Time for part 2 of The Realist’s review of the season and this time he tackles the last 2/3 of the season along with some of his own made-up awards…
Losing Fabregas in December seemed like a nail in the coffin of an indifferent season. However, the players that have caused such discontent among the natives proceeded to take the team on a long unbeaten run that saw us past Villa at the finishing line for the Champions League place. A lot of this wasn’t pretty, and the team was booed off the pitch for a number of goalless draws. I even missed one of these due to travel problems, provoking phone calls from the ground at both half time and at the final whistle. Talk about a creature of habit. I look on this time as the period of consolidation which probably put the team back on track for the push that saved the season.
The really good games of this period were the wins against Manchester United, Chelsea, Hull City and Cardiff. We had the frustrating series of draws against West Ham, Sunderland, Liverpool Fulham and Everton. Not many at the Emirates seemed to take comfort from the fact that we weren’t losing games. This was due in the main to the fact that we were trailing Aston Villa in the league. I had faith that we could overhaul them, but Jon did confide to me his fear that the Roma game could be the last Champions League encounter at the Emirates for a decade.
It was during this period that one of the most shameful episodes of the season occurred. Emmanuel Eboue came on against Wigan as a substitute in left midfield and had what I think is fair to say was ten minutes from hell. He was roundly booed for tackling Toure and then losing the ball and setting up Wigan for a possible equaliser. When he was in turn substituted the change was met with a cheer from the supporters. I don’t think I have ever heard such vitriol aimed at a player wearing the cannon. Doubtless those who oppose me on this issue will say that I don’t understand the passion. I certainly don’t understand this kind of behaviour, and I don’t particularly want to. They say that every man destroys the thing that he loves. The fanatics who claim that this kind of support for a football team is any more valid than mine would probably also argue that it is better to be a wife beater than a loving husband.
Let it be added that Eboue was outstanding in the following game away to Porto, although we lost 2-0. He scored twice in the home win against Blackburn, including taking a penalty ahead of Arshavin. He will never be in anyone’s list of the top 50 players to play for Arsenal (including mine), but to come back like this showed tremendous character.
Looking back on it, fourth place and two semi finals was more or less what I would have asked for at the beginning of the season. But this implies that you are going to lose the semis, and this is always disappointing whether you forecasted it or not.
Chelsea at Wembley. I arrived at this game in a bad mood. The Barnetts and I shared a train carriage with some 1970s throwbacks who had a pretty vile line in singing. I then had my water bottle taken off me at the gate and the contents poured into a pint glass. I had to be careful not to kick this over, which was rather distracting. The game rather passed me by and hopefully dispelled any ideas Van Persie had that he is a midfielder. I thought the stadium was drab and in the middle of nowhere. The one good thing about losing was that I didn’t have to go back there. How did this hovel acquire such legendary status?
The semi against United was harder to take. The atmosphere for the second leg was the best I have known at the Emirates. This bubble was burst in the early stages when one of the great finds of the season slipped over at an awful moment. I am sure Gibbs will be a big part of the club’s future, and this mistake will make him a stronger character when he comes back. I shudder when I think of the songs he will have to endure when we next visit Old Trafford.
The best games of this period were the wins against Roma, Blackburn, Newcastle and Villarreal. The draw against Liverpool was the most exciting game of this period, although we were murdered at the start of the second half and the defending for six of the eight goals resembled a chimp’s tea party.
In contrast to the season before, I thought we got the season the right way round. It was galling last year to start brilliantly and have things fall apart after the Birmingham game. This time we got all the nonsense out of our system by November and finished strongly. I don’t think we are too many new players away from a realistic challenge.
Player of the Season
This is a tough one, and I think it almost defeats the purpose of giving this to anyone by process of elimination. In years gone by it was easy to give this award to the player who had scored the most goals (Henry, Adebayor, Wright etc.) or a central defender or midfield enforcer (Adams or Vieira) or someone who has had a season that has placed them head and shoulders above the rest (Pires, Bergkamp Fabregas). This season no one has scored that many goals, the one star in the team was out for four months and I can’t say that anyone has stood out. I don’t say this totally by way of criticism. There is something to be said for not having a team built around an unusually gifted individual. The problem with players like Wright and Henry was that if you stopped them you stopped Arsenal.
The players who in my view have done best this season are the likes of Denilson, Walcott, Sagna and Van Persie. In coming up with an argument against these individuals it is that none of them have made a difference over and above the contribution you would expect from any team player.
I did toy with the idea of giving player of the year to Rosicky. Anyone who can get a year’s pay for what he has (or rather hasn’t) done has certainly achieved something remarkable.
