
It’s now 5 goals in 3 games for the Frenchman.  His second half display included some of his most convincing moments in an Arsenal shirt.  His goal was the sort of header that is becoming his trademark, while his lay-off assist for Theo was absolutely gorgeous.

Theo Walcott
Even Theo’s biggest doubters must be coming round now.  His volley was a fantastic finish and gave him his 18th goal of the season.  To put that in perspective, that’s more goals than Freddie Ljungberg scored in any season of his fondly-remembered seasons with Arsenal.  It is a massive contribution.

THE NEGATIVES

The defending
Disastrous.  Woeful.  Apocalyptic.  Really, really bad.

Perhaps in years to come we’ll look back upon allowing Jordan Henderson to waltz through our back-line and score as the nadir of our defensive troubles. Jordan Henderson can barely play football, or indeed waltz, and yet we made him look like Lionel Messi.

Kieran Gibbs’ injury
Gibbs is now out for the dreaded “three weeks”.  With Arsenal players, three weeks tends to become three months very quickly indeed.

It’s a big blow because Gibbs has undoubtedly been one of our best players in recent weeks.  It’s also a blow because it means we have to turn to Andre Santos, who is badly lacking both form and fitness.  That said, I’m not comfortable with the level of abuse Santos is receiving.  He might not be very good, but it wasn’t Andre who bought the player and continues to pick him.  It was Arsene.  Which brings me nicely on to…

The substitutions
Arsene Wenger knew after he saw Will Buckley give him the runaround at Brighton that Santos was a liability.  So why bring him on?  He could easily have introduced Laurent Koscielny and shifted Thomas Vermaelen to centre-back, giving the defence a far more solid look.

My other gripe is with the fact that no other substitution was made.  Arsenal needed a win, really, and yet we had no player to whom Arsene felt we could turn to make the difference.  Which brings me nicely on to…

DEADLINE DAY

Even with the injury to Gibbs, I’m not expecting much activity at Arsenal.  It’s increasingly clear we had hoped to make a big push for David Villa, but Barcelona had no interest in selling.

If anyone does come in, it’ll be the hurried signing of a defender, most likely on loan.  However, I wouldn’t bet on it.  I’ve got plenty to say about our potential inactivity, but I’ll hold it for tomorrow.

Finally, for anyone who missed it yesterday, you can watch my take on today’s events below. Thanks for all the kind comments about the video; I’m glad you enjoyed it.

Man Utd 2 – 1 Arsenal: Why Fergie is like Captain Hook

The scoreline was entirely misleading…
If you missed the game and saw only the score, you might think that this was a close affair.  In fact, as an Arsenal supporter, you’d most probably be quietly relieved at the small disparity between the two teams – it’s a hell of an improvement upon 8-2, for one thing.  In reality, however, the gulf looked as wide as it ever has.  United missed a penalty and mustered a further seven shots on target.  Arsenal managed just three, all of which came during stoppage time at the end of a dead rubber of a second half.

There was a poignant sadness about Fergie…
Although Alex Ferguson was quick to state that his side “should have scored fix or six or maybe even more”, he didn’t seem to take too much pleasure in it.  In an interview with the BBC, he added:

“It was a strange game, nothing like the Arsenal – United games of the past.  It didn’t live up to his billing.”

He was disappointed.   Not just at his own side’s lack of efficiency, but at the sheer lack of competition.  Fergie loves a fight, and Arsenal simply didn’t give him one.

I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the film Hook, but it is one of Hollywood’s great cinematic masterpieces.  It features an astonishing turn from Dustin Hoffman as Captain Hook.  He kidnaps the grown-up Peter Pan’s children, and uses them as bait to lure Pan to NeverNeverLand for one great last duel.   However, when Pan does show up, Hook realises he is now just a fat, flabby, middle-aged man.  He’s no longer the great warrior Hook loved to do battle with.  The war is over, and the eternally combative Hook is devastated.  That’s how Fergie looked in the post-game press conference: no smug self-satisfaction; just genuinely gutted that we can longer proffer a credible challenge.

In the film, encouraged by the Lost Boys and a preposterously named vagrant called ‘Rufio’, Pan rediscovers his former glories, learns to fly, fight and crow once more, and returns for one final titanic clash.  At the moment Arsenal look a long way from such a resurrection.  And Rufio is dead, so that’s out the window.

Not everything is Ivan Gazidis’ fault…
Last season Arsene Wenger took a lot of flak from supporters.  This season it seems to be Gazidis’ turn.  I do have a degree of understanding with some fans’ frustration at what they perceive as the poor running of the club.  But here’s the thing: an almost identical XI performed far better at the City of Manchester Stadium, in a game which finished 1-1 but in which Arsenal really ought to have won by a goal or two.  City and United are about as good as each other.  The disparity between those two Arsenal performances is nothing to do with Ivan Gazidis, and the responsibility for the downturn in form must be laid squarely at the door of the manager and the players.

Theo Walcott was never likely to start…
There are three reasons.  The first is that is contract situation has undoubtedly seen him slip down the pecking order.  The second is that he played 120 minutes in midweek.  The third is that Arsene was always likely to pick Aaron Ramsey on the right in the hope of replicating the aforementioned City performance.  Of those reasons, I genuinely believe that on this occasion the second and third were more influential than the first.  In future, however, I hope Arsene doesn’t cut off his nose to spite his face by leaving Theo out at a time when we plainly need him.

