By Tony Attwood
Last season’s second half improvement was hardly new for Arsenal. Indeed looking back through the club’s history, for every amazing start to a season (like 1947/8 where we won the first six and didn’t get defeated until game 18 – and went on to win the league) one can find multiple seasons (like the second double season) in which we struggled totally in the first half of the season, only to go on an amazing run in the second half.
Last season of course we couldn’t actually make it another double, but we climbed right up the table and got the cup. Indeed I seem to recall Untold mentioning this possibility on 13 December, with Arsenal languishing 6th, pretty much as we were in the Second Double season. Oh how they laughed. Some other newspapers picked up on the idea a little later, although not with Untold’s belief of how the season would improve.
So what is it that can make us turn a season around? Or put another way, what made us turn around this past season? And then, couldn’t we put the turn around in place before the season gets going so we don’t get the dip at the start? (If you see what I mean).
I think there are two answers – at least to last season: injuries and the form of some players.
In terms of injuries we had far far fewer of them in the second half of the season. In the first half of the season we had 10 more serious injuries than Chelsea, but in the second half of the season we had the same injury record as they did. The injury record improved by around 32% and the points per game total was up 27%.
As to why we get these injuries, we’ve been through all the possibilities and theories before, and most of them are either pure guess work (something to do with the training), or bizarre (it’s the pitch) or meaningless (like the Telegraph’s famous one about Arsenal having too small a squad, when in fact we had three more players registered for the “25” last season than Chelsea).
It was around 2007 that Mr Wenger lost his reserve in talking about such matters just for a moment, and said for (I think) the only time, what he felt was going on…
“Ask any player who’s played here, ask Vieira or Petit, if he has been targeted without any intention of playing the ball, just to kick him out of the game and they’ll tell you they have.
“Look at the players we have lost here. Diaby, deliberate foul from behind. Rosicky, deliberate foul. Eduardo, deliberate foul. Walcott, deliberate foul. Adebayor and Sagna got injured with a deliberate foul…”
There are stats to back this up. The Opta figures show Arsenal have been the most tackled team in the Premier League this season and also the fourth most fouled.
But is anything being done?
Shad Forsythe has been appointed as the new head of athletic performance enhancement and a complete re-working of the training facilities is under way. It is said (but of course this is an internal matter so I can’t verify it) that this has resulted in a lot of changes.
I think Arsenal are much more aware that they are not going to get proper protection from referees, and they know about Type III match fixing (in which a ref is “encouraged” to ensure particular teams get draws rather than wins, in order to help a totally different team move ahead in the table).
Type III is very hard to spot, because it doesn’t allow one to see that Ref X is always favouring (for example) Chelsea, as what he is tending to do is edge his decisions against Chelsea’s rivals in other matches. The injuries increase as a result, and there’s greater problems in all matches thereafter.
In such scenarios it is possible to fight this by changing one’s style on the pitch to avoid the chance for the ref to give so many dodgy decisions (you can never beat Type III fixing, but you can make it harder for the ref), as well of course as getting the players fitter, faster.
But at the same time I think Arsenal did something else: they developed some key players. I suspect you will know who I am going to talk about…
Although there are a lot of people who clearly don’t attend the same matches that I do, I will still say that Ozil became utterly outstanding this past season, after a superb start in his first season. Indeed for him the injury gave relief after the world cup, and he came back stronger and fitter, and putting everything imaginable into his performances.
What is amazing is that he can do so many different things. He can take control in the middle, trot out to the wing to play through that one pass that opens everything, he can almost vanish (except that he takes two defenders with him) and let others play. On this form he makes an even bigger difference.
Oh the sneering when he was drafted into the squad. The comments about the gross irresponsibility of Wenger in not signing proven defenders, the “reliance on kids”. I remember one correspondent writing that he “didn’t need to make the point about Wenger being incompetent any more – just look at what he is doing at full back.” (I seem to recall the writer included Monreal in his analysis – if I can use that word for the diatribe.)
So the kid had a season including it all. 16 September 2014 playing in a Champions League defeat, 1 February 2015 his first goal for Arsenal, 4 April 2015, the first goal in the demolition of Liverpool who were (so the papers said) still in with a chance of a top four finish, and 30 May – what was that? Oh yes, the cup final.
Did we cringe because he was playing in the final? No, we rejoiced because of what had happened to him in the season. 28 appearances in all competitions. Quite a year.
Just as it was fashionable to knock Ozil, so it was to knock Giroud at the time there was the usual talk of Wenger Out, and needing a new spine. He lost his sparkle towards the end but he still knocked in 14 goals in 24 league games, which was a significantly higher ratio than the previous season.
The simplisists – the people who only look at one thing in a player – don’t see the runs, the distracting of the defence to allow the midfield in, as well as then popping up with goals.
Of course, Francis Coquelin. The greatest bit of long term predicting ever by Untold, spotting him on a training camp in Austria and talking him up. All the tripe about Wenger not seeing value in him was just tripe – because he was brought into the squad this season, but was just on the bench, not in the games. The previous year’s loan had been a disaster so he needed another loan, and then, when ready, kerpow.
We didn’t get someone else to do the job for two reasons. One, Coquelin was there, and two these players are so hard to find.
There was a time when Nacho Monreal was another very competent player who tended to get injured. Now he seems to have benefited from knowing that Coquelin is where he is. Everything about his play improved last season because finally the team shape allowed him to play the game that he is good at – the forward run knowing there is cover behind.
So where does all this take us for next season?
I think the plan might be to increase the squad not with superstars but other brilliant youngsters who can step up and show their merit when the superstars are needing a break through loss of form or injury. And I think the decline in injuries is going to continue.
Anniversary of the day
13 June 1910: Woolwich Arsenal came to within five minutes of extinction at the AGM of the Football League, as the League executive turned down the idea of Arsenal merging with Fulham and playing in the first division. See also here; and again here.
The complete Arsenal on this day index is now here with around 5000 major events in Arsenal’s history recorded. May and June recently fully updated.