Arsenal the enigma. Maddening, brilliant, maddening again and brilliant again, ultimately quite successful but not quite as successful as their fans would like, they are a team like no other. We asked Henrik Hindby Koszyczarek – Danish journalist and Arsenal fan – for his thoughts on what has been another season of mixed emotions for Gooners everywhere. Follow Henrik on Twitter at @henrikhindby. Trust us, you won’t regret it.
This season may be the promise of better to come
What a roller coaster ride this season has been for Arsenal’s fans, eh? I’ll elaborate on that in a moment, just let me start off by summarizing my opinion on the season: Arsenal’s season 2014/15 has been acceptable. It wasn’t great but it wasn’t a failure either.
Now, I know the word “acceptable” sounds harsh, but until last season I hadn’t used such a nice word about an Arsenal campaign for years.
When the season began, I had three very clear criteria based on the fact that, even though the defense was vulnerable, no key players had left and Alexis Sanchez had arrived: The team had to win atleast one trophy. I was certain Chelsea would win the league so I expected the FA Cup or at least the Carling Cup trophy. Arsenal fans always write off the Champions League nowadays, right?
Okay, so if we take a quick glance at the domestic cups, the team had a successful season. There’s no need to dig further into this part of the season; let’s just give the manager and team credit for some very good performances in the FA Cup.
The league is a bit more difficult but equally interesting to judge. Arsenal finished third and were actually close to finishing second, so with regard to the league position I can’t complain. When you look at it more closely, though, there are some areas to criticize.
The season began below par. The performances were shaky – especially defensively which was expected as some of the defensive issues from the previous season hadn’t been addressed with the signing of new players who were strongly needed in the central defensive positions. It seems Wenger has a tendency to believe too much in his team. Even though Koscielny had had a few niggles with an inflamed calf previously, Wenger chose to run a risk; probably believing that in the case of an injury, he had other players who were good enough to cover for him – or Mertesacker for that matter. But the fact remained: Arsenal only had two central defenders who weren’t teenagers when the season kicked off. That was an unbelievable risk from a very experienced manager and it was a decision that proved costly and affected the entire season.
Koscielny’s injury worsened (of course) and even though Monreal did an okay shift centrally, he and Mertesacker never seemed to form a solid partnership. Some fans have argued that there wasn’t a good enough option available to replace Vermaelen, but I disagree. Arsenal have an extensive scouting network that constantly monitors players from around the world. There certainly is some sort of list with potential players for every area on the pitch. The question is; did Wenger put too much belief in his players? Was he too convinced that he had enough cover if Mertesacker or Koscielny got injured? Of course Wenger was looking for a replacement, but his urgency was calmed by his belief.
To me it was obvious that the team needed another experienced centrback to provide cover and competition. I also wondered why he didn’t get a proper defensive midfielder, seeing that the injury-prone Arteta’s performances had declined in the latter part of the previous season, and the fact that Flamini just isn’t a very good footballer. The lack of defensive options could be the reason why the free-flowing football further up the pitch didn’t come off; a team needs a solid defense to flourish in attack and thinking on the first four to five months of the season, it’s difficult to recall a game in which Arsenal dominated with their tiki-taka-esque offensive play.
Overall, the squad was also hurt by numerous injuries. While it’s difficult to point out who’s responsible for that, there were signs of Wenger over-playing certain players. In ’13/14 he admitted to over-playing Olivier Giroud, and he also admitted to doing it with Calum Chambers at the beginning of this season. He was forced to do that because Debuchy got injured while Koscielny was out too, but a team participating in the English league, two domestic and one European cup need more depth than Arsenal had back then. It became obvious that Wenger had built a team with acceptable depth offensively, but that he had neglected the defensive area making them too fragile when hit by several injuries simultaneously.
When November was over, Wenger had amassed his worst point tally ever as an Arsenal manager. The roller coaster-ride had hit the bottom.
“Before Coquelin made his first start in the Arsenal XI on December 28th, Arsenal had conceded 1.22 goals per game. After that, Arsenal went on to concede just 0.7 goals per game.”
