Gunnerblog End of Season Awards 2014

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It’s that time again. Ladies and gentlemen, please be seated. The results are in.

PLAYER OF THE SEASON

In a season of progress for Arsenal, there are several contenders for this award. Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny have been largely outstanding at the back, whilst Wojciech Szczesny has managed to grab plenty more crosses than unwanted headlines during a generally steady campaign.

Up top, Olivier Giroud deserves credit for a strong second season. Although his lack of speed and composure can occasionally infuriate, 22 goals is a decent return. However, it’d be odd to give Player of the Season to the one man in the starting XI we’re consciously looking to replace.

For a long time, I didn’t think I’d be able to give this award to Aaron Ramsey. After picking up a thigh problem on Boxing Day, he missed fully four months of the season. It seemed particularly cruel given the explosive manner in which he’d begun the campaign, firing Arsenal to the top of the Premier League table.

Had he stayed fit, Ramsey might have run Luis Suarez close in the battle for Footballer of the Year. What’s more, Arsenal might run Manchester City close in the battle for the title. As it was, it seemed injury had robbed him of the chance to mark his name inexorably in the ‘2013/14’ chapter of football’s history books.

However, the FA Cup Final presented Ramsey with the opportunity he needed to make this season his own. His extra-time winner capped an extraordinary campaign, and the fact that his form survived a four-month lay-off shows it was far more than just a purple patch. Arsenal have a new hero – and last year’s Young Player of the Season has graduated to senior stardom.

YOUNG PLAYER OF THE SEASON

For the first time in a long time, there aren’t really any major candidates for this award. The likes of Ramsey and Wilshere are almost too experienced to be nominated, whilst younger players like Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain missed long spells of the season through injury.

Arsenal’s squad is older and more hardened than it has been for many years. The few teen talents we do have tend to be on the fringes of the squad.

Yaya Sanogo warrants a mention, having emerged from obscurity to finish by taking part in the FA Cup Final. However, he’s still a raw talent, and may require a period on loan to add finesse to his undoubted physical attributes.

Due to a lack of alternatives, I’m going to give this award to Serge Gnabry. Although injury saw Gnabry fade away from the first-team picture in the spring, he was an important member of the squad across the Christmas period. This was the season in which he stepped out of the youth system and in to the first-team. Next year, he will hope to kick on again.

WORST PLAYER OF THE SEASON

After this season, you’d be forgiven for asking: “who is Ryo Miyaichi?” Better yet, where is Ryo Miyaichi? Or why is Ryo Miyaichi? The Japanese winger was once named by Robin van Persie as one of the top three most exciting talents in world football. Now, he looks increasingly like an eager competition winner who has found himself way out of his depth. I would be very surprised if he was an Arsenal player next season.

However, Ryo is spared the indignity of this award by the fact that Park Chu-Young made a solitary appearance for us in this season’s Capital One Cup. In January, he moved to Watford on loan, before returning to Korea complaining of a skin infection. The strangest signing of Arsene Wenger’s reign can at least leave clutching this trophy.

GAME OF THE SEASON

In terms of Arsenal’s performance, I’m not sure we ever surpassed our dominating display in the 2-0 win over Rafa Benitez’s Napoli. We overwhelmed the Italians with our intelligent pressing and penetrative passing. Most satisfyingly of all, once a comfortable lead had been achieved, we showed a hitherto unseen ability to manage the game and keep the opposition at bay.

However, when it comes to pure entertainment, it’s difficult to look past the very last match of our season: 2-0 down, 3-2 up, Arsenal won the FA Cup.

WORST GAME OF THE SEASON

There are a few contenders here. The 5-1 battering away to Liverpool was devastating, whereas the 3-0 defeat away to Everton was plain depressing.

However, neither of those can match the humiliation of losing 6-0 at Chelsea. The tactical naivety Arsenal showed in that game is what makes me a little concerned about the length of Arsene Wenger’s new deal. This was a strange old season in some respects: Wembley brought dizzying highs, but Stamford Bridge saw us hit one of the lowest points since the 8-2 defeat at Old Trafford in 2011.

HIGHLIGHT OF THE SEASON

The signing of Mesut Ozil was undoubtedly a highlight. It was a transformative moment for the entire club, and allowed the Arsenal fans — who had, until that point, looked on the verge of revolting — to rejoice.

That absurdly good goal by Jack Wilshere against Norwich would also have to figure. I’m not sure I’ll ever see a better team goal than that. It was an honour to be present.

