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Arsenal Season Review: We Never Left the Shoney’s!

AFC - FA CupI was all set to put this out before the FA Cup Final. Then the Final happened and I got caught with all the celebrating. So I figured I’d take a step back, finish other pieces, then come back and look at this with fresh eyes.  After all, the glow of another trophy can make the pain of the season feel smaller.  So, with several weeks of distance, how do we grade the 2016-17 season? Well, it was like being stuck in the Shoney’s of Rick Sanchez’s mind — we think we’re making progress towards our long-sought goal, only to find in the last moment that he tricked us and we never left the Shoney’s.

The sad fact is that it started out that way, got better then horribly worse and when it couldn’t get worse, it got better. But not better enough to save the season.

Perhaps it was only fitting that missing on a Top 4 finish came down to needing Liverpool to drop points as our campaign started with losing 4-3 to them in the opener.  A result of another summer of incomplete transfer business saw a crisis at CB and a starting central defensive pairing of Calum Chambers and Rob Holding which Liverpool’s zippy forwards challenged and harried all match long. Both young English defenders had better days as the season went along but their inexperience showed. That the 4th place trophy came down to these two teams should have been obvious that August day — for all their talents, both teams were woefully short in key areas, which would stop them short of truly challenging for the Premier League crown.

Interestingly, after that loss to Liverpool, Arsenal went on a 19-game unbeaten run across three competitions. And yes, I’ll grant you that included 5 draws against everyone from Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League to Tottenham, Manchester United and Middlesbrough in the Premier League. Plus, if we’re being honest, the performances against Spurs and United were not the most imperious. Some might even suggest that Arsenal escaped those matches with something for their troubles. And while such actions are often lauded in champions, when you combine it with the poor outings elsewhere, it dulls the shine of some of the other fixtures. (Remember needing a last minute goal to win against Burnley which had claims of being both a handball and offsides?)

AFC - Palace.jpg

There were pockets of instability where a couple of bad results derailed good runs and forced the team to reset itself to find its way again. And then there was that horror run — from the 3-1 loss to Chelsea in the Premier League through the 3-0 drubbing at the hands of Crystal Palace — which featured such moments as being trounced 10-2 in aggregate by an average-for-them Bayern Munich in the Champions League and getting played off the park by West freakin’ Bromwich Albion.  Even the advance through a weak FA Cup campaign — thank you, football gods — couldn’t salve the wounds that Arsenal kept picking up as the year trundled on.

Now some would look at the table and say that Arsenal were right on course for finishing right where they normally do. After all, 75 points is a 4-point-improvement on last year’s 71 and that was good enough for 2nd place.  Except that this undercuts how the league fluctuates.  Five years ago, Arsenal finished 4th with a points total of 73; 5 points behind Manchester City in 2nd place — but 16 points behind champions Manchester United. This year, Arsenal finished 1 point behind 4th-placed Liverpool but 18 points behind Chelsea.  In fact, in the last 5 seasons, the closest Arsenal have been is the 2013-14 season when they finished 7 points behind Manchester City’s title-winning side — the same year they kept going away to big teams and getting beat big.

At least this year, the losses to the other big clubs weren’t by large margins. That said, it was still a negative 2-3-5 overall against Chelsea, Tottenham, Manchester City, Liverpool and Manchester United — with wins against Chelsea before they turned their season around and an United side that had both eyes fixed on the Europa League Final the only two triumphs. It hardly speaks of an ability to challenge for the top and that’s exactly what Arsenal did not do.

The larger point, however, is that Arsenal performed much in the same way they have the last few years. 73, 79, 75, 71 and 75 are not the digits to someone’s safe combination. They’re the point totals for the last 5 seasons for Arsenal in the Premier League.  And if you think that somehow this is something to dismiss, take a look at their records for those last five seasons:

Season Record Goals For Goals Against Goal Difference Total Points Final Position
2016-17     23-6-9 77 44 +33 75 5th
2015-16 20-11-7 65 36 +29 71 2nd
2014-15 22-9-7 71 36 +35 75 3rd
2013-14 24-7-7 68 41 +27 79 4th
2012-13 21-10-7 72 37 +35 73 4th

In effect, Arsenal have been living in a Groundhog Day situation. Why is that?

