Arsenal FC: 20 Positives Taken from the First Half of the Season
Arsenal Football Club began its 2011/12 campaign with a preseason adventure that saw Arsene Wenger and his men book a trip to the Far East to take on Malaysia’s best XI and Hangzhou Greentown.
A quick trip to Lukas Podolski’s FC Cologne came up next. The game was an avenue for Gervinho to show the Arsenal fans what he was made of. He ended up scoring a brace in the 2-1 victory.
After another disappointing loss in the Eusebio Cup final to SL Benfica, the Premier League began in earnest with an opening fixture against Newcastle United in St. James Park, or the Sports Direct Arena, as it’s now called.
Five months on, with 29 games played, 49 goals scored and 36 goals conceded over three competitions, Arsenal is presently within touching distance of the teams in the top four. They've booked a Champions League first knockout phase date with AC Milan and also booked out of the Carling Cup following a defeat to Manchester City in the quarterfinals.
Despite all that, the first half of the 2011/12 season will be fondly remembered for the right and wrong reasons by Gooners worldwide.
Taking a quick peek at the bad side, Arsenal fans saw two of their best creative midfielders leave the club for greener pastures when they still had a lot to offer to Arsene Wenger’s side. Fans witnessed the club’s worst ever defeat in the 21st century following an 8-2 drubbing at the hands of fellow title rivals Manchester United.
The fans also witnessed a lot of disappointing results this season with the pick of the bunch being the surprising 4-3 loss to Blackburn at a time when Steve Kean was under fire following three losses in a row. What makes the defeat more embarrassing was the fact that Arsenal were the plotters of their own downfall with two unfortunate own goals.
Nevertheless, there are many positives to take from the first half of the season and I’ll share my top 20 using a somewhat chronological order.
Qualification to the Champions League
At a time when off-the-pitch shenanigans were dominating the headlines with the likes of Gael Clichy, Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri strongly linked with moves away from Arsenal, reality dawned on everyone when they all left the club for greener pastures.
However, business was still meant to be done on the field of play and the disappointing 2-0 loss to Liverpool didn’t go down well with the fans.
But Wojciech Szczesny, Gervinho, Robin van Persie and Theo Walcott came up with the goods in one of the most important games of Arsenal’s season. The two-legged win against Udinese gave Arsenal the edge to attract the kind of players the club did on the transfer deadline day and, in my opinion, that was a major positive this season.
Stability Despite the Loss of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri
Like every other football club in existence, Arsenal had two figureheads in the midfield that were widely regarded as key players.
Samir Nasri kicked off the 2011/12 campaign on the back of his best ever season in Arsenal colors that saw him score 15 goals. Cesc Fabregas has been synonymous with the club since his arrival in 2003.
UC Sampdoria of Italy suffered the ignominy of relegation after selling key players Antonio Cassano and Giampaolo Pazzini in the January transfer window last season. With the sales of Fabregas and Nasri, Arsenal was expected to suffer a bit because the burden of creativity fell on the hands of Aaron Ramsey and Tomas Rosicky.
The latter players have failed to live up to what was expected of them but the club somehow found a way to cope with the loss of their midfield maestros.
Deadline Day Signings
Say what you must but Arsenal fans should extend a little bit of gratitude to Manchester United for opening Arsene Wenger’s eyes in the worst possible manner.
He had lost midfield juggernauts like Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri and decided to place all his faith on Andrey Arshavin, Aaron Ramsey and probably Tomas Rosicky to handle the burden of creativity. I had a feeling that if Arsenal escaped Old Trafford with a draw or probably a surprise win, Wenger might just have stuck with his thin squad.
But on the bright side, Arsenal fans are elated when the usually miserly boss cleaned off the dust from Arsenal’s cheque book to buy five players that have integrated themselves well into the Arsenal setup with little time to gel.
Andre Santos' arrival has been a breath of fresh air as Arsenal now has a full back that can offer a whole lot in attack as well as remain responsible at the back.
Per Mertesacker has added calmness and coordination to a usually panicky Arsenal defense. Mikel Arteta has been a blessing to Arsenal as he has provided the perfect balance in the midfield.
Yossi Benayoun’s wit and versatility has been a tool that has been exploited by Wenger and Park Chu-Young’s finish against Bolton was a goal made in dreams.
A simple word to Manchester United: Thanks.
Unlike previous campaigns where Arsene Wenger had to resort to the likes of Philippe Senderos and Mikael Silvestre to provide cover at the back, it’s fair to say that Arsenal has a very big squad to choose from this season.
In the worst injury crisis—like the type Arsenal’s defense is presently suffering—Wenger has been able to provide adequate cover and the club has played four games (Everton, Manchester City, Aston Villa and Wolves) with a make-shift backline.
In midfield, Tomas Rosicky and Andrey Arshavin aren't regular starters but they add to the squad's impressive depth and come onto the pitch as impact subs.
Arsenal’s Resurgence After Stuttering Start
It started with a nervy, goalless stalemate against Newcastle United and was followed by a 2-0 reverse in the hands of Liverpool.