It doesn’t feel entirely right, but I am going to go for Arshavin. He hasn’t really been here long enough, but in the games he has played he has the air of somebody who is a match winner. He is not only technically competent, but he is exciting in a way that Pires and Ljungburg were in their pomp.
Young Player of the Season
Kieran Gibbs. Not just because he is a friend of my nephew, but because I think he will be a very big star in the years to come. He is slightly better going forward than at defending. This is no small matter for a left back, but nothing that could not have been said about Sylvinho, Cole and Clichy at comparable stages of their career. His season was blighted by one awful moment, but it is not possible to earn your living as a defender without this happening every now and again. He looks strong enough to put it behind him, and I wish him luck when Clichy regains his fitness.
I hope to be spoilt for choice in this category next season. I will have great difficulty choosing between Gibbs, Wilshire, Ramsey and (if he comes back) Traore. One of the side effects of Mr Wenger’s policy is that there will always be keen competition for best young player. With our victory in the FA Youth Cup this trend shows no sign of letting up.
Best Five Games
Arsenal 6 Sheffield United 0
23 September 2008
One of those shape of things to come games. Fantastic hat trick by Vela. Only mar on the game was David telling me ruefully that the next game against Hull City will probably not be so easy. Burn the witch.
Arsenal 4 Tottenham Hotspur 4
29 October 2008
I put this one down because it was a brilliant game. The end was unspeakable, and I have never been so numb walking out of a ground in my life. This shouldn’t obscure the fact that for most of this game we played out of our skins, even by our standards. If I had been a neutral I could have really enjoyed this game. Tottenham rode their luck, but we performed a similar act of theft at Anfield later in the season.
Arsenal 2 Manchester United 1
8 November 2008
Ferguson called this fantasy football. We got one lucky deflection and one goal as a result of about twenty five passes and a wonderful finish by Nasri. We spent six minutes of added time defending a one goal lead with five men in front of the ball. It wouldn’t do to play like this every week, but the only two teams in the Premier League who could put on such a display rose to the occasion. Fantastic.
Chelsea 1 Arsenal 2
30 November 2008
All right, we got them at the right time. They were in the process of finding out that their manager was not the full shilling. We did get lucky with a goal that was perhaps other than strictly onside. But a win at Stamford Bridge is a win at Stamford Bridge. It wasn’t total football, but it was one of those ugly wins of which we are not supposed to be capable.
Liverpool 4 Arsenal 4
21 April 2009
Another one that would have been easier to watch as a neutral. We scored four goals with our only four chances. A most efficient strike rate. For fifteen minutes after half time we were hit by an East wind such as would have withered any team, and I was happy to have only conceded two in that time. A Tottenham friend of mine told me in semi friendly tones that we had certainly got the right Russian. I told him this game was nothing different to what Tottenham had done to us at the Emirates. Liverpool were better than us, and certainly deserved their last minute equaliser. If we have to play these cliff hangers, why can’t we be the ones to score the last goal?
Arsenal 1 Manchester United 3
5 May 2009
I have never seen an atmosphere like it, not since the Champions League game against Real Madrid. That night we shouted an sang from beginning to end in a game that was not even punctuated by a goal. Not this time. The flags were dropped beneath the seats after seven minutes. We froze and were unhinged by an efficient United performance. I do regret that United didn’t play against us the way they did against Barcelona in the final. Darren Fletcher for European Footballer of the Year?
Best Goal For
Andre Arshavin’s fourth against Liverpool, 21 April 2009. He had already scored a hat trick by this time. He could have been forgiven for thinking his night’s work was done. To keep up with Walcott’s run in the last minutes after having been on from the start was no mean feat. To score with his weaker foot (if he has a weaker foot) was breathtaking. His goal from the bye line in the home game against Blackburn was also up there in the top drawer. My favourite team goal was either Nasri’s second against United or Van Persie’s second against Newcastle, courtesy of a back heel by Eboue.
Apologies to Adebayor for his overhead kick against Villarreal. Good finish, but in thinking about this question I have a preference against stunt goals.
Best Goal Against
Ronaldo’s second in the Champions League game. With due respect to David Bentley and Geovanni, Goal of the Month far too often just means Long Shot of the Month. The breakaway goal that really killed us in the European semi (actually we were already dead by that time) was just brilliant. I remember the days when we used to be defending a corner and ten seconds later were bearing down on the opposition goal. The speed of the break and the precision of the passes was unstoppable if rather distressing.
That’s all for now – next time, The Realise will ponder on our manager and what the future holds.