Date: 14th May 2010 at 9:38am
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Since the season drew to a close last week a debate has raged as to whether or not Arsenal have shown tangible signs of improvement. I have contributed very little to the debate because the truth is I haven`t made my own mind up. I`m acutely aware of phrases that were frequently dropping into my match reports around the March period such as, “whatever happens now they`ve earned our respect.” There were signs of the much coveted, intangible “mental strength” in the numerous last minute goals, proudly clearing the hurdle of Aaron Ramsey`s terrible injury to claw a last ditch victory at Stoke. The sight of the team huddle at the final whistle at the Britannia amidst the chorus of boos and jeers from the Neanderthal Stoke fans is an enduring one. Yet there remains the suspicion that Arsenal are the archetypal flat track bullies, they perform against lesser sides when the pressure is off and the focus is not exuding upon them quite as heavily, but once the distant title murmur metamorphasised into something resembling a bellow, the voices receded and the team collapsed in on itself. When faced with the likes of United, Chelsea, Barcelona and even Manchester City, the team has been soundly beaten. Then of course there are the injury problems, are they informative of the odds being stacked against us or instructive of the incompetence of our staff? The truth on all counts will inevitably lie somewhere in the middle.

But for now I will content myself with scrutiny of each individual player and how they have performed this season. Some individuals have really stepped up this season, some haven`t, most have spent a period out injured. (I recall Frank McLintock telling a story about Bertie Mee`s time as club physio, in which he would make the recuperation period from injuries as uncomfortable and demanding as possible for his players so that their desire to get fit again would increase two fold). Some have been too heavily criticised, some overly lauded others unsung. It`s been interesting if nothing else.

1.Manuel ALMUNIA– This season`s Emmanuel Eboue. Ask any supporter which position they would like to rectify first and they would all shout “goalkeeper” in eerie unison. The criticism for Almunia has of course been over the top. The oft made claim that he is the “worst keeper in the league” simply doesn`t stand up to any kind of scrutiny and makes those that make the claim sound beyond hysterical. However, there is little mitigation for Almunia I feel, the sad truth is that he has been found slightly short for the level to which we aspire. I think Almunia would be the best number 2 in the league and a more than capable “cup keeper.” However, mistakes have blighted his season and I don`t remember the same amount of top class saves that I recall him making in the 2008-09 period. Errors against Birmingham, Manchester City, Manchester United, Pompey, Spurs and arguably Barcelona have hurt his reputation. Supporters keen to dislike him refuse to mention the personal problems that blighted his early season form in mitigation, but the fact is at this current time he is probably ranked 4th-6th in the legion of Premiership goalies. (He really is if you look at it objectively and absorb the numerous errors other goalkeepers make regularly, which we don`t subject to the same scrutiny). That`s not bad, but for a team with title aspirations, not really good enough. His form last season earned him a shot, but he`s come up short. 5.5

2.Abou DIABY– The never ending enigma of the Arsenal squad. The only thing you can ever rely on with Abou Diaby is his unreliability. Even when he had gotten use to his sporadic appearances due to a never ending cavalcade of injuries, he throws us a curve ball by almost doubling the playing time he has achieved in any of his other seasons as an Arsenal player. The 4-3-3 seems to have suited Diaby`s strengths. As the “second lieutenant” in this system, he has been asked to neither predominantly attack nor defend. The attacking role in the triumvirate falls to Cesc or Nasri, the defensive graveyard shift to Song and/ or Denilson. However, he has been asked to parole the defensive shift due to injury (that word will be Omni-present in this article) on many an occasion. Diaby has weighed in with seven goals and five assists in 40 appearances which points to a decent season in the final third. But nothing is cut and dried with Diaby. He began the season in fine goal scoring fettle but perhaps the nadir of his Arsenal career was reached during the 3-0 victory over Spurs. Still haunted by the surrender of a two goal lead at Upton Park, Wenger threw his jacket down in conniption as Diaby pushed on despite the Gunners nursing a three goal advantage. This seemed to be a watershed in Diaby and he hit a purple patch of form, maintaining fitness, discipline and consistency- a marriage we`d never seen before in this undoubtedly talented player. He deservedly ousted Denilson as a first choice and the highlight of his season will have been a sumptuous headed winner against Liverpool. However, his form pendulously drifted towards the indifferent once he felt he had secured his place. This makes Diaby such a frustrating player, the last few weeks have shown that he needs either the carrot or the stick to be motivated, he still has the same propensity to lapses in concentration, Almunia took much of the flack for Kevin Phillips` last ditch equaliser in March, but it was Diaby`s inability to track Benitez`s run that caused the defensive panic. Diaby is undoubtedly talented, but I`m beginning to think we should cut our losses and accept that he`ll probably never have the hunger to be a consistent player and a champion. He gets a 7 because his form has veered wildly between a 5 and a 9. 7

