Arsenal 2013-14 Season Review

The football season is over. Arsenal have achieved the infamous ‘fourth-place trophy’ and the Football Association Cup. Looking back, the season has been a bit dissapointing for players and fans alike with the team topping of the league table for 128 days but having dropped to fourth since february. On September the second, the whole club including the fans were in flying spirits sitting top of the league, having signed world-class Playmaker Mesut Özil and having just beaten bitter-rivals Tottenham Hotspur a day ago. That day, the future looked bright and the premier league title seemed quite a reasonable target. That notion was soon to be vindicated, with Mesut Ozil making a dazzling debut and assisting Olivier Giroud within 11 minutes on the field playing in an Arsenal shirt and the team staying top of the league till February 7th aside from a minor hiccup in December, in between surviving a champions league group that contained Napoli, Marseille and Borussia Dortmund. Looking just a little further back, but exactly nine months to day of the F. A. Cup final, a 3-1 defeat at home to Aston Villa on the opening day of the season, at the end of which the players and the manager were treated to a chorus of ”spend some fuckin’ money”, most arsenal fans would have gladly taken a Champions League spot and an F. A. Cup that has ended a nine year trophy drought.
Assessing the team’s progress this season, Wenger has praised the defensive stability of the team but has recognized room for improvement in its offensive ability, sighting the ‘absolutely brutal and fantastic offensive potential’ of the league winners Manchester City and the runners-up Liverpool. And looking back over the season, you can’t help but agree. When you look at Arsenal’s matches this season, against the teams from the top half of the table, Arsenal’s Win-Tie-Loss record is 7-5-6. In the 12 games against the other 6 teams in the top 7, Arsenal’s record is 3-4-5, two of them hard-fought 1-0 wins against Tottenham Hotspurs. That is a surprisingly poor record for a team holding title aspirations. In all of these 18 games, Arsenal have scored 21 goals and conceded 26. Split home and away, the record is 11-2 and 10-24 respectively. The defensive ability of the team at home was very impressive, and was rightly praised. But for a team the stature of Arsenal, averaging approximately one goal scored per game is clearly not enough and in those matches, the team visibly struggled to create goal-scoring chances. And while the away defensive record is skewered because of those 3 away losses against the top of the table teams, it still remains a cause of concern. So, despite having such an underwhelming record against the teams from the top half of the table, especially against those in the top 7, how did Arsenal manage to stay top of the league for 128 days and in the end, finish just 7 points short of the title-winners? Because, they made up for it by winning most of the games against the teams from the bottom half of the table. In those games, Arsenal’s record stands 17-2-1, with the only loss coming on the opening day of the season against Aston Villa, the draw against Swansea City coming after a 0-6 loss at Chelsea and in the draw against Southampton, the team made a dramatic second-half comeback after going 1-0 down before conceding an unfortunate own goal in the dying minutes. But, even in the 4-1 win against the now relegated team Norwich city, a match in which Jack Wilshere finished off the goal of the premiere league season besides 3 other respectable contenders, the rest of the gameplay beside the goals was frankly, a bit boring. Up till February, that has summed up the style of play against mid-table and bottom of the table teams. The team has been defensively solid, created some chances and have been clinical with them. And in this way, the season has been a bit enigmatic, the Gunners have scored goals that have been vintage Arsenal, but the general gameplay has been anything but. So, what exactly have The Gunners been missing?
This season, on the left flank, Wenger has mostly played Cazorla and more so towards the end, Podolski. On paper, Özil has started in the number 10 role, but during the game he hardly stays there and drifts laterally across the pitch finding pockets of space and thus also allowing Aaron Ramsey to push forward from the deep and Wilshere/Rosicky/Cazorla/Podolski to drift inside from wide positions. Consequently, the attacking trio/quartet of arsenal ahead of Arteta and/or Flamini and behind Giroud has been very fluid, interchanging positions and maximizing use of space, and were at their devastating best in the Champions League group stage match against Napoli at home. It was notable even then, that after completely dominating Napoli and dazzling the Emirates crowd and especially goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny in the first half, scoring two very good goals in the process, Arsenal chose to sit back and close the game out rather than go for more glory in the second half.