The result of the match against Manchester United was certainly not in the script but an unconvincing 1-0 win over Swansea City sparked up a revival for Arsene Wenger and his men.
Arsenal hasn’t taken its foot off the pedal ever since, but there have been some glitches along the way.
Massive Improvement in Overall Play
Arsenal is gradually becoming a very solid football side with quality in every position on the pitch.
Wojciech Szczesny’s emergence has brought an end to the club’s goalkeeping woes while the defense has improved with Thomas Vermaelen's return to full fitness.
There’s an abundance of talent in midfield with Alex Song getting better with each passing game while Aaron Ramsey is repaying Arsene Wenger’s faith in him.
Robin van Persie has been phenomenal in attack while Gervinho has added dynamism to the squad.
There’s also a measure of depth in the squad with the likes of Marouane Chamakh, Andrey Arshavin and Tomas Rosicky spending more time on the dugout to come into the game as impact subs.
Laurent Koscielny’s First French Cap
With the exit of the William Gallas, Kolo Toure, Philippe Senderos and Mikael Silvestre, it was evident that Arsenal’s defense was in dire need of manpower.
Wenger responded with the arrival of Laurent Koscielny, Per Mertesacker and, sadly, Sebastien Squillaci. The French defender (of Polish descent) has been a revelation since he joined the club from FC Lorient last season.
Koscielny is one of the most intelligent defenders in the Premier League. He might not be the strongest of players you will ever see, but his ability to read the mind of an opponent and anticipate the ball with pinpoint accuracy is simply marvelous.
This season, he was rewarded by Laurent Blanc with a first French cap in the friendly match against the United States and he put up a good performance worthy of the call-up.
I hope he gets included in the Les Bleus squad that will book a flight to Ukraine and Poland for this summer’s European Championships.
Arsene Wenger’s Milestones
Arsene Wenger has been under serious stick at the start of the season following a run of poor results, but there was still time for the Gunners boss to celebrate his 15th anniversary as manager as well as his 62nd birthday.
This milestone still puts him 10 years behind the great Sir Alex Ferguson in terms of service to a football club but Arsene Wenger’s managerial career is worth emulating, as he proves yet again that continuity is a key attribute for the stability of any football club.
Chelsea 3, Arsenal 5
This was a game that made me feel extremely proud to be a Gooner. Arsenal arrived in Stamford Bridge on the back of four straight victories while Andre Villas-Boa Constrictor was a bit rattled by his team’s loss to Queens Park Rangers.
Frank Lampard opened the scoring from a Juan Mata cross but Robin van Persie equalized for the Gunners after some good play by Gervinho.
John Terry put the home side ahead from a corner kick before Andre Santos turned on the style with a low drive from Alex Song’s superb pass.
Theo Walcott scored one of the most puzzling goals of 2011 but his good work was laid to waste when Andre Santos dallied on the ball to gift Juan Mata a chance to lash on from distance to level the tie at 3-3.
The famous "slip" by John Terry was enough for Van Persie to shimmy past Petr Cech before slotting home and the game was put beyond Chelsea’s reach when van Persie smashed in his hat trick from a Mikel Arteta pass.
Glimpses of quality from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain
Arsenal signed the Ox from Southampton for a whopping £12m. The same amount was more than enough to get Chris Samba or Gary Cahill so this signing raised a few eyebrows.
Arsene Wenger handed the youngster a debut in the 8-2 defeat at Old Trafford but the Ox hit the ground running in his first Champions League start with a goal against Olympiakos.
The Carling Cup was a breeding ground for the Ox and he lit up the Emirates with brilliant performances in every game he played. Exuding tremendous confidence for a player his age, he showed a glimpse of the massive quality that made a few fans drool with the prospect of playing him in the future.
Emmanuel Frimpong’s Performance Against Manchester City
Emmanuel Frimpong would have gotten his chance to play for Arsenal last season but a knee cruciate ligament injury he suffered sidelined him for the entire season. Frimpong and Francis Coquelin have been labeled as holding midfield deputies for Alex Song, and the youngsters have put up a good shift in Song’s absence.
Frimpong’s outing against Manchester City in the Carling Cup quarterfinals still stands out as his best in his short Arsenal career.
He was a general in the midfield and he gave Samir Nasri a torrid time on the pitch…and off it.
Wojciech Szczesny’s Rise to Glory
To think that Arsenal had such a talented goalie that started last season as the fourth choice custodian between the sticks.
If Manuel Almunia and Lukasz Fabianski didn’t suffer mysterious injuries like they did last season, the world might have been denied a young, confident and commanding Pole called Wojciech Szczesny.
Standing at a massive 1.95m, Szczesny is a dominant force in the box and a very vocal lad that instills confidence on his centre backs. This season, he has made impossible saves; the standout being the save from Lee Cattermole’s header when Arsenal hosted Sunderland.
This season, I can only think of two goalies that have been better than Szczesny in the Premier League: Swansea’s Vorm and Manchester City’s Joe Hart.
