It has been a while since I last blogged for Dev, but I am pleased to provide you with my review of the season up to Christmas. I have been busy with a temporary relocation to Australia and, I must admit, too upset to write about Arsenal for the first part of this season. Anyone who makes the effort to write about this great club on a daily basis deserves a lot of credit. The same goes for all the bloggers out there who share their views and opinions with us every day. I have been at Dev’s flat late at night after a game, ready to go home to bed, only to see him open his laptop and start writing a blog for the next day. We are blessed with a team of smart and dedicated writers at WOA and they deserve a special Xmas congratulations for providing yet another year of good reading.
I have found a bit of time, and distance, to gather my thoughts on the ups and downs of the season so far. It started badly. Late in the transfer window we saw Cesc and Nasri depart, leaving us with a squad lacking in depth and quality going into the new campaign. And we paid the price for that. In our opening fixtures we lost Gervinho and Frimpong to suspensions, which rubbed salt into a very sore wound. Looking back now you can see that we never really stood a chance in our games against Liverpool and Man Utd. The only positive note in August, results wise, was the victory against a good Udinese side. As disappointing as our results back then were, the two games against Udinese gave me confidence we would come good.
August culminated in ‘that’ defeat against Utd, which I was unlucky enough to witness in person. Utd were on fire back then. The champions always have a strong start to the following season, tending to thrive off the buzz of the last. And we played them on one of those days where everything they did turned to gold and everything we did resulted in a red card, free kick, or goal conceded. It was a terrible result but, as I will explain below, possibly a blessing in disguise.
A few days later came the end of the transfer window. After the Utd game it was clear that we needed reinforcements desperately. Would a draw or win at Old Trafford have convinced AW otherwise? We’ll never know. By now though, what we do know is not to assume that he’ll make any signings in a transfer window. The defeat at Utd made sure of it though, and in the final days of the window we signed Mertesacker, Park, Benayoun, Arteta and Santos. All of whom, perhaps Park aside, have impressed highly since.
Mertesacker, while painfully slow on the turn, is an experienced international who seems to have found a great understanding with Koscielny and Vermaelen. Benayoun is another experienced player who will prove to be important for us this season. His work rate is excellent and AW clearly trusts him enough to bring him on late in games to seal a result. The OX was signed in early August and is going to be a gem of a player, waiting to explode on to the scene. Arteta is a top, top class footballer who should have been at Arsenal a few years ago. His play is more subtle than Cesc’s but he has formed a formidable partnership with Ramsey and Song in the middle. Santos was unfortunate to have been injured recently. After shedding a few pounds he made the LB position his own, driving forward at every opportunity and prodding a leg in when it was needed defensively. To Arsene’s credit, his signings at the end of August were top draw, and yet again he paid reasonable fees for all these players.
The problem with signing players that late on in the window is that they still need time to settle and gel. Going into September this was an Arsenal side I hardly recognised. We hadn’t bonded with our new acquisitions and it all felt a bit strange. Fast forward to now and this team is one we can really identify with. We have our boys in red and white back again.
Still, we needed time to gel and our defensive instabilities were not yet rectified. We lost at Blackburn, undeservedly, but due to frailties at the back and an infuriating inability to convert four or five golden opportunities in the last few minutes. Despite this defeat, we won every game in September apart from the draw in Dortmund, which came courtesy of a wonder-goal conceded in the last minute.
October started with a defeat to Spurs which I was unable to watch due to the death of my grandfather. From what I was told by biased and unbiased friends, we were unlucky to lose this game. They scored with a possible handball and a goal which Chezzer ought to have saved, I thought. We also had spells where we tore them to pieces. Nonetheless we lost and it represented a bad start to the month. We more than made up for it though.
The remaining five October fixtures returned victories. A last-gasp goal by Ramsey in Marseille was a sweet one, only overshadowed by a stunning victory at Stamford Bridge. Going into this game we had had a great run of form. However, this was our first real test since losing to Spurs and the whole nation was ready to write us off. We went behind twice. Arsenal teams of old would have crumbled. This team was brave and fearless. The celebrations at the end of the game reflected the importance of the result to the club and its supporters. It was the moment that made us realise we had healed our wounds from the summer, and were ready to fight until the season ends in May. I knew we had it in us, that level of character was there in our result in Italy against Udinese. The rest of the nation did not, however, and a result and score line like that was always going to make the world take notice.
November is normally a disaster month for Arsenal, but this one was relatively fruitful. We were the first English team to qualify as group winners in the Champions League, and our fine league form continued as we remained unbeaten for the whole month. Even in a lacklustre display against Fulham we had it in us to pluck a draw out from a game we would have lost in seasons past. The only sour note came in the defeat to City in the Carling Cup. Not the worst tournament to go out of, but you never like losing any game as an Arsenal fan, especially to a side like City who fielded a strong team against an inexperienced Arsenal side which matched them for 83 minutes or so.
I must admit that I missed a few games in December due to the 11-hour time difference between London and Melbourne. I did not watch the Olympiacos game because we had already qualified. It seems that was a good decision. Our performances against Wigan and Everton were efficient and professional and both resulted in victories. I watched the game against City (despite the 3.10am Monday morning kick-off!) and was thrilled with our work-rate and bravery. People continue to expect us to bottle these big games but we held our own, and can feel unlucky not to have taken a draw against an overwhelmingly more resourceful opponent. Our final pre-Christmas fixture was against Villa in which Yossi Benayoun grabbed a late, but vital winner for the club. It was important to bounce back from the City defeat and to get back into that winning habit again.
The whole team has really come of age since August, and they continue to do us proud week in, week out. However, it would be impossible to write a review on the first half of the season without dedicating a few lines to Robin van Persie. We have always had world-class players at Arsenal under AW but this guy is the best striker in the world right now. I wouldn’t swap him for any other striker in the Premier League. He has everything you ask for from a player in his position. Aerial ability, goalscoring free-kicks, tap-ins and wonder goals. The strike against Everton is, at the moment, the goal of the season. If you study his technique in the replays of this goal, it is simply breath-taking to watch. Every time I see it, it gets better and better, and the replay from behind the goal shows how his body-shape changes to adapt to Song’s lofted pass. Watch it and imagine how difficult it must be to execute in real time, in fractions of a second. Pure class.
As vantastic (sorry I couldn’t resist) as RVP is, he continues to be our main goal-scoring threat. I am hoping that a clinical striker is signed in January as we lose Gervinho and Chamakh to the ACN. Arsene has hinted that King Thierry might be coming home on a two month loan deal. Could we ask for a better Xmas present?
We have drawn AC Milan in the Champions League round of 16, which will be played out in February/March. We could have faced easier opposition but they are not Barcelona, and we have beaten them before, so we have nothing to fear. With Sagna, Wilshere, Jenkinson, Diaby, Gibbs and Santos all to return to the side, we can hope to have a formidable squad heading in to the final straight.
When asked where I thought we would finish the season in the depths of our August misery I never flinched in replying ‘top 4’. I thought we would be in the top 4 again by Xmas and we are one point off as things stand. We have a favourable-looking Christmas/new year schedule in which we can hope to take at least 10 out of 12 points (3 already taken including Villa). If Santa is kind this year maybe he’ll let us have all 12.
Where the season goes from here remains to be seen. For now, I hope you all have a great festive period and New Year, and here’s to a Red and White 2012.
JAT (you can follow me on twitter @j1mm7t)