At the end of the day, we managed to pull what looked like an impossible mission on March 3rd when we lost to the Spuds in the North London Derby and fell seven points behind our rivals with ten matches to go – we secured a place in Champions’ League qualifiers for 2013-14 on the very last day of the season. Our defending was appalling on that day and it felt like we would lose out for Champions League to our bitterest rivals as the odds were certainly against us according to Bwin. However, after that match, Arsene Wenger managed to pull a few tricks from his sleeve, which looked empty for the biggest part of the season. He changed our strategy to a more cautious one, dropped captain Vermaelen to the bench in favour of Laurent Koscielny and paired Mikel Arteta with Aaron Ramsey in defensive midfield. Although our game hasn’t looked pretty, it has been an efficient one.
1.We managed to win eight out of ten games in the league and an away game against Champions League finalists and arguably the most impressive side in Europe, Bayern Munich. We had some home draws against Everton and FAnchester United as exceptions of an otherwise victorious two-and-half-month-period.
2.Arsenal had had a lot of problems in last months of the season in previous seasons but this time it was totally the opposite.
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3.Our defense conceded five goals in the last eleven matches out of which only Robson-Kanu (Reading) managed to score a goal from open play – Long (West Brom) and Van Persie (FAnchester United) converted penalties, Turner (Norwich) scored a header after a free-kick and Maloney (Wigan) scored a direct free-kick.
4.As it can be seen from the names of players and their respective clubs, none of our opponents since the Spuds managed to score more than once.
5.Theo Walcott, Santi Cazorla, Lukas Podolski, Aaron Ramsey, Tomas Rosicky, Laurent Koscielny, Per Mertesacker, Olivier Giroud, Nacho Monreal, Gervinho, Mikel Arteta – 11 different players found the net after March 3rd.
6.Arsenal have won all six away matches (Bayern, Swansea, West Brom, Fulham, QPR, Newcastle) with a goal-difference 9:1 since March 3rd.
7.An incredible run-in by The Gunners meant they finished with more points (73) than the last season (70) when they came third.
Before the last match of the season, there was an interesting situation at the top of the table or, to be more precise, on positions that bring two places in Champions’ League (one for Group Stages and the other one for the qualifiers). Chelsea had a two point advantage and a slightly better goal-difference than Arsenal, while the Spuds were one point behind us with a much worse goal-difference. Two goals could have made all the difference whether Arsenal would end up third or fifth at the end.
Arsene Wenger had a lot of problems before the decisive game. Vice-captain Mikel Arteta – that has been skippering the team in 10 out of eleven occasions since March 3rd – got injured against Wigan and was a major doubt. Lukas Podolski and Jack Wilshere will both need to make a medical interventions on their ankles during the summer, but both of them were among players selected for Newcastle game. Given that Arteta passed a late fitness test, Wenger decided not to change the team that won the match against Wigan on Tuesday night. Wenger probably knew that we ought to rely on ourselves to get the win given that Sunderland weren’t exactly the toughest possible challenge for Spuds, especially after our victory over Wigan saved the Black Cats from relgation.
The match wasn’t going to our plans. Our defense had problems with Papiss Cisse as the Senegalese striker first fired the shot just over the bar and then sent a ball to the goal, but Koscielny made the most valuable clearance of the season. Koscielny was the first Gunner to pull the trigger on the other side of the pitch but his header went just wide. It was 28th minute when Mikel Arteta had to leave the field due to his calf problems. He was replaced with Alex-Oxlade Chamberlain. Santi Cazorla, arguably the best Arsenal player this season, had the best chance of the first half for Gunners but his shot went over the bar. It was a nervy first half during which we didn’t impose ourselves and it seemed like Newcastle look more like a team that was fighting for Champions’ League spot.
