As promised, here’s the second part in what will hopefully be a four-part series discussing Arsenal’s 2016-17 season. With the last kick of the match against Aston Villa closing the book on it, we can start to break it down and assess what went right, what went wrong and how to move forward. I’ll try to have a third part where we can discuss the summer and then a piece talking about the one, giant crux of everything: the manager. But for right now, let’s talk 2016-17.
The season started with hopeful tones in the Community Shield. Whatever some will say, getting the Mourinho monkey off our backs that day gave some semblance of hope that this season would turn out different than so many others. The team battled and an Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain goal appeared to portend to good things for the club and for the young Ox. That Community Shield match punctuated a solid preseason that seemed to build hope amongst the fan base. And then the season started with an 16-year old midfielder making his debut bossing the match. Unfortunately, that was West Ham’s Reece Oxford who somehow managed to outplay our midfield and help the Hammers to a comfortable 2-0 win. That loss seemed to set the tone for much of the season, if I’m honest. Hope and desire meeting disappointment and frustration in equal parts.
If you don’t think so, consider how we started the season: loss to West Ham, draw to Liverpool, wins against Crystal Palace and Newcastle and Stoke City, followed by losses to Dynamo Zagreb in the Champions League and the 2-0 loss at Stamford Bridge. The draw at Liverpool stung given as how Aaron Ramsey’s good goal should have stood as the difference-maker. Meanwhile, the battle at Stamford Bridge only seemed to bring to the foreground the same old demons and shouts of naiveté against that team of cunts. Facing a Chelsea-side desperate to turn their poor form and fortune, Gabriel and Koscielny fell victim to the dark arts of Diego Costa and his many methods for getting players sent off. That Santi freakin’ Cazorla managed to get sent off also on this match kind of says it all. In fact, Arsenal had only four sending-offs this season and three of them happened against Chelsea.
But that microcosm of matches seems to encapsulate so much of what happened this season: moments of brilliance and joy combined with moments of maddening futility and disappointment. And while the highs were some mighty high stuff, I feel that it’s going to be the lows which get the bulk of the memory space in our craniums when this season is reconsidered in the future. Mostly because there was a great chance at ending the 12-year title drought.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think we should so offhandedly dismiss the accomplishment of Leicester City. They lost just 3 matches. But 2 of them were to Arsenal — the 5-3 goal-fest that showed the best of Alexis Sanchez and the 2-1 thriller that had us all screaming and jumping for joy in February believing that a title chase was on. Think on that. Arsenal beat the eventual champs both home and away — a 6-point swing — and STILL ended 10 points behind them. That speaks to the lack of a dip that Leicester experienced this season as well as the major dip that befell the Gunners after the New Year. Lest we forget, Arsenal were leading the Premier League on 1/1/2016.
However, in a year that saw Manchester City struggle mightily to make fourth place and saw Manchester United swing from boring to downright narcoleptic form; a year that saw Liverpool have to fire their manager as he bumbled and stumbled his way while Everton couldn’t seem to hold a lead to save their lives; in a year that saw Chelsea mount the most pathetic defense of a title since Joffrey Baratheon ran like a bitch in the Battle of Blackwater, Arsenal still couldn’t capitalize to seize the Premier League crown that has eluded them for so long. I’m not someone who subscribes to the idea that because Guardiola, Conte, Klopp, Koeman, Ranieri, Pochettino, Bilic and possibly DeBoer and Mourinho will all manage in England next season that this season was the best and last chance to ever win the Premier League again for Arsenal. All I can say is that this was a great chance to win the league and that it didn’t happen. And that’s disappointing to say the least.
Plus, it’s not like we could look to the cups for a chance at silverware this season. The Capital One Cup campaign featured one great night – the night Mathieu Flamini scored twice against Spurs – and a quick exit at the hands of Sheffield Wednesday that was more important for the injuries to Oxlade-Chamberlain and Walcott than the 3-0 defeat. The FA Cup – a safe harbor the last few years – saw a few more wins until those goal-scoring issues showed themselves against Hull and then against Watford. Somehow returning the favor to the Hornets a few days later seemed only to increase the bitterness of crashing out of the cup.
Meanwhile the campaign in the Champions League started so awfully – losing to both Dynamo Zagreb and Olympiakos – that it required a miracle victory against Bayern Munich to right the ship and then a major win at Olympiakos just to qualify for the knockout stages. Now, let’s be honest: Bayern were always going to finish first. They won every match in the group stages but one. So the idea of ending second in that group wasn’t inconceivable. Nor was, unfortunately, the draw’s result pitting Arsenal against Barcelona (again). This is where using cups as a measuring stick falters – had Arsenal drawn Real Madrid at that point or even gotten the Barcelona side that was going through their funk a few weeks later, it might have made a difference. Instead, Arsenal ran face-first into Barcelona at their imperious best while going through their post-January funk. Only one outcome was possible.