Of the squad that we have now, 13 players remain from 5 years ago. Among them are key contributors like Aaron Ramsey, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Nacho Monreal, Olivier Giroud, Laurent Koscielny and Theo Walcott. And they scored — Giroud had 16 goals overall (12 in the league) while Walcott added 19 goals ( in the league) — or assisted — Ox providing 11 assists overall — or provided stability at the back — Koscielny starting 43 of our games while Monreal started 41 across all competitions. In truth though, this season has been defined by one man above all: Alexis Sanchez.

AFC - Alexis30 goals with 24 in the league. 15 assists. 46 games started. 100 fouls suffered. 61 fouls committed. In fact, the only statistical categories Alexis Sanchez didn’t lead Arsenal this season are in yellow cards (he comes in 3rd behind Mustafi and Xhaka) and red cards and substitute appearances.  For all our talented players and style of play, the way of Arsenal’s season rose and fell according to the ability of the Chilean to influence things. Starting the season as the de facto center forward allowed him to begin scoring goals for fun. He racked up 12 of his 24 league goals before the turn of the calendar. It’s a pace that would continue throughout the season, even as he was moved off the central striker role for Olivier Giroud and Danny Welbeck.

How crucial was Alexis this season? Only two other players hit double-digit goals — Giroud had 12 and Walcott had 10. No one else had more than his 10 assists — Ozil followed with 9 and Ox had 7. The dependence on Alexis combined with his dwindling contract has created the perfect storm for fans to freak out over.  Because at its heart, the thought of losing Alexis Sanchez sparks fears of a regression. Particularly when there’s issues elsewhere in the squad. For starters, Mesut Ozil.

I don’t want to pile on Mesut. I think he’s truly a world-class player. Like I said during the season, there’s no way managers from Joachim Low to Jose Mourinho to Arsene Wenger have all raved about him and he’s not the real deal. But a late start due to the Euros didn’t seem to be any issue as he started racking up the goals — against Watford and Chelsea in the Premier League before getting a hat trick in the Champions League as part of the 6-0 destruction of Ludogorets. While he wasn’t providing the assists as before, he seemed to have added a lethality to his attack that resulted in goals.

But his goalscoring dried up as the team began to spin downward — he found the back of the net only 3 more times after December 10th. He still grabbed 8 of his 9 assists after this but for a guy who had just nearly broken the league’s assist record the year prior with 19, to fall to half that mark is somewhat disappointing. Perhaps not surprisingly the furor over his contract situation is nowhere near Alexis’ but that should not deter the club from keeping him long-term. Specially as the new formation seems to have woken him up.

AFC - OzilThe switch to 3 at the back — into a 3-4-2-1 — was borne out of desperation, like so many other moves in years’ past. Following the collapse against Crystal Palace, the nadir of the season mentally and emotionally, something had to change. The switch to a back 3 asked for solidity in defense and sought to limit the issues on midfield and defense the team had been having. And it worked. Of the following 10 fixtures, the Gunners lost only once and conceded 7 goals in total.  (The loss was the North London Derby, mind you).

But what the move at the back did was acknowledge certain facts that were obvious for all to see. The team had a midfield of custard which opponents could harass into turning the ball over with ease. The loss once again of Santi Cazorla deprived the team of its only central midfielder capable of moving the ball from defense to attack. This meant that the balance in the engine of the team was wrong for a second consecutive season. Aaron Ramsey is not another Santi Cazorla. Neither was Granit Xhaka, Mohamed Elneny nor Francis Coquelin. Maybe Jack Wilshere could have filled that role but he was at Bournemouth by his own choosing — a gambit to get the consistent game time that he felt was going to elude him at Emirates Stadium. Things got so bad that Alexis Sanchez was dropping back into midfield to pick up the ball to then try to create an attack; a sense of palpable frustration emanating from the Chilean.

With the 3-at-the-back and two wingbacks on either side, the central partnership of Ramsey and Xhaka seemed to turn into a more capable tandem. Though it took them a while, it seemed that they were asked to do more of what they are best at — Ramsey linked with Ozil and Alexis and had the opportunity for his signature lung-busting runs from midfield into the box while Xhaka patrolled the midfield and had the opportunity to shoot from range. (Hi Ander Herrera!) This also seemed to solve the issue of how to bring the ball forward as that fell to either Nacho or Ox/Hector on either wingback position before finding one of the four guys in the middle to start the attacking move.