3.Bacary SAGNA– Negotiated the “difficult third album” phase of his Arsenal career with little fuss. He is no longer a new and shiny enough toy to be insulated from criticism from supporters. But like full backs from most successful teams, he is a steady seven out of ten presence. I don`t recall too many occasions where I felt a goal was due to an error on his part. A persistent criticism surrounds his crossing, but I find that a lazy generalisation that ignores the fact that Sagna has clocked up five assists from the right this season, compared to one last season. He has broken the 40 appearance barrier for the third consecutive season, making his that rarest of Arsenal beats- a player whose reliability of form is matched by the constancy of his physical condition. If anything, he is the anti-Diaby. Sagna has been given food for thought though as during the late winter, Eboue was preferred as our right back for home games against lesser opposition and in Champions League group games, Eboue offers greater penetration and link up play, but Sagna is young enough and conscientious enough to make those improvements. 7

4.Cesc FABREGAS– At the risk of spoiling any surprises, I`m planning a top 3 run down on player of the season next week and, guess what? Cesc will be in it somewhere so I won`t exhaust too much web space here. But Fabregas annexes something to his game every season, this season he has been the spearhead of our midfield three and has taken the goal scoring burden on consummately. One game prior to van Persie`s injury, Fabregas overtook the Dutchman`s goal haul. The numbers don`t lie for Cesc this season, 36 appearances, 19 goals, 17 assists. That`s a goal a game that comes from his gifted feet, directly or indirectly. But it`s not just Cesc the creator/ finisher that has flourished this season. Cesc has always been a bona fide winner, not just a player capable of winning games through talent, but through sheer will as well. I had muted reservations about Cesc being made captain at such an early age; but one thing you can always bank on with Cesc is that he will put the hard yards in to fill any role assigned to him. (He took the role of penalty taker when van Persie was injured, despite missing his first attempt, he honed his craft, kept stepping up and kept scoring. That`s the sort of attitude that permeates him). But in the game against Stoke, I saw Cesc the captain for the first time. When Ramsey tragically left the field with an oxygen mask, Fabregas was the one who stepped up and drove the team to victory, steering home the late penalty. When Arsenal were struggling to break down a dogged Villa side, an unfit Cesc hobbled off the bench to win the game when he could only operate on one leg. He played on against Barcelona with a broken leg. (He later confirmed he knew it was broken too). But my enduring image of Cesc this season will be in the dying throws of that Stoke match. Fabregas tripped Danny Pugh next to the Stoke touchline, as Pulis hypocritically raged just minutes after Ramsey`s leg snapped in two, Cesc jogged past with his finger to his lips and motioned for Pulis to sit down. How can you not love a player that does that for your football club? I think Cesc might just be the best player I`ve ever seen in our club colours and I saw all of Bergkamp and Henry`s respective careers play out in front of my face. 9.5

