Arsenal secured the much desired 3rd place and potentially final Champion’s League spot on Sunday after what was very much a rollercoaster season. A start that hadn’t been seen around the club for some time was followed by a slight upturn in results but not very convincingly. Then January came with the Gunners failing to win a single game for the entire month. A 7-1 win over Blackburn in February initiated a 7 game winning streak that saw the 5-2 against Tottenham at the Emirates, undoubtedly the turning point in the race for 3rd as Harry’s tactical tinkering and distraction courtesy of the FA saw Spurs throw away a 10 point gap to the Gunners. As is the Arsenal way, nothing is ever done simply and the Gunners went 4 games without a win before Sunday where it took 3 goal-keeping howlers to make sure of a 15th consecutive season in the Champion’s League.
Mid-way through the season, I reviewed the squad for this site here. Suffice to say there weren’t too many shocks as the season went on as our over-reliance on Robin Van Persie saw his form go downhill and his goals to dry up. Our lack of quality back-up, in many areas of the field, meant we were unable to turn the tide in the likes of the 2-1 loss to Wigan and the 1-1 with Stoke. Our run of good form coincided with the return of the first-choice back four of Sagna-Koscielny-Vermaelen-Gibbs and Wenger’s refusal to sign a full-back in January was (arguably) vindicated with the form of Gibbs and Sagna upon their return. In the midfield department we saw Aaron Ramsey fade away as Tomas Rosicky begin a renaissance of what was once a very promising career. In this article I will look at our goalkeepers and the defence.
Wojciech Szczesny has been an interesting case this season. Many are quick to praise him (myself included!) and often rightfully so, the 2-1 win over Liverpool being the best example where he turned in a goal-keeping performance that belied his 22 years. However, it sometimes seems as if years of Almunia and Fabianski have set quite low standards for us and we’re just happy to have a commanding presence at the back. His save percentage of 64% is the 4th lowest in the league and he has made 4 errors that led to goals. Undoubtedly he is the club’s future number 1 for hopefully a very long time, but either complacency or lack of ability grouped together with the shoulder injury he’s been playing through for the last 5 weeks have meant that his performances have been poor lately, especially when compared to Joe Hart at Man City.
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Hart has made more saves and less errors, Szczesny has become more dominant in the box but this is Arsenal’s approach to set pieces whereas City have Lescott and Kompany to deal with crosses. This approach has worked wonders though, with only 27% of the goals we conceded coming from set-pieces, well down from 54% in 2010/11 (Courtesy of Orbinho). Our ability to concede a goal from the opponent’s first shot on target became a real problem and arguably more of a factor in our record-breaking winning after going behind points tally than ‘mental strength’. Joe Hart and David De Gea were in the top two for shots to save ratio, the two keepers for the top two clubs, so Szczesny still has a long way to go. The young Pole should definitely still be our number 1 next season, but an experienced goalkeeper to deputize him might well keep him on his toes and see more consistent performances from him each week.
Fabianksi has performed fine when called upon in the cup competitions, but the fact that Wenger would rather have Szczesny playing through a shoulder injury for 5 weeks tells you how much he is rated and I would expect him to leave. Mannone and Almunia should depart again with Martinez promoted to the first team and hopefully an experienced signing.
Next Page: Arsenal’s Defence analysed as well as a comparison between Koscielny, Kompany and Colocinni. Click here for the next page.
This defence has looked a lot sturdier than in recent seasons and they also have to take credit for our improvement in the set-piece department. Arguably, however, they have had a massive hand in Szczesny wallowing in relegation form for shot/save ratio as when we gift a team a sight of goal, we usually give them directions and a compass as well. Arsenal conceded 398 chances, in comparison, Tottenham conceded 465. Yet Arsenal conceded 8 more goals than them despite also finishing above them. United only conceded 33 goals from a massive 508 chances conceded. So while the defence can take pride in restricting opposition chances, something has to be done about allowing them to score with their first shot on target. Hopefully the new number 2 Steve Bould can have some influence in this department.