AFC - 3-0The new formation also revealed the other major issue in the squad: center forward. In this formation, the ideal striker at the top would be someone like Danny Welbeck, with his pace, power and athleticism. Only problem is that Danny lacks the finishing of Olivier Giroud or Theo Walcott. Giroud, for all the criticism he gets, is a more capable striker — only he doesn’t have the pace to stretch defenses and open up space behind him for Alexis, Ozil and Ramsey to run into like Welbeck does. And as for Theo, well, 10 goals is nothing to sneeze at, but his time at CF was a disappointment and with the move to the new system, he found himself a square peg in a round hole.

He wasn’t alone. As players like Oxlade-Chamberlain, Xhaka and Holding shone in the new formation, we saw less and less of Theo, Elneny, Iwobi and Lucas Perez. Well, Iwobi seemed to have been taken off the line after hitting the same wall that all young, talented players hit at some point. And as for Lucas, I don’t think anyone has any clue what that man saw to have been dumped to the side so strongly by a side that had just spent 17 million pounds on him less than a year before. He’s already asked for his walking papers and it feels like a disappointment as we never knew if he could have added more — I mean, all he did was contribute whenever he was given the chance.

Not surprisingly, due to the issues throughout the season, Lucas’ absence was one of the many sticks with which the manager was beaten. The tactical frailties against Bayern Munich seemed to indicate the end was at hand. And when the team collapsed against the likes of West Brom and Crystal Palace, it was as if the “Wenger Out” meme was on the verge of becoming true. We know he’s taken a new two-year deal and all indications are things are good to continue as they have been — for his sake I do hope they do not. Another season like this one and the fighting that was seen in the stands and on the grounds outside and on Twitter won’t be as contained. Horrible as it is to consider, shit could get worse.

In order to prevent that, Arsenal need a great summer. Not a good summer or an above-average summer. They need a summer that’s exceptional and helps not just build positivity around the club but engenders good will from the quarters of supporters who spent the season angrily protesting. Maybe some are unreachable — so ensconced in their positions as to be unwilling to see anything else — but most are Gooners and want to see Arsenal succeed. Step one on that road has to be building a great squad. That starts with keeping Alexis and Ozil.

AFC - Scorpion KickIt is frightening that we sit less than a fortnight from the transfer window opening and there’s no word of new deals for either the Chilean or the German. OK, maybe Alexis is considering his alternatives, but why is there a hold-up on Ozil? The market for him isn’t as vociferous and there’s every reason to think he would want to stay at Arsenal. Likewise for Oxlade-Chamberlain and Ramsey, whose contracts also expire a year from now. They are key starters and contributors to this team but their contract situation is as up in the air as the bigger named teammates. And I’m not including players like Welbeck, Gabriel, Nacho, Cech and Giroud, whose contracts expire in 2019.

Decisions also have to be made on David Ospina, Wojciech Szczesny, Jack Wilshere, Lucas Perez, Joel Campbell, Kieran Gibbs, Mathieu Debuchy, Carl Jenkinson and Theo Walcott. Some like Ospina, Perez, Jenkinson and Campbell appear set to depart for newer clubs in order to continue their careers. Others like Gibbs, Debuchy, Walcott and Wilshere may have plateau or not be willing to sit on the bench as World Cup squads are built ahead of Russia 2018.  In either case, the club will have to replace them in one way or another — whether that’s bringing youngsters like Jeff Reine-Adelaide and Ainsley Maitland-Niles into the first team for good or buying from the transfer market.

In that aspect, we’ve seen the first addition with former Schalke LB/LWB Sead Kolasinac. The expectation is that he and Nacho will split the left wingback spot as needed. Meanwhile, the transfer rumor mill is churning news that Arsene is set to break all sorts of records for players ranging from Monaco’s Kylian Mbappe to Lyon’s Alexandre Lacazette to Kylian Mbappe of Monaco to Real Madrid’s Isco to wunderkind Mbappe from AS Monaco. (Noticing a theme?)

Arsenal Unveil New Signing Sead KolasinacUltimately, the goal has to be to have a better 2017/18 season than the one that ended with the FA Cup in May. Truth is that the FA Cup, a great trophy, isn’t enough to cover up all the ways this team and this club came apart this season. Fights in the stands. Recrimination online every which way. Tales of power struggles between the top figures. Key players unsure of whether or not the club is interested in retaining their services. Waiting till the last minute to plug holes in the team. This was a mess. A complete mess. We thought we were headed towards our goal of leaving the Shoney’s and getting that sweet, sweet Mulan Szechuan sauce. But we never left the Shoney’s.

Time to start making amends, Arsenal Football Club. Your supporters want sweet & sour Mulan Szechuan sauce!

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