by Paul Williams
Reflections on a season of surprises.
A few months ago, following the farcical draw with Anderlecht and defeat at Swansea, I called for the immediate removal of Arsène Wenger. Think back to those days and the animosity surrounding the manager. Seems a long time ago, doesn’t it?
In my defence, I never reached the booing at a train station, “Get out while you can, Joel!” levels of lunacy that some did. But I could understand it.
Even after I’d written a piece explaining why I thought the team might be struggling to find its way – it takes time to build relationships etc – the failure of the manager to address the hole at the base of our midfield was too much for me. The deployment of Calum Chambers at right back was too much for me. Nacho Monreal at centre back?
Too much for anyone.
And yet, he did alright there, didn’t he? More than that, his spell in the centre inspired his best season, or half a season, in his favoured left back position. There’s something about this transformation that reminds me of Aaron Ramsey, his spell on the right and the excellent form shown when returned to central midfield.
Such a pay off highlights the tightrope Arsène Wenger walks every season. To the outside world, beginning the season with just five senior defenders + Chambers and Hector Bellerin was madness. Particularly with Koscielny and Mertesacker returning from World Cup duty. Never mind “to the outside world”, this was indeed pure madness. An admission in that direction was made with the January capture of Gabriel. However, had we not started the season so light, would Hector Bellerin have been given the opportunity to shine? I doubt it. He did get that opportunity though and he’s grasped it.
Likewise, Francis Coquelin seemed, at the start of the season, to be on a road to nowhere. At least, as far as Arsenal was concerned. Yet, as Arsenal slid ever further down the league table at the same time as our treatment room began to overflow with central midfielders, the young Frenchman became the “internal solution” Arsène Wenger so obviously loves.
Who saw that coming? Well, even though I had long felt Coquelin deserved a run of games to show what he might, or might not, be capable of, I can’t honestly say I thought he’d have this kind of impact. I can’t say that I’d be sitting here typing this digesting the news that Coquelin came second in Arsenal.com’s Player of the Season poll.
Some people may think Coquelin is being unfairly feted as someone who was fortunate enough to arrive in the first team as Giroud and Özil came back into it and Laurent Koscielny returned to full fitness. I think that there were certainly some stars aligning (literally) for Arsenal as 2015 began. That said, we’ve lost three league games since Coquelin became a first team regular – and he has been the very definition of regular this year. One of those was when he was partnered with Calum Chambers in midfield – at Southampton.
Is this just coincidence?
For me, it is simply a case of one player bringing the exact qualities this team was missing to the table. It’s a question of balance and, like it or not, the tigerish Coquelin restored that balance to the force. There’s only so many tricky little technocrats you can have in one midfield.
Of course, it hasn’t just been Coquelin thriving and surprising in a central midfield role.
Santi Cazorla, who came third in that same end of season poll was almost a general without a country at the start of the season. Alternately banished to the flank, or the bench, the little Spaniard was another beneficiary of the great Arsenal injury crisis of 2014 and soon found himself recast as the ultimate deep lying playmaker.
You all know how much I love Santi, so I’m not going to dwell on him for too long here, but suffice to say that his reinvention has been one of my favourite things about Arsenal this year. I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised by his new role, after all Arsène did say when he signed him that Cazorla could play anywhere in midfield, but his level of performance week in, week out has been remarkable. Particularly at Manchester City, which must have been a real confidence boost for him and the team, and in the FA Cup Final where he totally bossed the game.
I guess the best surprise of the season – aside from Arsène actually addressing the issues in central midfield and defence – was that the manager showed he was happy to shake things up when called upon.
It felt for months as though Theo Walcott was playing out the final acts of his Arsenal career and was doing so with a barely a whimper. By way of contrast, Olivier Giroud was firmly established as Arsenal’s #1 centre forward – a blistering run of form on his return from injury had made sure of that. There was only one man going to start that cup final up top, wasn’t there?
Theo’s hat-trick against West Brom changed the equation dramatically. I’m not going to say that it effectively won us the FA Cup, because with the way everyone played on May 30th, I think we’d have won regardless.
That said, I do think Olivier Giroud is probably a little easier to mark than Theo is. I think that Theo’s inclusion in the starting line up made Villa scared to leave space in behind and therefore gave our midfield room to play in. Fatally so, when you’re talking about players like Mesut, Santi and Alexis. Theo’s ability to play wide also led to him switching positions with Alexis towards the end of the first half and, well… you know what happened next.
We saw in that game that the manager isn’t so wedded to ideas – in this case the idea of the target man – and systems that he can’t make changes that will positively impact a game. That’s something of a relief for me. My frustration with Arsène, and desire for him to go was rooted only in a view that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Particularly not a 65 year Alsatian (I’ll get me coat). It seemed to me, in that bleak autumn, that Mr Wenger had lost sight of the way to take Arsenal forward. However, it seems that I was wrong.
With third place in the league representing progress as well as giving us the opportunity to have a transfer window unhindered by the “What if?” of the Champions League qualification play off, and the FA Cup retained, I think we can look forward to next season with some degree of confidence.
Hopefully, the mid-season Lazarus impersonation won’t be necessary this time!