So why did our Premier League title challenge falter?
After the aforementioned 2-0 loss at Chelsea, Arsenal went on their best league winning run of the entire season. 5 victories in the league that included the 5-2 win at Leicester, the 3-0 win over Manchester United, a 2-1 win over Everton and 3-0 victories at Watford and at Swansea City. 5 matches, 5 convincing victories which seemed to portend to good things this season. Even a 2-3 shock loss in the Champions League to Dynamo Zagreb in the midst of that didn’t spoil things as Arsenal followed it up with an epic 2-0 victory at home against mighty Bayern Munich. Besides that, the next best run was a 3-match-winning streak that saw Arsenal beat Sunderland, Aston Villa and Manchester City right before Christmas. The Gunners had a solid run to close the season that featured 5 draws and 5 wins but performances varied wildly — from beating both Aston Villa and Watford comfortably 4-0 to drawing tamely against Sunderland and Manchester City.
On the surface, it seems that very little separates Leicester’s season from Arsenal’s. They won 23, Arsenal won 20. They drew 12, Arsenal drew 11.Leicester scored 68 goals and conceded 36. Arsenal scored 65 goals and conceded 36. It’s the same for home form: equal number of wins (12), Leicester had 1 loss to Arsenal’s 3, but Arsenal had only 4 home draws while Leicester had 6. Very similar records at first glance. Leicester’s only loss at home? That 5-2 defeat at the hands of Arsenal.
But it’s on the road where things split. Arsenal’s road form was 8 wins, 7 draws and 4 losses. Leicester’s? Why, they won 11 times, drew 6 and lost only twice. Most importantly, they conceded only 18 times to Arsenal’s 25. Not surprisingly, the worst games of Arsenal’s season seemed to take place on the road. The 2-0 loss to Chelsea, the 2-1 loss to West Brom, the 4-0 drubbing by Southampton on Boxing Day and the 3-2 defeat at Manchester United’s kids all dot the landscape this season. Same with draws: the 3-3 at Anfield and at Upton Park as well as the 2-2 at Etihad and at White Hart Lane all take on a different hue. It’s as if going away from Emirates Stadium robbed Arsenal of attacking potency and defending nous.
So let’s talk first about that attacking potency. Only 3 players on the squad hit double-digit goals this season across all competitions. Three. Olivier Giroud scored 25 goals, Alexis Sanchez scored 17 and Theo Walcott chipped in with 10. On the surface that seems a fair return for our top three forwards, right? After all, Mesut Ozil added another 9 and Aaron Ramsey helped with a further 7. (That’s 68 of the 95 goals scored across all competitions this year or 72% of the goals scored this campaign). Unfortunately, when looking at just the Premier League, Giroud’s tally goes down to 16 and Sanchez’s to 13. The next player on the goalscorers’ sheet is Ozil with 6 goals. In fact, the rest of the squad drops off tremendously in goalscoring capacity when considering just the 38 matches in the Prem.
That highlights our dependence on Giroud and Sanchez to provide the goals for us this season. And for both forwards, 2016-17 was a mixed bag of a season. Let’s start with Alexis Sanchez, who was rushed back from his break after leading his Chile squad to the Copa America crown. By everyone’s admission, he wasn’t ready to play when he was thrown into that West Ham loss to start the season, but the short rest period only exacerbated his eventual troubles: he went on a 10-game run in the Premier League without a goal before bursting to life against Leicester. Then his great run of form was ended when he was lost for eight weeks for a hamstring injury against Norwich City at the end of November.
This only made the need for Giroud to score more dire. Unfortunately, the French striker didn’t score his first goal until the 2-0 Bayern victory in late October. And while that run was bad, it was nothing to the 15-game run of Premier League matches without a goal that coincided with Arsenal’s title capitulation. In many ways, poor Olivier came to represent Arsenal’s season for the detractors of the Gunners: pretty but not clinical, capable but not really world-class. The manager had spent the summer searching for a better striker, opted to trust him and had no choice due to the injuries to Welbeck and Walcott and still he could not become the striker everyone wanted him to be. In a weird twist, Arsenal were meeker at home (ranking 10th in attack at Emirates) than away from North London (where the Gunners were the best team in the Premier League). Could that be tied to the way the crowd at Emirates turned on Giroud as he went match after match without a goal?