5.Thomas VERMAELEN– A quite impressive first season from the Belgian. Arsenal fans had long decried the lack of physicality in the Toure-Gallas axis and Vermaelen`s uncompromising physicality was a welcome antidote to the pervious powder puff partnership. Vermaelen has played consistently and performed well. He still has the “new and shiny” status amongst supporters and so some of his flaws are overlooked by misty eyed fans. For instance, his penchant for getting incredibly tight to his attacker cuts ice with most of the Premiership`s forward lines, but powerhouses such as Rooney and Drogba have made easy work of Vermaelen- bit I expect him to learn those lessons for next year. He certainly has the attributes to be the sort of defender that can resist clever and physical strikers. His left foot has also become a potent weapon, not just in front of opposition goal but in his ability to use the ball intelligently from defence. That he was able to build an instantaneous rapport with Gallas speaks volumes of his adaptability, as does has rapid acclimatisation to the rigours of the Premiership. Possibly one of the most pivotal moments of Arsenal`s Spring title challenge occurred the morning after the 0-0 draw at Villa Park when it was confirmed that the Verminator hadn`t broken his leg and that he was able to bravely negotiate the pain barrier for the cause. Especially pivotal in retrospect as Gallas was injured a fortnight later. The Belgian has shown signs of being a mainstay at the club and somebody who has that iron will to succeed widely thought to be missing in our current squad. A few minor flaws but few would argue Vermaelen as anything other than an unqualified success. 8

7.Tomas ROSICKY– Well he surmounted the first hurdle, one I vocally doubted he would ever leap. He wore the Arsenal shirt again, which was by no means a certainty this time last year. He of course began with a setback to his hamstring injury but one must commend him for sticking out the recovery and making it back. He was also rewarded with a new contract in December. However, it is clear Rosicky cannot manage 90 minutes any longer and that he struggles to play consecutive matches. Our injury crisis at the end of the season meant he was pretty much forced to. In truth, I don`t see much of a future for Tomas at Arsenal beyond as a squad/ impact player. Tragically he appears to be a shadow of his former dynamic self. Rosicky won fans (including me) for his fearless, direct style. He was a player who took risks, who took the game to opponents, never afraid to make a darting run with the ball or have a strike at goal. I accept limited mobility may be a mitigating explanation for why we no longer see the penalty box goals (at Craven Cottage in January 2008, the header versus Wigan in 2007), but Rosicky looks like a player struggling to find his identity now he feels he can no longer provide that all action style. Wenger has tried dropping him back into midfield, where he looked comfortable initially but doubt just seems to pervade his performances. He is still an exceptionally tidy player who rarely surrenders possession, but nowadays he appears happy to shunt the ball sideways before trotting off over the horizon into a position where he couldn`t possibly receive it again. Crucial goals against Bolton and Everton show he can still pull back the trigger when required and score crucial goals from outside the box, but he doesn`t chance his arm enough for me. 6

8.Samir NASRI– Another afflicted by the looming spectre of injury in the early part of the season having broken a leg in training. He didn`t return until October but settled back into the flow pretty quickly, establishing himself as a first choice on the right hand side of Arsenal`s three pronged attack. Since missing Arsenal`s first ten league games, Nasri has featured in all but two league matches since, despite the heavy competition for attacking places. This suggests the manager has a great deal of faith in him and I wouldn`t venture that that is misplaced. Nasri is a technically outstanding player, who uses his body very intelligently to keep the ball in tight spaces and his effort in the home match with Porto will probably rank as the club`s finest goal this season. However, I would like to see Nasri become a more daring player. At the moment, he fits too snugly into the envelope marked “tidy” when he has the ability and technique to be devastating. Nasri has five goals and five assists this season which is not enough for a player with his attributes. When filling in in Cesc`s playmaker role in the midfield three, it was notable that Nasri not only lacked the fearlessness to dart into the box and score goals, but that he rarely attempted the sort of defence splitting passes we all know he is capable of. The disappointment of being left out of France`s World Cup squad may spur him on to analyse these aspects of his game and given that he does not turn 23 until next month, time is on his side. This season Nasri has been a good player. He has the potential to be a great player. 7