Individually, the only stand-out performer of the entire campaign was Laurent Koscielny who I will get to in a second. At right-back we have Bacary Sagna and Carl Jenkinson. Jenkinson got over an incredibly shakey start, notably the Old Trafford Massacre where he ended up sent-off. He began improving however and in 5 starts all season created 6 chances and 1 assist. His crossing technique is a welcome addition after the full-backs we’ve had to witness and hopefully he can get over his chronic injury and make an impression next year. Sagna was having a solid season up until his leg-break at White Hart Lane and his absence was sorely felt. Upon his return he played like he had never been out, aside from a few questionable moments, particularly against Wigan. In the 21 matches Sagna featured in, Arsenal only conceded 17 goals out of their season total of 49, showing you his importance to the team. He vastly improved his ability in the air this season, winning an extra header every game compared to last season. This became an interesting new tactic as Szczesny began aiming goal-kicks to him, particularly against Everton where he won 82% of his 17 aerial 50-50s.
His tackling success percentage of 85% was marginally better than that of Tottenham’s Kyle Walker on 83%. Despite being one of the most influential players and often ending up amongst those with the highest touches on the ball, Sagna has only lost the ball 4 times all season, meaning it takes a remarkable 425 minutes for him to lose the ball. 2 assists and 1 goal is not a bad return for a right-back especially considering his connection with Walcott often means he doesn’t get the chance to attack the box, but his goal against Tottenham will long live in the memory of many Arsenal fans as one that turned the tide this season.
The acquisition of André Santos has led to an interesting battle for a spot in the left-back position with Kieran Gibbs, although it would have been made all the more interesting if both weren’t injured for different halves of the season.
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Santos has been a surprise for almost everyone. Solid at the back and he has scored 2 vital goals for us this season. Gibbs was part of our good form in the latter half of the season as he seemed to overcome the injury problems that have hampered him in the past. He has performed well when brought into the side and while positionally suspect at times, can hopefully only improve with experience.
Along with André Santos, Per Mertesacker arrived to solve our lack of height at the big. Probably a case that defines ‘shouldn’t judge a book by its cover’. Disappointing some people with his lack of authority and physical presence, I feel if he had have stayed fit we would have secured 3rd place a lot more comfortably. His tactical awareness and control of his team-mates is something we haven’t seen at the back for a very long time and hopefully he comes back stronger next season. In the interest of length there are articles on Santos and Mertesacker available on the site.
In comparison to Mertesacker’s calming influence we’ve had the exuberance/borderline petulance of Vermaelen. In past seasons ‘The Verminator’ has appeared as one of the best centre-backs in the league up until his achilles injury. After his return this season he has looked completely off form. Constantly pushing forward to snuff out attacks and failing plus the lack of cover provided by the rest of the back four has meant that Vermaelen has been culpable for more than a fair share of goals. His poor form is something you can’t put into stats as it’s often down to defensive positioning. Undoubtedly Koscielny’s return of 9 last man tackles had a lot to do with covering Vermaelen. A tackle success of 82% is excellent for the Belgian along with his 6 goals, the highest of any centre-back in the league. Hopefully a rest over the summer can herald a return of the confident and dominating defender we had before.
On to undoubtedly our second best player of the season. Laurent Koscielny has ranked among the top defenders in Europe this season, leading the league in interceptions with 104 and tackles with 85. I really feel he doesn’t receive the credit he deserves and I’ll compare him to the centre-backs who made the team of the year; Kompany and Colocinni.
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Koscielny more than holds his own and at the moment our first choice centre-backs have to be him and Mertesacker.
In terms of additions in the transfer window, individually the defensive personnel we have are more than enough. Djourou had a rough season at right-back but in terms of a 4th choice centre-back I think he’s fine. The problem lies in organisation and covering for each other and lack of protection from further up the field. If we got Yann M’Vila I would be over the moon. 49 goals conceded is not good enough to mount a title challenge and some serious work needs to go in on the training ground if that is to be our target next season.