I thought I’d rehash my usual format of complete chaos for this year’s season review. Let me know in the comments whether the new one works. Albeit it’ll be a full year before I change my ways again if it doesn’t!
So, without further ado, I give you…
5 hallmarks of the campaign
- Arsenal end up without Champions League football next season
Despite racking up a record number of points for a side to finish 5th (75), despite the fact 75 points were once enough to win the league (United, 96-97) and despite amassing four more points than last season (when we finished 2nd), Arsenal ended up 5th in the league. And that means one thing: no Champions League for the Gunners in 17-18.
While you have, to an extent, rue such bad luck, we knew the stakes. We knew the rules of the game before the game. In yet another season when we were supposed to “kick on” we did worse league-wise – and deservedly too.
You can also understand the view of the more cynical fans on not making the Champions League. It can be roughly summed up like this: “What exactly it is you are going to miss about the Champions League? The anthem?” While, like I said, pretty cynical, there is sense in such an outlook: Arsenal failed to progress past the last 16 for seven straight seasons, and were humiliated by Bayern Munich in 2017. Despite Allianz Arena becoming our second home over the years.
Is losing out on the CL, in itself, a catastrophe the English papers/channels/pundits paint it to be? No. We have been in the Champions League for 20 years, one year without it (hopefully not more than that) is not the end of the world. However it will be quite costly for the Gunners, both the image of the Club, and the finances. We’ll lose roughly 45-50 million from TV rights sales as a result.
- Another Groundhog Day in February
It has become a tradition for Arsenal to play good football for only half a season. Usually it’s the former part, though there are exceptions to the rule, like the 14-15 campaign.
This season we have followed the pattern of last, or the one before that, pretty neatly. After an opening-day defeat to Pool we picked ourselves up and went on a 19-game unbeaten run, drawing only 3-4 games during that period. The fun ended in December, with back-to-back defeats to Everton and City. Although we stumbled through January with decent results overall (barring that last day Watford debacle and the 3-3 against Bournemouth), we have never truly recovered. Not until the last ten games or so.
We have become a running gag from February till mid-April, an absolute laughing stock. Arsenal lost seven games out of 12, winning just three: against Hull, Sutton, and Lincoln. This run included blood-boiling 1-5 defeats to Bayern Munich and an absolutely abject 0-3 surrender to relegation strugglers Crystal Palace.
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Even our heroic run in the league after that, with 8 wins in 10 wasn’t enough to clinch fourth. And the perception that other teams owe us results just because we finally woke up is misguided.
- Wenger’s contract shambles shows negligence on multiple levels
In February Arsene said the decision on his contract will be announced in March-April. Whether he genuinely believed it would, or was just trying to get the media off his back is not that important.
What IS important, however, is that said announcement was only made on the last day of May. Eagle-eyed lads from @MessiMinutes noticed that, in 2014 the official announcement said Arsene’s contract will run till May 2017 – meaning the announcement on Arsene’s eventual deal extension was put off literally till the last day.
Also, it should not be up to Arsene to decide when and how the Club decides to announce the extension, or lack thereof. He is not his own boss (insert your joke here) and his future should be out of his hands, especially in the season we’ve had, and in the middle of a bad patch.
But we haven’t heard a word from the board members or our esteemed owner in months. Barring Sir Chips’ ‘vote of confidence’ on March 9th nobody said anything. Gazidis leaking power play stuff to back channels doesn’t count. ‘Vote of confidence’ wasn’t contract-related, by the way, it was literally that, following a bad defeat to Bayern.
However what we learned from that silence is that our board is either lacking guts, competence, or both. In the end they stuck with Wenger, offering the Frenchman a two-year extension. I suspect this was done simply because no one started planning for life after Wenger, and suddenly we weren’t ready for his departure. Won’t surprise me if the same thing happens in two years’ time.
And despite Wenger saying at the time the uncertainty around his future shouldn’t affect the players or the fans, it did. I have a feeling the players, themselves guilty as sin for the atrocious dip, WERE affected. The fans, meanwhile, took the infighting to a new level, the usual fractions making all the usual arguments.
- Merry-go-round in midfield
When Santi Cazorla went down injured in November 2015, Arsene started searching for a functioning engine room. 1,5 years later I’m still not sure what it is.
This season alone we have tried 10 (!) midfield configurations after the Spaniard sustained a season-ending injury in October. These spanned three different formations too.
Needless to say such instability, cropping and chopping week in, week out, didn’t do us any favours in terms of results. Performances are achieved on stable foundations, something we severely lacked till the very late stages.
However, this summer Wenger will have to find a solution. With Santi undergoing another operation on Monday, the Spaniard will be out till December at least. Wilshere, whose fitness held up all season at Bournemouth is injured again, and I suspect parting of the ways is in order. Ramsey is also hardly renowned for his good health. It’d be foolish to bank on the Welshman going the distance, esp with Elneny the only backup. A new central midfielder of a high calibre is a must.
- Switch to three at the back
Initially viewed as a desperate measure at a desperate time, Wenger’s truly out-of-character drastic change of formation worked out very well.
Of course, it might have been a bit of both: adapting to the team’s needs and shaking things up at a difficult time, but there’s no denying we have become much more stable at the back. Initial performances were unconvincing: narrow wins over Boro and Leicester, coupled with a resounding North London derby loss, did little to soothe the nerves.
However, towards the very end of the campaign Arsenal flourished with a 3-4-2-1 set-up. It allowed the Gunners to beat United, Stoke and Southampton inside one week, before rolling over Chelsea in the FA Cup final. A nice bonus against the reigning champions.