9.EDUARDO da Silva– Eduardo actually started the season in good form. Lining up on the left side of the front three, the Crozilian has a real propensity to find space and create chances for his team mates- his pair of assists for Diaby against Pompey in August bears testament as did his very tidy back-heel flick to tee up Cesc at the Reebok. However, when van Persie and Bendtner were injured, Eduardo could not step up to the plate as a central striker. That position does not appear to suit him in the formation as he is not the sort of hold up player required to fulfil the role. His confidence also took a knock when Wenger panicked and told the assembled press he “definitely” planned to buy a striker in light of the injury problems. The nadir of his season was to be replaced after 55 minutes against Chelsea with Carlos Vela trusted to finish a game we were losing 2-0. Since the turn of the year, he simply has not looked the same player, he looks wracked with doubt and angst and hasn`t scored since that majestic header at Upton Park in January. One imagines a mixture of the formation and the ghosts of his injury are endemic on his play and Bendtner`s impressive return from injury consigned Eduardo to a role that aspires to be bit part. The manager rarely uses Eduardo from the bench even in games we are chasing and that is the most damning evidence of all of an underwhelming season. It`s a terrible shame given the horrific injury he suffered, but I`d be surprised to see Eduardo line up for the first game of the season. 5.5

10.William GALLAS– Gallas` Arsenal career has been nothing if not colourful, so perhaps the surprise of this season would be that Gallas caused such little controversy. He kept his counsel in the press, his bete noir Toure was sold and Gallas largely looked happy (or as happy as Gallas can look) playing next to Vermaelen with whom he created such a good understanding. Gallas has been quite excellent at the centre of defence this season, organising the back four and using his experience to the benefit his team mates. I`m struggling to recall a game where I felt Gallas was below par and I feel as the leader of the back four, Gallas has had a very positive influence on Vermaelen`s form too. Had Willy stayed fit he would very much be in the running for player of the season. But Gallas did get injured and that has probably hurt his hand in the contract negotiation so we will not see the controversial Frenchman in an Arsenal shirt again. In light of Gallas` injury the signing of Sol Campbell proved to be an even bigger masterstroke, as Sol took over the marshalling of the back four. Next season it will be interesting to see who fills Gallas` void, Campbell can`t play every week and it would be hard to imagine a new signing being transplanted straight into the team and leading it, so Vermaelen might just have to step up into that role. For now, it is proper to thank Gallas for the tremendous last season he has given us this year, but the defensive side of the team needs to be remodelled and it`s probably wise to break the back of that work this summer rather than holding onto Gallas for one more year and making the work too incremental. 8

11.Robin van PERSIE– Robin, Robin, Robin, wherefore therefore art thou Robin? One of the two great tragedies of the season was that van Persie was cut down at the threshold of his majesty. (The first great tragedy was of course another player cut down rather more savagely, more on that later). After van Persie`s collection of excellent penalty box strikes in 2008-09, Wenger`s great brain wave was to move van Persie to the central striker role of his team. But it`s not just van Persie`s finishing and ability in tight spaces that make him suited to the role, but his hold up play has always been better than it has been credited for. Despite his goal ratio (9 goals in 14 appearances isn`t too shabby) my enduring image of van Persie this season was one of his final contributions before injury. The beautiful counter attack goal at the Molineux finished off by Cesc, Sagna whipped a ball into the area and van Persie, with his back to goal, craftily touched it into the path of Cesc for the goal. It said everything about van Persie, the technique and awareness have been present in abundance since his first season, but a 22 year old van Persie would have turned and tried to shoot. The streak of altruism he has added to his game in the last 18 months have seen him deservedly awarded the role of vice captain. His first goal of the season at Eastlands, a delicious turn and shot in the tiniest pocket of space was the moment of inspiration in which the penny dropped and van Persie became the supreme central striker. What a terrible shame than that injury again blighted him. Questions are asked about RvP`s injury record, but I fail to see how one can account for twisting your ankle in a heavy duty tackle. Just as we were beginning to seriously debate who is the most influential between Drogba, Rooney, Torres and van Persie he was chopped down in a meaningless international friendly. It`s hard not to be sore about that and it`s hard not to wonder how the title race might have ended had Drogba collapsed to the floor in genuine agony for once in a friendly in November, whilst van Persie enjoyed untroubled fitness. 8.5

Part 2 to follow.LD.