Thomas Vermaelen does not look like captain material…
When Robin van Persie took on the armband, he seemed to grow as a man and a player.  Since Thomas Vermaelen inherited it, he has shrivelled like a slug in a Bloody Mary.  His mistake for the opening goal was absolutely criminal, and it was an error which compounded several weeks of poor form.  Perhaps it’s unfortunate timing that this dip in his performances has coincided with becoming skipper, or perhaps the broadened responsibility has led his own game to suffer.  Either way, he needs to improve quickly.  At the moment the armband is the one thing keeping him in the team.

Give Santos a break…
You don’t have to know him to see that Andre Santos is a nice guy.  He’s always got a smile on his face, is clearly popular with the squad, and is basically a cheeky cuddly good sort of bloke.  Now, I will grant you this: he’s a bit slow, a bit positionally naive, and probably not good enough to be a long-term option for Arsenal at left-back.  He had a very poor game against QPR and quite a poor one against United.  And yes, he swapped shirts with Robin van Persie at half-time.  But none of that is enough to justify the abuse this guy is getting from his own ‘fans’ on twitter.

You may not know this, but pros swap shirts at half-time all the time.  It’s a regular thing.  It usually happens in the tunnel, rather than on the pitch, but it’s no biggie.  Especially between friends, and that’s what these players are.  Just like you might be friends with your former colleagues.  You all saw Van Persie hugging Arsene at half-time, just minutes after scoring the goal that separated the teams at that point, and yet Arsene seems to have escaped censure.

Santos is the latest in a long-line of scape goats.  The likes of Bendtner, Eboue and Arshavin have all been down that path before him, and it doesn’t end well.  Personally, I think it stinks, and I hate what I see a section of the fanbase dishing out to a guy who is still our player.  Get a grip, people.

We’re going backwards fast…
That’s the truth.  I’m not worried about shirt-swapping or referee decisions or anything else: I’m worried about this team.  The decline in recent weeks has been alarming.  Leaving aside that anomalous League Cup game, the first team have lost three of the last four.  On Tuesday night we face an intimidating trip to Schalke, and we’re only a couple of weeks away from a massive North London Derby.

We need to stop the rot.  At the moment we have slim trophy hopes and bleating fans.  We’re dangerously close to turning in to Liverpool.

Arsenal 0 – 2 Schalke: More of the same

This would have been a difficult game even if we were in good form
As it was, off the back of that dire display against Norwich, I fancied Schalke from the off. The German side have some very good players, and came in to the game off the back of a morale-boosting victory over Dortmund: a side good enough to beat Real Madrid last night.

I make that 180 mins without creating a decent chance
Last night, our first shot on target came in the 93rd minute courtesy of 17-year old substitute Serge Gnabry. By my count, that makes for one shot on target mustered in each of the last two games, neither of which you would even stretch to calling a ‘half-chance’. The defensive frailties are nothing new, but this lack of attacking threat is unfamiliar and alarming. The last time I can remember an Arsenal side looking this impotent was just before the January transfer window in which Arsene pulled his finger out to sign Andrey Arshavin.

Andre Santos had a stinker.
If you head down to Hackney Marshes on a Sunday morning, you will occasionally catch sight of me taking to the field as a leaded-footed, positionally naive left-back. Alternatively, you could just watch reruns of Andre Santos’ performance last night, as he huffed, puffed, and struggled his way though a truly torrid 90 minutes. I was alarmed to see that he repeated his trick of standing several yards behind the defensive line, allowing Huntelaar to be played onside just as Grant Holt was on Saturday. In the first half, Per Mertesacker kept us in it, but eventually the weaknesses of those around him were exposed.

I don’t see the sense in dropping Giroud.
I know he hasn’t set the world alight, but I really don’t think there’s any point in persisting with Gervinho as a lone striker. Last nights horror show showed that ‘Goalvinho’ is not a viable long-term option. Why not play Giroud and at least allow himself a chance bed in? Rotating him in and out of the side simply harms his confidence, and right now we haven’t got a better option than the Frenchman.

Gervinho is not consistent enough to play for Arsenal
Every so often he will do something fantastic. More often than not, he will run in to blind alleys, away from his team-mates, and give the ball away. Gervinho is a maverick. He is not capable of cohesive team play. His head goes down, and one has the impression that he himself barely knows what he is going to do with the play. Players like him have their place in the game, but it is generally in mid-table. Sides who see little of the game, and require a game-breaker to do the unexpected. Arsenal are an intelligent, possession side. That is not Gervinho’s game.

Arsenal desperately need to sign a striker.
See previous two points. I’m not sure this requires much expansion. In a world in which Demba Ba is available for just £7m, there is no excuse for Arsene not bringing in a reliable front man in January.

The AGM will be a feisty affair.
Already last night there were chants of “6%; you’re having a laugh” and “Ivan Gazidis: What do you do?” (albeit with inferior punctuation). One can understand why, especially when you face the unavoidable question: Did we really sell Robin van Persie to play Gervinho up front? I don’t think it’s all bad. There were signs just a few weeks ago that this squad has plenty of ability. Arsenal don’t have the familiar excuse of inexperience to trot out; this is a mature side that should know better. Get back to where we were on Saturday and the picture won’t look quite so ugly.