However, nothing can match the FA Cup win for pure elation. I can’t narrow it down to just Ramsey’s goal, Arsene finally clutching the cup, or the Islington celebrations. The whole weekend was fantastic. For years, Arsenal wrote off the FA Cup as a relatively minor competition. Winning it, however, felt pretty major.

DISAPPOINTMENT OF THE SEASON

I wonder why I have this as the final category. Inevitably, it means ending on something of a downer. I might have to look at that in future.

When it comes to identifying the season’s most disappointing element, I’d have to opt for our performances against our major rivals. Getting thrashed by the likes of City, Chelsea and Liverpool was agonising. Almost as painful was twice failing to beat the weakest United team in a generation.

If Arsenal are to improve upon their league placing next season, they’ll probably need to secure better results against elite opposition.

Arsenal 2 – 0 Fulham: Cazorla good, Ozil bad, Arsenal top

 It wasn’t just the team that was the same as against Villa…
…the lackadaisical attitude was pretty familiar too. In the first half, Arsenal were poor. Fulham seemed to replicate Villa’s trick of lulling us in to a false sense of security before proving relatively dangerous – all within the space of 45 minutes.

A second striker would have been incredibly useful…
Fulham were simply too comfortable in their own half. For long periods, Dimitar Berbatov was the only player anywhere near the Arsenal goal. The Cottagers were happy to drop the majority of their men deep and thus ensure they picked up the second balls in and around their own penalty area. Their attacking ambition was limited, but the sheer weight of numbers also meant they could keep the ball in their half with relative ease.

Arsene has long-since abandoned the idea of a strict “4-4-2”, but in the absence of a ‘wide attacker’ like Theo Walcott meant that Olivier Giroud was far too isolated. It was telling that when Lukas Podolski was later introduced to play closer to Giroud, Fulham looked far more stretched.

Some Arsenal fans would love Andros Townsend…
The England winger has taken on more shots per game than any other player in this season’s Premier League.

Young Serge Gnabry had a good game, but there is one exuberant aspect of his game I’d urge him to temper. Gnabry likes a shot. A vocal section of the supporters seem to love it: finally they have someone to respond to their pleading cries of “shooooot!” However, I’d question how effective taking pot-shots from range actually is.

During today’s game, Gnabry had five shots. Only one tested the goalkeeper.

Supporters like seeing a player get a shot away. It feels more satisfying, more rewarding than another sideways pass. It’s quantifiable ‘end product’. However, at times today Gnabry took shots on when one extra pass might have led to a genuine goalscoring opportunity for another player. Patience is a virtue he will that will come in time. (I guess I’ll have to be patient too.)

It’s clear from some of the spectacular strikes Gnabry has produced at youth level that he has the potential to be dangerous from range. However, on today’s evidence he would be wise to rein it in a touch. He’s learning. It’ll come.

Flamini’s importance can’t be underestimated…
As the second half kicked off, he was urging his team mates to drive forward. Flamini, like Per Mertesacker, seems acutely conscious of the importance of consistency in every single game. He is a proper pro.

We’re allowed to criticise Mesut Ozil…
Sometimes it feels as if we’re so eager for our record signing to do well that anything approaching criticism of his performance is deemed a kind of blasphemy. Equally, the tiniest contribution is hailed as a game-changer. I half expect someone to suggest that Santi Cazorla was afforded the room to score his second goal against Fulham due to a particularly well-timed Ozil fart.

Let’s get this straight: I love Ozil as much as the rest of you. I think his signing is one of the most exciting things to happen in my time as a fan. I think he’s generally been an excellent addition, and the effect of his arrival on the club has been dramatic and transformative.

However, he played badly against Fulham. There were frequent incidents of miscontrol and some curiously misplaced passes.

Perversely, it sometimes feels as if the standards we expect of our record signing are lower than the expectations we place on less heralded players. If another player in the team had made the alarming errors that Ozil did against Fulham, it’d be highlighted by many – in far more vicious terms than this.

He has been good. However, he can do so much better. And I’m sure he will. But the point I want to make is that it’s not wrong to demand more of a player with Ozil’s extraordinary gifts.

Podolski celebrated coming on like he’d scored a goal…
When Steve Bould indicated that he was about to come on, Podolski started furiously pumping his fist towards the nearby Arsenal fans. He was plainly desperate to make an impact, and was unlucky not to score with one spectacular strike that was tipped on to the post. Perhaps a little time on the sidelines has provided him with the perfect motivation.