But many times this season, Arsenal have lacked players with the burst of pace to get on the end of passes and cause the opposition defense problems. Its not that Arsenal lack such player in the squad, rather that everyone in the team who have quality to do that have been unavailable for long periods this season. Walcott has been injured for most of the season but in the matches he did play, his contribution was obvious. Aaron Ramsey was in fantastic form at the start of the season and his Goal and Assist statistics prove that, but in December-end he got injured. He started right where he left off once he came back, but by then the title was already lost. Podolski was also injured long-term and took a surprising amount of time to return to full fitness, but in the matches he has played, his statistics are practically off the charts. Özil understandably took some time to adapt to the physicality of the premier league, and was perhaps overplayed at the start of the season leading to some fatigued performances, and spent some considerable time out injured too. Oxelade-Chamberlain started on the left wing on the opening day of the season, and assisted Olivier Giroud early in the first half, but got injured long-term soon after in the match. He returned to the team on very good form, before getting injured again. Young prospect Serge Gnabry gave some promising performances showing surprising physical strength, work rate and confidence for such a young player before he too got sidelined with a knee injury. The finger has been often pointed at giroud for not having enough speed and consequently not making runs off the ball, but for me, that is one quality he never had and just cannot gain, however much he continues his development despite his age, and it is therefore useless to blame him for that. In any case, he has made up for it by greatly improving his passing and hold up play and has become a passing pivot in the final third that many are saying is Bergkamp-esque. So, without the pace in the team, the attacking players such as Wilshere, Cazorla and Rosicky have tried to play the one-twos with Giroud, making the runs themselves. When this has worked, it has worked brilliantly, Sunderland and Norwich City games being the prime examples. But as the statistics show, against teams in the top half of the table, this has not been enough. In the three matches this season against Chelsea, Arsenal have failed to score a single goal. Giroud, as a lone striker often gets isolated by the opposition Centre-halves and although this affords the attacking midfielders some extra space, they have not been able to do much with it, since so often this season, there has been no one to run on to their through balls.
And in such times of attacking adversity, the Gunners have still refused to play the long ball forward or just resort to crossing the ball from the wings even when both Giroud and Sanogo are playing upfront, sticking to their guns in trying to unlock defenses, i. e., creating little passing triangles by using Giroud as the passing pivot in an attempt to spring one of the attacking players behind, the Cup final being a prime example of this attitude. If you look at the arsenal goals this season, so many of them have come this way. And ironically enough, because Arsenal have been playing this way, despite having a plethora of creative midfielders in the starting XI itself, never mind the whole squad, Giroud has been delivering the final ball with midfielders like Wilshere, Ramsey and Rosicky finishing off the goals. But, despite doing this so well, and being the best at it in the league, there has to be a lot of improvement here. Arsenal players rarely set out to dribble (even players like Özil who Wenger has praised to have better dribbling ability than Zinedine Zidane, choose to pass the ball if a teammate is free rather than go solo), i. e., dribbling the ball only when they have no other choice left. And yes, it is not a good idea to stick to this principle strictly, because dribbling past a player in the final third still remains a very effective way of opening up space for your teammates as well as yourself, and I think we will see much more moments of individual quality that is undoubtedly there from players like Özil, Wilshere and Ramsey next season(this moment has stuck in minds of many Arsenal fans this season, because it capped off Aaron Ramsey’s astounding improvement since the start of 2013 into the complete footballer). But, in general, because Arsenal are dribbling the ball less and instead relying on passing, or to put in a broader context, because Arsenal are more reliant on team-play rather than individual quality, the neat passing moves and inter-plays have to be stepped up a couple of notches next season because as I said above, strong defenses have been able to snuff them out for the most part. And most probably Arsenal will get better at it, because the set of players are still relatively new to each other. Cazorla and Giroud have just completed two seasons in the premier league and with Arsenal. Ramsey has completed just a season and a half as a first team regular. Özil has just completed his first season in the premier league and with Arsenal but has already been tipped by Wenger to challenge for The Player of the Season award next season. The understanding between these players will improve, especially after having another pre-season, which on the face of it doesn’t seem much but is very crucial because it is hard to have any sort of training ground improvement in the middle of the season. The return of Theo Walcott will also help massively in this respect because he has so much speed and acceleration, that even when he has an off-day, his runs will always have defenders worried and backtracking and consequently offering the other Arsenal attackers more space to work their magic.

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