The situation took a drastic change after Christmas. While a lot of Arsenal’s attack-minded players returned from injury, I note that Koscielny was back and Coquelin had returned from his loan spell – doing a surprisingly exceptional job as defensive midfielder. The improvement in two centre-backs working together with a disciplined defensive midfielder in front of them was clear. Before Coquelin made his first start in the Arsenal XI on December 28th, Arsenal had conceded 1.22 goals per game. After that, Arsenal went on to concede just 0.7 goals per game. Suddenly Arsenal had a defensive midfielder who just sat back and defended. He wasn’t a former advanced midfielder who Wenger had deployed in a new defensive role – here was a player who was comfortable with just defending – and who was good at it!
Had Wenger addressed this need six months earlier, maybe Chelsea wouldn’t have won the league – or would’ve gotten more competition in their title challenge.
What we saw from Arsenal in the spring was at times great and at other times decent. It was rarely unacceptable. There were a lot of 2-1 victories against teams from the lower half of the table, and there were a handful of games where Arsenal had to park the bus to get the three points. It wasn’t pretty and the team looked a bit too nervous for my liking. Even with the triangle of Mertesacker, Koscielny and Coquelin, the team still showed defensive weakness, especially set-pieces and crosses – an area that needs to be addressed this summer. I’m also not entirely convinced that Arsenal are over their big team complex. Even though they beat Liverpool, Manchester City and (in the FA Cup) Manchester United, there were underwhelming performances in the league against Chelsea and Manchester United. Wenger’s Arsenal still haven’t scored against Chelsea after Mourinho returned to London nearly two years ago.
Also, a couple of the lower-ranked teams showed how to neutralize the Arsenal attack and hit the team on counter. Did I hear someone say Swansea? Yes, that was what I call “typical Arsenal”; a game in which they’re ineffective, no plan B is really implemented to open up the opposition, and then the team forgets to defend against counter-attacks. We also saw that against Stoke in the Premier League, and Monaco and Anderlecht in the Champions League.
In the cases of “typical Arsenal” it’s good to have a variety of options in attack but also to change the formation. We saw that on some other occasions, for example when Wenger surprised a few fans by using Welbeck up front vs Manchester United in the FA Cup. Also the choice of Walcott over Giroud in the final game in the league and in the FA Cup final seemed to make the team a bit more unpredictable, making it more difficult for the opposition to prepare for the game.
Even though I was disappointed with Arsenal losing second place, I think the roller coaster ride ended somewhat on a high.
But let’s not forget another part of the season which was a clear failure; the Champions League. Arsenal barely advanced and the weak performances in the league in the fall were mirrored in the group stage. Then came the round of 16 and Monaco. Arsenal simply had to advance. Wenger’s record in the Champions League is terrible but – you know – it’s still just Monaco. However, not only were Arsenal and Wenger out-tacticized (that’s a word I invented in cases when the other manager clearly has the weaker team but the better plan), but they were out-tacticized by Monaco’s reserves. At the Emirates. This happened at a point in the season where Arsenal were doing well in the league, but somehow everything fell apart in that first leg against Monaco.
As I mentioned, Wenger’s record in the Champions League is terrible. Just one final in his entire career, and in the last five seasons the team haven’t advanced beyond the round of 16. Even though it’s hard to understand why he hasn’t done better, it may be his reluctance to switch tactics depending on the opposition and his reluctance to use different types of players in different types of games. We have seen a more defensive-minded Arsenal against teams such as Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Dortmund, but more often than not Wenger uses the same players he would in any other game. While Özil, Cazorla, Ramsey and Giroud may be a good line-up against Everton, they may not be the best combination to counter-attack against Bayern Munich.
Nonetheless, this season has made me optimistic regarding next season. I still believe there’s room for improvement both tactically and in the transfer market. There are two musts this summer: Arsenal need another defensive-minded and physically imposing midfielder, as well as a goalkeeper. There are other transfers that I think the team would benefit from, but those mentioned are the most important ones.
Good luck in 2015/16, Arsenal.
Related: Arsene’s Successor: Navigating the Minefield
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