In my opinion, Szczesny has vaulted in front of the likes of Petr Cech and David de Gea in the pecking order for the Golden Gloves.
Brilliant Run of Form in the Tail End of the Year
Arsene Wenger can give himself a pat on the back for steadying the ship after the storms of the start of the season.
The Gunners also put up a decent shift in November and are odds on to end December on a high. We all hope that they’ll continue with this run of form well into 2012.
Alex Song’s Performances
The most shocking thing about Alex Song is that he’s just 23. This simply means that he’ll probably rule our defensive midfield for 10 more years if he continues to work as hard as he has been doing over the last 12 months or so.
With the exit of all of Arsenal's renowned defensive midfielders, the panic button was pressed so hard by the fans that it sprang out of the remote control.
Arsene Wenger simply told the fans that everything was under control. If the manager had buckled under the intense pressure and opened Arsenal’s cheque book to buy a new defensive midfielder, the world could have been denied the viewing pleasure of Arsenal’s African diamond, Alex Song.
In the first half of this season, Alex Song has been very efficient in his role and has gone one better with his assists. The Messi-esque run against Borussia Dortmund is still my pick for the assist of the season.
Arsenal’s 125th anniversary
Formed in 1886, this great club with a very rich heritage has remained strong year after year and has seen its fair share of success.
Thirteen League titles, 10 FA Cups, 1 Fairs Cup and 1 Cup Winners Cup should paint the picture vividly for you.
The club is still waxing strong 125 years later, and it continues to grow in stature and quality with each passing year.
I’m proud to be associated with Arsenal—the greatest club on earth.
Immortalization of Club Legends
While the on-the-pitch activities were dominating the headlines week-in week-out, Arsenal benchmarked its 125th anniversary by creating statues for three club legends, Sir Herbert Chapman, Tony Adams and Thierry Henry.
It was a great showing of respect and gratitude in recognition of their exploits for the club.
Performance in the Champions League
Arsenal was drawn with the Greek champions, German champions and French Ligue 1 runners up, and Arsene Wenger and his Gunners took the group by storm—despite their stuttering performance in the Premier League.
It started with a valiant defensive performance in the Signal Iduna Park with both sides sharing the spoils before two back-to-back victories againsy Olympiakos and Marseille. The French giants managed to get a draw at the Emirates but a 2-0 win over Dortmund was enough to put Arsenal in pole position in Group F.
The match against Olympiakos in Athens was a mere formality and the loss suffered didn’t faze the Gunners—despite the injury suffered by Andre Santos that’ll keep him out till spring next year.
Arsenal has been drawn with Italian defending champions AC Milan and that’ll definitely be a mouth-watering encounter next year.
Versatility in Defense
Arsenal’s full backs mysteriously suffered injuries in the tail end of the year but their make-shift replacements have put up a great shift in their stead.
Thomas Vermaelen has been immense down the left while youngster Ignasi Miquel has put up decent outings at the left back position too. Johan Djourou, Laurent Koscieny and, more recently, Francis Coquelin have done okay on the right.
Thierry Henry’s Return
The King of Arsenal returned in the winter to train with the Gunners and he has been warmly welcomed in a place he still calls home.
With the potential exit of Gervinho and Marouane Chamakh for the African Cup of Nations, Arsenal will be short of numbers in attack and the boss has looked no further than the legend himself, Thierry Henry.
Henry won’t be expected to start every game but the fact that he’s playing again for Arsenal shows the undying love he has for the club.
I really hope that he’ll give Robin van Persie something to think about because he presently has 226 goals for Arsenal and it will be "counting" again.
Robin Van Persie’s Goal-Scoring Form
I just had to save the best for last.
It started with a deflected free kick in St. Andrews when Arsenal thrashed Birmingham City on their own turf.
A brace followed against West Ham before a headed goal from a Nicklas Bendtner cross when Arsenal defeated Leeds United in a FA Cup replay. His first hat trick in Arsenal colors against Wigan was followed up with a brace in that 4-4 epic outing at St. James Park…or Sports Direct Arena as it has been recently called.
Wolves were on the end of another brace before Arsenal’s goal of 2011 was scored when Barcelona visited the Emirates.
He scored against Birmingham City in the Carling Cup final and then the goals dried up a bit before his scrappy finish in a game that was marred by Manuel Almunia’s stupidity (West Brom).
In April, he smashed one past Blackpool before scoring a penalty in the 97th minute against Liverpool. He saved one for the North London derby before ending the month with a well executed finish against Bolton following a neat one-two with Cesc Fabregas.
After netting three more times in May against Stoke, Aston Villa and Fulham, Van Persie has picked up where he left off last season with 17 more Premier League goals.
Robin van Persie's 35 goals—the second-most in a calendar year—have put his name in the history books behind Alan Shearer's 36 and ahead of Thierry Henry's 34.
This is undoubtedly the biggest positive to take from the first half of the season.
There are many other positives but these are my top 20.
I hope that you enjoyed reading the article.