Does anyone know the rules about kicking the ball out?
On more than one occasion, a player went down and both teams and the referee looked genuinely confused about what to do. It’s baffling. The clubs need to be properly briefed so that this issue is cleared up once and for all, and the referees need to be more demonstrative about following the existing guidelines.

Santi Cazorla…
…looked more like the player I remember from last season, which was heartening. With Walcott out, he needs to continue regularly making a tangible impact in terms of goals and assists.

Arsenal haven’t really hammered anyone this season…
It’s odd. For all our good form, we haven’t beaten anyone by more than three-goal margin this season. Sometimes it feels as if a Mourinho-esque hand-brake comes on when we feel the game is won. Alternatively, it could be because we simply don’t have the same surplus of goal-hungry strikers as previous Arsenal sides.

This time last year…
Arsenal were sixth with 34 points. Now, they sit top with 51. It’s some turnaround. Any team that beats us to the title will have to be rather special.

Arsenal 2 – 0 Spurs: I Sher-Woodn’t want to be a Tottenham fan

Arsenal 2 – 0 Tottenham
Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

I’ll admit, I was worried about the XI Arsene picked…
Before the game, Arsene said he’d treat this just like an important league game. He was fibbing. Had this been a league game, Szczesny, Mertesacker and Ozil would all have started. Perhaps Olivier Giroud would even have been roused from his sickbed.

Instead, all four were absent from the starting XI, and two from the matchday squad entirely.

There were two areas that particularly troubled me. The first was at centre-back: the pairing of Laurent Koscielny and Thomas Vermaelen has never looked particularly secure. The first half showed that fielding these two talented but impetuous defenders does make us a little vulnerable in-behind – Vermaelen was twice turned when trying to nick the ball early. However, any anxiety was relatively short-lived: a cut knee forced Vermaelen off at half-time, with Mertesacker coming on to replace the Belgian.

My other concern was the goalkeeper. Although Lukasz Fabianski’s recent performances have been relatively solid, I’d be lying if I said I’d entirely let go of my perception of him as something of a calamity waiting to happen – as my annotated team-sheet will show.

My fears were misplaced…

Arsenal were never really tested. Fabianski made one decent save to deny Christian Eriksen, but other than that Arsenal looked very secure. Emmanuel Adebayor, whose good form going in to the game was cause for dark premonitions, spent the match tucked firmly in Laurent Koscielny’s back-pocket. Roberto Soldado, meanwhile, is truly the heir apparent to Helder Postiga in Tottenham’s Hall of Infamy.

To be honest, Tottenham made it very easy for us.

I think Tim Sherwood’s positive impact at Tottenham has been hugely overblown. He’s only won three of his first six games. He drew at home with an out-of-sorts West Brom, and lost an important Capital One Cup tie at home to relegation-threatened West Ham.

I don’t know if it’s because he’s a young English manager, but the praise he’s received seems hugely disproportionate when compared to his actual tangible impact. The BBC have even chosen to conveniently overlook the West Ham game and call this the first defeat of his time at Tottenham:

I’m convinced that a Spurs side managed by AVB would have given us a better game today – in fact, they did just that, back in August.

Sherwood has been lauded for his revolutionary introduction of an old school 4-4-2 formation. However, today was the first occasion on which his system was tested against a quality five-man midfield. It might be good enough to beat mid-table sides like Manchester United, but it’s not going to be good enough to beat the Arsenal.

Another bizarre thing about Sherwood is that while he has overhauled the team, he’s chosen to retain arguably the most catastrophic element of AVB’s team: the kamikaze high line.

It was telling that Wenger opted to pick a three diminutive speedsters up top in Gnabry, Walcott and Cazorla. He had probably watched Liverpool’s tiny trio of Suarez, Coutinho and Sterling demolish Tottenham a matter of weeks before.

While I’m on it, Tim Sherwood is a spectacularly inarticulate man…
I know I’ll be accused of snobbery here, but I don’t care. After the match, Sherwood claimed, “We was not not outnumbered in midfield, we wasn’t”. Seems like he’s stuck in his own double-negative spiral.

Gnabry was outstanding…
Starting Fabianski felt like a gamble. Starting Gnabry felt like a declaration of faith. That faith was repaid with a storming display. For an 18 year-old, it’s his football intelligence that really takes your breath away.