The very start of the second half showed we would see a much different game than the one before the break. Ramsey intercepted Steve Harper’s ball and released Walcott on the right. Walcott fired a low diagonal shot but Harper – who played his last match in 20-year-career for Newcastle – managed to pull a save and redemption for his mistake. It is debatable Walcott could have done better – he had two players in the box but with their markers close to them. However, our goal came soon after that. Sagna was fouled near the right corner flag. Walcott crossed the ball from the free-kick to the box. Mertesacker headed the ball further, it ping-ponged off Podolski’s head to Laurent Koscielny who pulled a brilliant acrobatic volley to score the most important goal of the season, a goal that – according to some – might be worth 28 million pounds, Gonzalo Higuain’s signature and departure of Gareth Bale from Spuds.
That goal came at the right time to relieve our players from the pressure. At that moment, with the score-lines at Stamford Bridge (Chelsea-Everton 1:1) and White Hart Lane (Spuds-Sunderland 0:0), we were one goal away from third place.
Still, it wasn’t over yet. Hatem Ben Arfa, one of the best dribblers in Premiership, showed his magnificent skills again and fired a shot wide while Oxlade-Chamberlain’s strike went over the bar. Cazorla tried with a curling shot from the left edge of the box but it went just wide. Gouffran was blocked by both Mertesacker and Koscielny in the box after a cross from the right side. Lukas Podolski ended his first season at Arsenal in a symbolic way – he was substituted for the 23rd time (in 24 matches he was in starting 11) in the Premiership. Olivier Giroud came in to get first minutes after being sent off in away victory against Fulham.
In the last minutes of the game, bad news for Gunners arrived – both the Chavs and Spuds scored which meant Arsenal couldn’t afford themselves to concede. Newcastle tried to equalize but instead should have conceded one more goal. In the first minute of injury time, Walcott’s speed helped him to exploit Colloccini’s mistake and to make a run into the box where he had beaten his marker and then sent the ball with the outside of his boot to the empty goal but his shot was denied by the post. Luckily for Walcott, that miss didn’t turn out to be a fatal one as Newcastle couldn’t make anything in the last three minutes of the game. Giroud had a semi-attempt that ended with Harper’s last clip over the bar in career. The Gunners kept the ball until the very finish and the celebration of St Totteringham’s Day could start! For the second season in a row, it was a second-half Laurent Koscielny’s goal that gave us that pleasure.
Although Wenger & the others deserved credit for reaching Champions’ League spot for the 16th time in a row (only Real Madrid and FAnchester United have had a longer streak of participation with 17 and 18 respectively), there are some things that should be fixed and improved this summer.
Apparently, Wenger will have a 70 million pounds war-chest to find reinforcements that should make us competitive again. Despite the fact Arteta and Ramsey did their role in defensive midfield, the fact that neither of them is a natural defensive midfielder made Wenger use two slots in the team for a role that should have been occupied by one player. There have been some defensive midfielders connected with us for a while – Victor Wanyama from Celtic and Maxime Gonalons from Lyon being mentioned mostly.
Some changes in our attacking department are also expected and needed although it should be said that four players – Cazorla, Podolski, Giroud and Walcott – managed to score 10 or more goals in Premiership this season. However, lack of consistency in that department has been caused by the absence of a real world-class striker. Three players that have been connected mostly with our club are Gonzalo Higuain (Real Madrid), David Villa (Barcelona) and Stevan Jovetić (Fiorentina). The last one isn’t exactly a prolific striker we expected but more a creative force that might fill the hole and help our current strikers to score more.
Speaking of creativity, I think that I’m not the only Gooner in the world that got excited at the prospect of Cesc Fabregas’ return to Arsenal. We must sign a really classy player who will turn Arsenal into the team that win big matches as well. We won only seven points out of possible 30 against teams from Top Six. That data, however, suggests that we were really good against teams from the second half of the table – unlike the last season when we lost to Blackburn and drew against Wolves and Bolton, this time we won maximum 18 points against relegated teams. The final gap of 5 points behind 2nd-placed Manchester Oilers and 16 points behind champions FAnchester United respectively hides the fact we were out of title race too early, which is unacceptable for the club of our stature as well as going out from both domestic cups at the hands of rivals from lower divisions. Consistency is the key word. If only second halves counted, we would be champions and that data speaks for itself.