Additionally, Wenger found a way to imprint his attacking philosophy within the new formation. The set-up suits more players than it doesn’t: Per Mertesacker and Gabriel, Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey, Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez. We are yet to figure out hot to involve our centre-forward more (Giroud had an especially hard time adapting), plus some of our wingers were left on the fringes (Lucas, Walcott), but these are minor complaints. I’m sure we’ll stick with 3 at the back next season, at least initially.
Manager rating: 6/10
After an emphatic win over Chelsea and a strong finish in the league my first instinct was to give Wenger a higher mark, a 7 most likely, but I just couldn’t do it in the end.
There are too many things Wenger got wrong this season, and a mess from February to April is one he is also responsible for. I could also hardly ignore the humiliating losses to Bayern Munich and finishing outside the Champions League zone.
I cannot understand Wenger’s decision to stay on either. He practically admitted the relationship with fans was beyond repair after not joining the players for the lap of appreciation. And unless we have a good summer and a strong start to the season, this relationship won’t improve.
Perhaps Wenger sees the Club is not ready for a transition. That appropriate structures aren’t in place for his departure. It shouldn’t be his problem though. The Frenchman always said he’d do what’s best for the Club, and if he knows an odd FA Cup is as far as he can take the Gunners, he should have stepped down.
He didn’t, which is either based on a misplaced belief he can turn things around, or stems from simple stubbornness, aka, sticking it up to people, and a dread of retiring from football. This is most certainly not a healthy situation for a Club of our size. Here’s to me getting it horribly wrong on the ‘misguided belief’ front.
Player of the season: Alexis Sanchez
Sanchez started the season at centre-forward almost out of necessity. Giroud was getting a long holiday after an exhausting Euro campaign with France, Welbeck was nursing his knee, Walcott changed his mind and became a winger again, while Lucas hasn’t been bought yet.
The Chilean took some adjusting to the new position, however as soon as he did everyone was asking the question of why Wenger didn’t give Alexis a proper crack at the centre-forward role before. Up until late December Sanchez stayed put as a nine, scoring 14 goals and assisting another six in 17 league games.
The Chilean was shunted to the left after that, before being deployed as a second ten in 3-4-2-1, however he still ended up with 30 goals and 15 assists in all competitions for Arsenal in just 51 games. The 45 goals he directly contributed to constitute 37% of Arsenal’s campaign total – 123.
Alexis is about the only player who was consistent throughout. Sure, he was less impressive during that February-to-April period, but still better than everyone else. I know Sanchez is not ideal, he overcooks the ball a lot of times, he has child-like tantrums, but that’s a price I’m willing to pay for his contribution.
We should do everything possible to keep Alexis. He is mightily impressive, and important, to us. I can’t think of another player of his ability which would be attainable. There is no easy substitution for the Chilean’s will to win, grit and goalscoring record.
Young player of the season: Rob Holding
The Englishman was just 19 years of age when he joined from Bolton in July 2016. Rob was thrust into action immediately, handed his first full debut against Liverpool in the opening game. He then started against Leicester and Watford, together with Koscielny, and made everyone stand up and take note.
Rob didn’t play a lot after that mad dash in August, as first Mustafi was brought on, and then Gabriel recovered. However he impressed every time when he stepped onto the field. The Englishman comes across as calmness personified, he looks assured and experienced despite his tender age.
The switch to a back three brought Rob closer to action, and when Gabriel’s form dipped, Holding became a regular starter. His impressive performances (and a little bit injury crisis, alright) paved the way for a Wembley start in the final, and the way Rob handled Costa and Hazard was hugely satisfying.
I’m sure Rob will be a starter come next season, and that’s no less than he deserves. Impressive stuff from a 2 million unknown player with no prior Premier League experience. Picked up from a relegated Bolton side too.
Disappointment of the season: Alex Iwobi
The Nigerian burst onto the scene last season, after being handed CL and league debuts against Barcelona and Everton respectively. He started this season as a regular, but struggled to stamp his authority.
Wenger stuck with the young prodigy till November, giving him starts over Ox and Lucas (ha!), likely in the hope Iwobi will hit form. Alex didn’t, and Arsene’s long fuse of patience flickered out. You can probably count the number of appearances Iwobi made on the fingers of one hand since then.
I hope what we have witnessed is just a young player suffering from a burnout, a second season syndrome. I like the NIgerian a lot, I think he has unique qualities, ones which set him aside from almost everyone at the club. His style heavily reminds me of Tomas Rosicky.
I’m positive Alex will be with us next season, and we’ll be able to figure just what happened to him in 16-17.
Oh, I almost forgot: at first I thought of Lucas Perez for that category, but the Spaniard looked impressive in those fleeting moments he stepped onto the turf. I’m not disappointed in the player, rather I’m disappointed in how Wenger has mismanaged Lucas, to the point where a summer departure looks inevitable.
Game of the season: 2-1 win over Chelsea in the FA Cup final
It was a close contest between the 3-0 pasting in September and the final, and I went with the latter in the end.
Simply because back in September we had our best players available and Chelsea were still finding their feet. The final was another matter entirely: the Blues were overwhelming favourites, having convincingly won the league, while we headed into the final in a deep defensive crisis.
However our performance was brilliant to a man. The determination, the desire, the quality of football on offer blew Chelsea away. The reigning champions looked lost and way in over their heads against a stellar Arsenal.
We should have been 3 or 4 up at half-time, while the makeshift defense of Holding, Mertesacker and Monreal, which everyone predicted as our downfall, held the fort at the back with assurance and flair. Absolutely phenomenal outing from the Gunners.
You can read my full report on it here.
Question of the season: what should happen for Wenger to step down?
Quote of the season: “No one speaks about the performance of Rob Holding. You should be happy, he is English and 20 years old. I am sorry he didn’t cost £55 million, so he can’t be good.” – Arsene Wenger