Amid all the chatter about the Januzaj lad at United, you might forget that other club’s are even allowed to have exciting youngsters. Apparently if they don’t have even the slightest chance of playing for England, they’re not as interesting to our national press. Nevertheless, I can’t see many more promising prospects than Gnabry around – and he doesn’t dive. While I’m at it: if he played for a club with a midfield as weak as Moyes’, he’d probably be starting every week too. As it is, he is in competition with the likes of Cazorla and Ozil for a regular place.

Further reading: Serge Gnabry comes of age as Arsenal see of Spurs

Rosicky…
…deserved that goal. He probably deserves a new deal, too. Arsenal will face competition from the MLS and elsewhere for his services in 2014/15, but I’d be delighted to see him stay with the club. You won’t find many 33-year olds who could race away from Danny Rose quite so effectively. He’s like Peter Pan. Or maybe Benjamin Button. Maybe eventually he will regress in to being a weird little baby old person. Who knows? But I want to see it happen. At Arsenal.

Further reading: Super Tom Rosicky Shines Against Spurs

Theo Walcott looked impressive as a centre-forward…
His finishing was a little off, but he showed great movement and a willingness to take on the physical elements of the role. On the admittedly limited evidence of the past two games, he’s a far better bet for the position than Lukas Podolski.

As for the whole stretcher-based controversy, Spurs want to be careful throwing money at Theo – they’ve already chucked away £100m in the summer transfer market.

Arsenal saw out the game in relative comfort…
My overall thought watching this match was that gap between the two teams seems to have widened significantly in the first-half of this season. This was the most one-sided derby victory for some time.

The Fourth Round beckons, and I hope we give the FA Cup some real focus this year. It’d be a massive thing to reach the final or, God forbid, win it. The players seemed to flourish away from the weekly pressure of the Premier League, too – this was our best performance in weeks.

Arsenal have nine days rest now before an awkward-looking trip to Aston Villa, and the resumption of Premier League duties.

Crystal Palace 0 – 2 Arsenal: Gunners slip past greasy Chamakh

I never expected this to be walkover…
After their hammering on Monday, and with the cavalier Ian Holloway no longer in charge, Palace were always likely to have a conservative approach to the game.

So it proved. They sat deep and looked to frustrate Arsenal, occasionally launching a counter-attack with the pace of Jerome Thomas. An early goal would have forced them to change their strategy, but Arsenal initially looked sluggish despite dominating possession.

Gnabry was an intriguing introduction…
When Mathieu Flamini pulled up with a groin problem after eight minutes, I expected Arsene Wenger to replace him with Jack Wilshere.

However, Wenger had already read the pattern of play, and opted for Serge Gnabry to provide an injection of pace and width.

Gnabry’s introduction proved to be integral to Arsenal’s victory. He won the penalty with a darting run in to the penalty area, and tracked back tirelessly until he himself was replaced with 20 minutes to go.

Caz-ozil is not yet working as anticipated…
Arsenal fans waited for six weeks to see Santi Cazorla and Mesut Ozil play together. Thus far, the combination has failed to live up to its understandably starry billing.

In this game, Cazorla looked some way from his best. His touch was unusually erratic and his passing wayward. It’s almost certainly merely a question of match practice. Ozil, meanwhile, will surely benefit from a rest for the Capital One Cup tie with Chelsea.

Arteta’s sending off seemed harsh…
Even if you deem it a clear goalscoring opportunity, I’m not certain it was a foul. Chamakh initiated the challenge, needlessly bundling in to Arteta.

For Arsenal fans, it was a piece of familiar cowardice from Chamakh, who would rather go to ground than muster the courage to actually take on a shot.

Arsenal were able to rely on some outstanding defensive performances…
Wojciech Szczesny has been nothing less than excellent since the opening day defeat to Aston Villa. In this game, he produced two phenomenal saves to deny Palace when the game was precariously balanced at 1-0.

In front of him, the back four were all solid, but Bacary Sagna was particularly good. Sagna seems to relish these “backs to the wall” performances. The challenge brings the best out of him, and in this match he was simply unbeatable.

Arsenal needed a win today…
Our next four fixtures see us face off against Chelsea, Liverpool, Dortmund and Manchester United. This clash with Palace was all about getting three points – by any means.

It’s often said that winning while playing poorly is the mark of a title-challenging side. I’ll hold off from such proclamations until we are able to assess Arsenal’s performance in the difficult games ahead.