From the current squad, the most important issue was resolved in January when Theo Walcott signed a new contract with Arsenal. Now, it remains to be unknown what is going to happen with Lukasz Fabianski and Bacary Sagna. The Polish goalkeeper should have been given an award “The Lucky Omen” as Arsenal won all five matches when he was between the sticks! After he made an impressive return from the injury against Bayern at the Allianz Arena, Fabianski played four more games in Premiership and proved that he possesses the quality to remain at Arsenal. He’ll be out of contract next month.
Sagna is a different story. His contract won’t expire before summer 2014 but Sagna’s form hasn’t been very convincing which is partially expected given that he broke his leg twice in 2011-12. He has been strongly connected with return to Ligue 1 with both super-rich clubs PSG and Monaco interested in one of the best right full-backs in the world. There is a possibility that Gervinho and, less likely, Podolski will be sold this summer. The Ivorian had some brilliant moments this season but there were a lot of frustrating moments starring our likeable yet unreliable winger. Podolski is more likely to stay, although he has lacked consistency in Arsenal career so far.The potential danger might be Manuel Pellegrini taking over at City as he would like to re-unite with Santi Cazorla and we have had a history of losing our important players to Manchester City. Departures of Squillaci and Arshavin will be a massive relief for our wage budget with a possibility that Chamakh and Bendtner – who have been at loan in West Ham and Juventus respectively – will leave as well.
Hopefully, pre-season will bring much better understanding on the pitch among our players as it was frustrating how many times our players were unaware of their team-mates’ presence in better position in front of opponents’ goal. Wilshere, Podolski and Arteta will have to solve their injuries while Abou Diaby is still far from return, if there is going to be one.
Anyway, that would be all in terms of match reports for this season. I think I can speak in behalf of the crew of allArsenal.com when I say:
HAPPY ST TOTTERINGHAM’S DAY TO EVERYONE!
on feeling happy and relieved…
Yes I am. We knew before the game that we had to win and any other result could kick us out of the potential Champions League group stage. We were right because Tottenham and Chelsea won and we had the big disadvantage to play away from home. I’m happy as well because the exceptional attitude and determination of this group of players has been rewarded. They continued to believe when we were seven points behind Tottenham in mid-March. [They knew] that we had no room for error anymore and you could never see any sign of giving in. That’s why the exceptional mental attitude of the players has been rewarded. Today it was a bit of a game against the nerves [as well as] against Newcastle and I felt that sometimes the nerves player as big a part as Newcastle. We were in control. They had an initial chance with Cisse. After that, in the second half I don’t think they had a chance. We were in control but couldn’t kill the game off. That’s why it was nervy until the end.
on if the players have repaid his belief…
Yes. At least they’re rewarded. I’ve had many groups in my life and this is one who has been absolutely outstanding on that front. They’ve shown a combination of quality but attitude as well. In the modern day, I always admire the way they behaved and their focus every day in training. Sometimes as a manager you feel as well that when a group is so dedicated and face so many storms. We had some big lows with Bradford, with Blackburn and with Bayern at home. You could never see that the players could dismantle or that the group was not united. That’s not easy in the modern game.
on if the team have conquered a mental hurdle…
In the last three months, I believe we have been remarkably consistent. We won every away game so it’s a good springboard for next season, to transfer that belief into the start of next season. That means we need stability and to strengthen our group if possible. There are many clubs out there with a lot of money so the competition is very hard. There’s not as much talent as money today in football.
on what qualifying for the Champions League means for Arsenal…
It means for us to be capable to play with the top teams in Europe. That’s what you want. It means as well that it’s easier to bring in players when you have a chance to be in the Champions League. Let’s not forget we are not in yet. We have to qualify and that’s always a very tricky round for us. But at least we have the chance.
on if the team will be competitive next season…
Since February 1, we have taken more points than anybody else in the league. I don’t believe that’s just down to coincidence, just to the fact that the group has grown. This team has grown throughout the season. We lacked belief for a long period because we couldn’t win a big game. The Bayern game changed our season away from home.
Sagna Mertesacker Koscielny Gibbs
Arteta (c) Ramsey
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