Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Premier League Midseason Review - Arsenal

Games Played: 19
Games Won: 13
Games Drawn: 3
Games Lost: 3
Goals For: 37
Goals Against: 18
Goal Difference: +19
Home Form: 20 out of 27 points (5th in league)
Away Form: 22 out of 30 points (1st in league)
League Position: 1st

Summary of the season so far:

The ramshackle opening day defeat to Aston Villa at the Emirates must seem like another lifetime altogether for Gunners fans after a tremendous run of form sees Arsenal at the top of the Premier League table heading into the new year. Two factors have been crucial in the uplifting of spirits at the club. The first was the deadline day signing of Mesut Ozil from Real Madrid. After not spending a dime the whole summer, Arsene Wenger’s capture of the gifted German playmaker changed the dynamic of the Arsenal’s season, as both the playing squad and fan base got a massive jolt of confidence.

The second reason for celebration this year has been the sensational form of Aaron Ramsey. His contribution in the goals department from midfield has won Arsenal significant points both domestically and on the continent. Furthermore, his all-round midfield play has been superb, linking well with Olivier Giroud and Arsenal’s surfeit of creative attackers in the final third, in addition to helping out the defence with robust ball-winning tackles. Arsenal also finish the first half of the Premier League campaign tied for the best defence in the league. The back four of Bacary Sagna, Kieran Gibbs, Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny have been fantastic both in a technical and tactical sense. Plenty in the punditocracy were waiting for Arsenal to fall in the first half, but despite some bumps against other big teams, the Gunners have allied their trademark beautiful football with resilience on the road to deservedly lead the Premier League table.

Player of the season so far:

Aaron Ramsey has been the player who has grabbed all the headlines. The Welshman’s goals and assists have proven significant and it’s a sign of how far he has come this season, that Gunners’ fans are dreading a current injury-enforced absence. Mesut Ozil has displayed his penchant for creating assists out of nothing, while his effect on Arsenal’s improved vertical play is obvious.

However, my vote goes to the centre-back duo of Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny. When the pair play the full ninety minutes, Arsenal are nigh on unbeatable as demonstrated by the statistic that the team are undefeated in the last 26 matches that their centre-backs have completed in tandem. In addition to being defensively sound, both Mertesacker and Koscielny contribute to the passing ethos of the team with their excellent build-up play from the back. When either one of the two is injured, there is a visible drop in the standard of Arsenal’s defence.

Underwhelming players:

Santi Cazorla’s signing was Wenger’s best transfer last summer, and its fair to say that the Spaniard hasn’t hit the form displayed in the previous season. That being said, Cazorla is being judged by his own lofty standards, and his performance from the centre of the park in the last half an hour against West Ham was as majestic as it was crucial in Arsenal getting the three points.

Nicklas Bendtner contributed with a goal against Hull City, but otherwise the Dane is nowhere near good enough to play for Arsenal as witnessed in some shabby displays from the bench as well as in the League Cup. Thomas Vermaelen won’t be feeling chuffed about the fact that Arsenal haven’t won with him in the side, but the Belgian plays so rarely that a definitive judgement cannot be made on him on the basis of playing only when one of the first choice centre-backs is missing.

High Point of the season so far:

It’s difficult to pick out an obvious high point in such a consistent first half. Easily forgotten is the fact that going into the North London derby most pundits had painted Spurs as more realistic challengers than Arsenal, hence the 1-0 victory was important in setting the tone for the Gunners season. A 2-0 victory over Liverpool was pleasing especially as it came on the back of a momentous away win in Dortmund. Aesthetically, Arsenal scored four brilliant goals in a 4-1 win over Norwich, while two consecutive away wins at West Ham and Newcastle to finish the year could prove significant come the end of the campaign.

Low Point of the season so far:

Arsenal’s away performances at both Manchester clubs. The game away to United was marked by fear. The Red Devils were there to be beaten at Old Trafford, and that Wenger couldn’t get his midfield to play to their potential was disheartening. The game at the Etihad was disappointing for the lack of tactical acumen shown by both players and manager, in addition to a complete meltdown in defence which rather sadly wasn’t surprising considering Arsenal’s recent history in big games. Dropped points at home to Everton after taking the lead in the 80th minute could yet come back to haunt Arsenal in a close title race.

January transfer requirements:

Back-up to Olivier Giroud is crucial, as the Frenchman is clearly starting to show signs of physical and mental fatigue. The recent returns of Theo Walcott and Lukas Podolski do give Arsenal more options, but Wenger has said he is willing to pay big money for a special player in the January transfer window. Considering the depth he has elsewhere in the squad, Gunners fans will be hoping its money spent on a forward.

Prospects for the second half of the season:

It’s been a few seasons since Arsenal were involved in the title race at the turn of the year. With a brilliant midfield coupled with the league’s best away record, there is no reason why Arsenal can’t win the league playing their brand of football. A better opportunity might not present itself for Arsenal, as both Chelsea and Manchester City while looking ominous have their vulnerabilities. The challenge remains — as it has for the best part of a decade now — in the mentality of the club. Already this season Wenger has failed to rouse his troops in their toughest examinations, while his tactical naivety against the league’s best strategists could hinder Arsenal’s title ambitions. Nonetheless, with home games against both Manchester clubs yet to come, and a relatively easy January, Arsenal should at the very least manage to ensure that they are in the title race come May.
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