And it was those injuries that only made the inability to bring another striker into the club over the summer appear so heinous. Danny Welbeck was basically lost for the season — not returning until he came off the bench to score the winner against Leicester in February. Sadly, while he managed to score a few more goals, he was lost again against Manchester City. Now he’s out another season again. For his part, Theo Walcott started the season well; his movement and form appearing to finally show the striker we all believed he could be. His September and early October saw him at his best: scoring 4 of his 10 goals and grabbing 2 assists in that 3-0 demolition of Manchester United. But in late October, he picked up a calf injury against Sheffield Wednesday and, by the time he returned in December, it seemed most of the stardust was spent. A great goal against Manchester City seemed his last moment of glory for Arsenal.
Unfortunately, with goals coming at a premium throughout much of the season, the defense was tasked with holding firm and steady. The long-time partnership of Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny appear to show signs of reaching the end of its road. This created an opening for Gabriel Paulista to ascend to the first team, but he struggled just as much to nail his place to the first team. (No one will likely forget his poor outing at Old Trafford when he helped young Marcus Rashford become a household name). Whether communication with one another and with Petr Cech was an issue, we won’t know. What we can know is the effect that the defending had on the season — particularly on the road. It isn’t surprising to find that, while Arsenal had the 2nd best defense at home, they slid all the way down to 7th on the road — conceding twice as many away from Emirates (25) as they did at home (11). And this was with Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal starting the bulk of the season’s games at the fullback spots and Petr Cech missing only due to injury. For all intents and purposes, the back 5 was the back 5.
Perhaps the defense would have been better and our title challenge not faltered were it not for the loss of the heart of our midfield. Now, let’s not act like they weren’t exposed this season. Whether it was the 2-0 loss to West Ham or the loss at Chelsea, the two-man pivot of Santi Cazorla and Francis Coquelin had its issues. Physical or speedy midfields were able to overrun them or bypass them. This often left the defense exposed. What proved worse, however, was to lose them. With Santi lost for the bulk of the season, it meant an opening was created for someone like Aaron Ramsey or Jack Wilshere to step into. But Wilshere was another player who was gone for most of the year. Meanwhile Rambo was gifted with his chance to play the position we want him to play in — in the heart of the midfield — and didn’t really shine there. We all know he doesn’t want to play on the right side of the attacking three, but that’s where he has done his best for Arsenal.
That right-side forward position, unfortunately, remained a mess. Given a chance to make it his own this season, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain instead found himself unable to provide consistent attack throughout the season. When he went down against Sheffield Wednesday, the team was forced to turn to two players: first, it was Joel Campbell’s turn. And if we’re honest, Campbell showed every bit of his potential and talent this season. It didn’t prove enough to make Arsene Wenger give him the job, but at the very least, Joel showed himself a capable player for someone. This meant that, with Ox and Theo unavailable, the manager turned to youngster Alex Iwobi. And the young Nigerian proved to be one of the highlights of the season as he provided verve, energy and a connection with both Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil.
If there was one highlight this season, it has to be the German midfielder. I know that three years ago, when he was purchased for a record 42.7M pounds, we all knew that Arsenal was getting a world-class player. But I don’t think we understood what that truly meant until this season. It’s not just his near-record 19 assists or his 9 goals across the various competitions. It’s how he bossed games, how he ran the attack like only the best players can and how he made it seem so effortlessly. Just as vital, it was how much more of a presence he assumed in the team. He was harrying. He was shouting for the ball. He was getting frustrated and demanding his teammates give more. 2016-17 is the season Arsenal became Mesut Ozil’s team. It is now up to the rest of the squad – and the manager – to ensure the team is up to his standards.
And while it may look like I am down on the team and the season, let me dispel that notion. There were plenty of fun times and moments I will not forget. Watching Arsenal tear Manchester United open in September felt like a corner had been turned. That last minute Danny Welbeck winner against Leicester, which caused such a screaming, happy fit all over the globe. The brace from Flamini against Tottenham and how we were all shocked by that from him. And obviously, that glorious final day as we all saw Arsenal demolish an already-relegated Aston Villa while already-relegated Newcastle demolished Tottenham with 10 men. Such great days.
On a personal note, I’ll never forget the Arsenal America Road Trip this past season and getting to experience my first games at Emirates. The chill of the night as we saw Arsenal beat Everton. Enjoying the pubs around North London before AND after the matches. Taking the Stadium Tour and meeting Nigel Winterburn. Rummaging through the Armoury and trying to find ways to get something Arsenal for my Chelsea-loving brother’s kid. And, most of all, being there that night when Arsenal took on the best team in the world in FC Bayern Munich and beat them 2-0. That was one of the best nights I think I’ve ever experienced. The match, the partying, the friends from near and far made that trip. It was all awesome.
OK, this has gone on far more verbose than I thought it would. Let me end it here. Part 3 comes soon and in there we’ll talk the squad and transfers (Start singing “Ooga Xhaka, Ooga Ooga Ooga Xhaka”)