A Season of Growth or a Season of Recession?Posted: May 22, 2012
It is often said that the stats never tell the full story. On the face of it, who can question whether Arsenal have improved or declined since the last season? The final standings of the 2010/11 season saw Arsenal with 68 points, having acquired 19 wins over the season’s course with 72 goals scored; for the next season, 70 points were earned, with thanks to 20 wins, with 74 goals scored and most crucially, a place higher in the league table, moving from 4th to 3rd.
But going into the 11/12 season, Arsenal had lost their captain and best player, Cesc Fabregas, as well as the man groomed to replace him, Samir Nasri, in arguably the most important position on the pitch for Arsenal’s style. They conceded 6 more goals (43 in 10/11, 49 in 11/12) and lost 10 games, compared to 8 in the previous year, but drew fewer. The Arsenal of 10/11 very much fitted the Arsenal stereotype. They were young, talented and fragile. They seemed to be incapable of holding onto a lead, dropping 11 points from winning positions while they strove so weakly for the title, dropping two-goal leads on two separate occasions to Tottenham and somehow conspiring not to win against Newcastle when being 4-0 up and against Liverpool when they had gone ahead in the 98th minute. They were lacking in Arsene Wenger’s favourite term – ‘mental strength’. While they were meant to be in the running for the league title, after their catastrophic Carling Cup final loss against Birmingham, they managed just 3 wins in 16. Their season’s end was so poor they managed to slip from comfortable second to just-about-fourth.
Here lies the difference between the teams of 10/11 and 11/12. Where the former side regained just 7 points from losing positions all season, the latter managed to recover a staggering 24. Despite their horrendous start (worst in 58 years, in case the media hadn’t told you enough), they recovered, and put together a run between October and December in which they won 25 points from a potential 30, before the ‘second crisis’ took hold. This was the result of an overworked midfield, which was understaffed with the long term absences of Jack Wilshere and Abou Diaby adding to the burden of losing Fabregas and Nasri, with only Mikel Arteta coming in for that position, whose absence was the catalyst for this mid-season slump. On top of this, and perhaps more prevalently, almost every single fullback option they had was injured, though this was not the fault of squad depth, as one cannot reasonably account for their first, second and third choice fullbacks all being injured at one time. Even losses in February to Milan in the Champions League and Sunderland in the FA Cup – all but destroying their only chances to end their silverware drought – did not send the team into another period of poor form. Flanking these losses were wins against Sunderland in the league and the then high flying Spurs (flying too close to the sun, one might say). This was the middle of a run of seven consecutive wins, which featured the aforementioned difficult clashes with Sunderland and Spurs, as well as late wins away at Liverpool and at home to Newcastle. The ability to put together this kind of run was something which so potently missing from the previous year’s team and, with the aforementioned 25 of 30 run from October to December, this string of results (between Blackburn in February and Manchester City in April), Arsenal picked up 27 points from 30, slipping up only at QPR. While the tendency remained to throw away silly points, they were a team which was more akin to a classic Arsene Wenger Arsenal team. The best example of this is the 1997/98 season, wherein they were 12 points behind Manchester United at one point yet managed to win the league. This building of a siege mentality has been very poignantly missing from Arsenal in recent years, but with a more experienced group of players, it seemed as though this had become present again.
Where they had held realistic dreams of the league title in 10/11, suggesting this at almost any moment in 11/12 season would have seen you laughed out of town. 4th was the cause of much anger and bitterness on the part of the fans, as anything below 1st would have been, while the next year, 3rd was treated with glee and relief. This was because the perception was that Arsenal had receded as a club and while they had a higher points total and league position, they finished 19 points behind the top two. Their 11/12 total of 70 points would still have seen them finish 4th in 10/11, and their defence – with valid excuses, admittedly – was far worse in 11/12.
It would be wrong to argue that Arsenal’s team of 11/12 was better, player-for-player – any team who loses Cesc Fabregas will be considerably weaker for it (unless they have the option of replacing him with Xavi Hernandez or Andres Iniesta) and the loss of Nasri was also a major blow, meaning the team and squad are individually weaker. However, they appear to posses a unity and collective strength which has been absent from teams of recent seasons. Despite their higher number of points and wins, they were far further away from the top two teams.
But this season, rather than ruin Arsenal for the years ahead, as it threatened to at the start, has perhaps been the marker of a slight change for the club. The foundation of a team who ‘knows how to win’ is there, where it has not been going into other seasons. It has been a season of consolidation, but with the platform prepared, a good summer could see them make significant strides very quickly. If the team’s weaknesses are addressed, there is nothing to say they cannot start challenging for the title again next year. This season itself has been one of regression, but their maintenance of stability in status in this season could propel them to even greater heights in the years ahead.