During his initial days, he wouldn’t really bother about her. He knew he could do much better than her. And he proved just that! For quite a long time, he had taken her for granted and had all the quality and all the rights to do so. But then, something happened. Unavoidable hurdles(read debts) came along. He had lost some of his charm and a few more things along the way. Suddenly, he saw her as a trophy. Without her, he would lose his glory. And so, he had no other option but to chase her. That my friends, is the love story of Monsieur Wenger and Mademoiselle Champions-league-spot.
So yeah, less of love story and more of football now. Top 4 finish yet again for Arsenal! That’s 16 years in a row now and considering the record of most of the other teams that qualified during this period, such consistency is commendable. He’s almost like a magician there, having most meager of resources at his disposal and yet producing significant results. And like every great magic trick, this too consisted of three acts.
First is ‘The Pledge‘, where he shows you something ordinary. Here, he had a team in which most of the players were not really superstars in the ‘trophy-count’ sense of the world. Wenger did say that this team could challenge for the trophy but realistically speaking, the prospect of dropping below the coveted top four spots did loom large, especially with the other teams making significant additions to there squads. Yes, some of them with our players! So the transfer season was much more eventful than the previous years and Arsenal ended up with Giroud, Podolski and Cazorla, only the latter being the ‘typical Wenger signing’. With all the three new signings expected to feature regularly in the starting XI, a slow start to the season was inevitable. And hence followed an ordinary start to the season, sitting at just 12 points after 7 games. Arsenal sailed through a few matches and laboured through the rest.
Performances slowly improved after two draws in the first two matches. The attacking players started to gel well together, with Podolski and Cazorla starting to look like a killer pair. They showed their full prowess against Liverpool away, putting out arguably the best attacking performance of the season. Diaby deserves a special mention for that performance. The best defensive performance of this starting phase came at the Etihad stadium, with Koscielny and Mertesacker delivering a solid performance at the back. Fittingly, Koscielny scored the equalizer, earning us a well deserved point.
The second act is called ‘The Turn‘, where this ordinary team performs something extraordinary. After that sort of start, normally, one would expect to kick on and continue to climb up the table. But in the next 15 games, there were good, bad and terrible performances, not something you would expect from a team supposedly challenging for the title. The defeat at Norwich started it all. Draws against Fulham and Aston Villa were disturbing but the ones that hurt the most, were the home defeats to Swansea and Manchester City. This phase saw Arsenal collect just 22 points in 15 games.
Meanwhile, the rise of Theo Walcott during this time provided a few moments to cherish as he found the back of the net 7 times. As usual, Diaby got injured. This period also saw the new no.10, Jack Wilshere, return to action after almost 15 months on the sidelines. Though that pumped up the team for a few games, even he could not save Arsenal from getting knocked out from the Capital One cup, to the hands of Bradford.
When they were good, they put 5’s and 7’s in the back of the net. Cazorla, Walcott, Podolski and Giroud would frequently come up to score in such games. The best performance of this phase, was without doubt the 5-2 win over Spurs, second time in 2012. Even Mertesacker got onto the scoring sheet that day and Adebayor’s sending off was just the icing the cake needed; he doesn’t deserve to be the cherry. And when they were bad, none of them would turn up. There were rarely matches when a moment of brilliance from one or two players could get three points, on a night the team was not clicking. The away match at Stamford Bridge saw Arsenal slump to their second defeat of the season to the London rivals, in what can be described as the worst performance of the season in the league. Jack Wilshere trying to urge on the team mattered little as the team put out one of the most demotivated performances in recent times.
But every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, ‘The Prestige‘.
‘Because making something disappear isn’t enough, you have to bring it back’.
39 points from possible 48 is just what that is. The Chelsea-away performance definitely angered Mr. Wenger as this phase saw making uncharacteristic forays towards the transfer market. He dumped Andre Santos and bought Nacho Monreal, to cover for the injured Gibbs, instead of putting Coquelin or Vermaelen there, as he usually does. The team responded with good performances against West Ham, Stoke and Sunderland. Again, there was a blip as team suffered humiliating losses to Spurs in the league, Bayern in the UCL and Blackburn in FA Cup. But Wenger still had cards up his sleeve. Trailing Spurs 7 points in the league, unintentionally sluggish Szczesny and under performing Captain Vermaelen were dropped to the bench Ramsey was promoted to the starting XI, though injuries to Wilshere and Diaby were the driving forces behind that decision.
These tough calls, and some unwelcome statements by the bitter rivals, paid immediate dividends. What followed was a run that saw them garner 26 points from possible 30. The major motivating factor for such a run being the fighting yet valiant 0-2 win at the Allianz Arena, defeating the eventual European Champions, Bayern Munich in the second leg, but losing the tie on away goals. Ramsey put out some solid performances and managed to keep Wilshere on the bench, giving him time to recover. Replacing Vermaelen with Koscielny turned out to be a master stroke as the back four kept 5 clean sheets in the last 10 matches. Arsenal ended up with the second best defence in the league, behind Manchester City. This meant they didn’t really need to score many goals to win matches. In the last 10 matches, Arsenal had learnt to win dirty. They were defending one goal leads pretty well – something not really evident in the past few seasons.
Overall, it was a season of a few highs and many lows. In the Premier League, it wasn’t a season to be proud of but finishing in the top four and above Spurs is a consolation. Getting kicked out of the domestic cups to lower league opponents was disappointing. The transfer season is here and one hopes that Wenger finally makes uses of his supposedly over-flowing war chest to compete for trophies next season.
Cazorla got my vote for player of the season, have your say…