A topsy-turvy Arsenal season finally came to an end with the almost-predictable bottom line. On the one hand, 2011/2 was another season that proved the club’s self-claimed stability, with yet another Champions League qualification and a real financial vindication to the club’s prudent way.
To do that after the horrendous start to the campaign will surely be regarded as a positive outcome in Arsene Wenger’s recent dictionary. On the other hand, it was a year of more disappointments, even humiliations at times. It was a year of coming to terms with the loss of the club’s elite status and the final collapse of the “Arsenal model”.
Mediocre at best
Overall, the quality of football was below standard. Arsenal lacked talent in key areas (with the midfield suffering the most), was over reliant on very few players, had little quality on the bench and was leaking goals like a sieve. Apart from Arteta, none of Wenger’s signings delivered: Gervinho was wasteful, Mertesacker’s part will mostly be remembered for calamitous errors and surely no one knows why Park was signed. Too many mediocre players remained in Arsenal’s books and hampered the team, including at crucial stages. This team, first and foremost, was not good enough.
No Force majeure
There was hardly a “Force majeure” here, not even ManchesterCity’s billions. Arsenal – and Wenger in particular – dug its own hole. External factors naturally played a part, but it was mainly because the club was led by a manager who lost his initial direction, his famous creativity and his innovation – proved by several panic buys as well as Thierry Henry’s short-spell loan. It was a story summarized in lacking ambition, hardly for the first time, from the club that prioritized Champions League participation as a “trophy” (disregarding the non existing chances of actually doing something meaningful in Europe).
3rd? Are you sure?
While underlining all these problems, it seems almost unreal that the team finished 3rd, bettering last season’s “accomplishment”. But it did. Not without unnecessary scares, of course, but Wenger did manage to salvage us from the mess he created. Not many predicted he would in October, neither have I. Not many could have achieved as much from this starting point as he did. But it was still Wenger’s doing, for better and worse.
Robin – Our leader
Then again, Arsenal did have some achievements this season, though it will never count as a successful season (unless you’re interested in money alone, of course). Certainly, there were some outstanding victories, especially at home, against top sides like Manchester City, AC Milan and Europe’s most impressive team, Borussia Dortmund.
Yet it’s more than sporadic, memorable wins. It was the season which saw the return of our team spirit, a sense of some belongingness for many of the players – despite some relapses (even huge ones) to old patterns of losing interest and bottling it when it matters.
Many praises have been sung for Robin van Persie this season, but perhaps his biggest success was proving his leadership skills, which turned out to be instrumental. For the first time since Patrick Vieira left, I felt comfortable with the Arsenal skipper, on and off the field (and it won’t change even if he decides to leave). Together with the right attitude of players like Mikel Arteta, Yossi Benayoun and even Theo Walcott, who looked to have matured, the team did manage to overcome difficult challenges. Yes, things were hardly perfect, and for every Arteta there was one more Gervinho, but the comeback in the 2nd half of the season was mainly due to the higher levels of solidarity and desire – qualities which were completely neglected in recent years.
Best in London
London may have lost its dominance in English football to Manchester, but Arsenal’s success in the local front cannot be underestimated. It may not have been that significant if it weren’t for Tottenham’s best squad since the 1960s – a squad that wasn’t able to “mind the gap” on Arsenal’s most vulnerable team in Wenger’s tenure. Spurs’ crumbling, along with Chelsea’s worst campaign in years, created an opportunity which was thankfully grabbed. This achievement was highlighted by two of Arsenal’s most unique and heroic derby wins in years – 5:3 at Stamford Bridge and the incredible North London derby demolishing of Spurs (or 5pur2, if you’d like). Something for the fans – which brings me to Arsenal’s biggest gain this season.
The Walking Wallets That Sang
After years of mocking from the media and other sets of supporters, this was probably Gooners’ finest hour for many years. The Arsenal supporters proved their undoubted loyalty during the club’s most difficult season in years, while being charged with obscene ticket prices.
After years of being notoriously quiet and somewhat alienated at home fixtures, it was the first time in years that the voice of Arsenal fans was truly heard and also acknowledged. Some of the players – most notably van Persie – pointed out several times that the crowd was much more involved, and rightly so. It happened on sad occasions and more joyous ones. The crowd was much more supportive, but wasn’t afraid to voice its opinion, even if it was against Wenger’s managerial decisions. But most importantly, it was the first season Ashburton Grove started to feel like home. Who knows, maybe even the board would realise at some stage that the fans are more than just walking wallets.
Optimism is for the weak
2011/2 leaves me prouder than ever to be an Arsenal fan, but it does not fill me with optimism. Arsenal are in desperate need for a change in philosophy and it does not seem like the club’s hierarchy is about to revert from the path which led to stagnation. Even the early signing of the overrated Lukas Podolski does not really suggest change, as many Gooners note (Gervinho and Chamakh were also signed “early on”).
It is also inevitable that the club will sell players for profit again, with van Persie the most obvious target for Europe’s top vultures and a likely departure. In addition, getting mediocre players off the wage-bill becomes even harder as time goes by, as shown last summer.
But obstacles like these are supposed to be seen as a challenge, an opportunity to strengthen and give the extra push – something that didn’t happen at the club for many years. It is more than ever a question of the club’s true ambition. Arsenal were handed another golden opportunity to prove its ambition, by taking actions. Recent history, together with the self-vindication of coming 3rd, suggest there will be more of the same – and walking down the same path cannot bring different results.
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