Friday, 30 December 2011

2011 Review

So here's a review of 2011. Not the greatest year in Arsenal's history, and one that was overall very disappointing considering what we could have achieved.

A lot of players, key players too, have left, some on good terms and some will never be forgiven. But also there has been a giant influx of new talent too, and as always you sense that there is a very promising, talented bunch of players at the club, and as always you sense that the future is bright.

I'll do it in three parts to save a long read, but I hope you enjoy it. Leave comments and feedback too.

So where to start eh? Well January is probably the best place to start an annual review, and January was a quite happy time to be an Arsenal fan. The year started in just about the most positive way you could hope for. An enormousness 3-1 result against current champions Chelsea, put us into second place, but more importantly, Arsenal looked ready to fight for the title. A positive mood had embodied the Emirates and everyone was looking forward to the new year, and the possibility of an unrivalled quadruple - how wrong we were.

A big blip 2 days later with a disappointing draw at Wigan after seven changes did little to dampen our spirits, although with hindsight, it did forebode our future inability to defend a lead. However on the 1st January Arsenal faced a difficult challenge away at Birmingham. It was a challenge we passed with flying colours as a glorious Arsenal display ended with us being 3-0 winners.

A forgettable 0-0 at home to City was annoying, but there was still an air of confidence among the fans and the squad, even with Arsene ruling out any January signings, despite Vermaelen's continuing injury troubles. We somehow managed to stay in the cup despite drawing at home to Leeds and losing at Ipswich. Arsenal had won 2 games in 7, but were still in four competitions and people were starting to back Wenger's men to end the trophy drought.

This was compounded with two excellent performances at West Ham, where (possible target) Wayne Bridge was torn apart in a 3-0 victory, and Leeds, where Nasri, Sagna and yes you've guessed it Van Persie were scorers in a comprehensive 3-1 win. To end the month, Wigan (PL), Ipswich(CC) and Huddersfield(FA) were dispatched of courtesy of a Van Persie hat-trick, a Bendtner cracker and a Fabregas penalty in each game respectively, and, although all sensible Gooners knew that its was impossible,  the quadruple was still possible.

February was an amazing month for Arsenal, and one that included some of my best and worst moments as a fan. To start the month, after yet another quiet deadline day at the club, we faced Everton. This was one of my favourite games of the season. They took the lead following an abysmal decision to allow Saha to score, when he was about 20 yards offside, well my memory may mean I exaggerate things but it was an easy, clear decision. However, instead of letting our heads drop, we bounced back and started a continuing onslaught on the Everton goal. The fans were fantastic and drove Arsenal on and on, until in the 70th minute Arshavin scored and it was almost inevitable that Arsenal would get the winner, which came from Koscielny 6 minutes later. After the game, I walked away from the stadium very happy, it seemed like one of those moments which defines a season.

Sadly, one of the defining moments of the season came 4 days later. The 4-4. There's not much I can say about this game that hasn't already been said, and to be honest I don't want to remember anything about this match in great detail. But after going 4-0 up in 26 minutes, and still leading 4-0 right up until the 68th minute, I still find it unbelievable how we didn't get the three points. Some abysmal defending, and overall lack of fight and spirit contributed to the downfall and there's probably still some damage left to repair regarding an inability to defend a lead. The tough tie against Barcelona was looming and things looked at their worst.

We bounced back with a 2-0 win at home to Wolves and waited for the visit of the best club side ever in midweek. Noone expected anything from Arsenal. Barcelona had comprehensively beaten us last year and had improved since, whilst Arsenal had just shown their weaknesses against Newcastle. Yet Wenger had a plan, a plan that had secured a draw for being 2 goals down the year before, a plan that worked perfectly this time round. We were battered possession wise by Barcelona and they scored a beautiful goal through Villa and had a (wrongly) disallowed goal through Messi in a one sided first half. Yet Arsenal battled hard, and stuck to their normal game, the young Jack Wilshere was exceptional in midfield next to his Captain who had his best game in a disappointing season. But it was in defence where Koscielny and Djourou were absolutely world class and Szczesny - in his Champions League debut - was just as brilliant.

As the minutes flew by, we grew into the game, and with the introductions of Bendtner and Arshavin, Arsenal had goals in them, and with the fans creating the best atmosphere the Emirates has seen, you sensed something special was about to happen. And it did. Van Persie scored an impossible goal after a dink through by Clichy, before Arshavin applied a finish to a beautiful, counter-attacking move to lift the roof off the (roofless) stadium. Arsenal announced their arrival as a brilliant side to the rest of the world, and we did it in style. When speaking about his 2011 Van Persie said this really stood out:

"It's so difficult to pick a personal highlight from the year, but a couple of events stand out, such as beating Barcelona at the Emirates," he said. "That has become a really nice memory. Everyone who you ask about that game smiles in response. 
"The day after that game, a guy came up to me in the village. He said to me 'All I want to say to you is that I have been an Arsenal fan all my life, and last night's game against Barcelona was the best Arsenal game ever.'

"He said it was the best Arsenal evening of his life, and when you can give people something like that, it really is something special."

We couldn't have asked  for a more different, contrasting game at the weekend but we travelled to Leyton Orient with the confidence of kings. Newcastle was a distant memory and we could look forward to a Cup Final in a few weeks too. It was fate that we didn't beat Orient as Tahoue, scored a late equaliser to earn his squad a trip to Las Vegas as well as a trip to North London in the replay that would follow.

Before the Carling Cup final though, we faced Stoke, in another forgettable game, but a game which had a massive impact on our chances at the weekend. We won 1-0 through a Squillaci, yes Sebastian Squillaci scored and kept a clean sheet for us, header but the game was more about the injuries that two of our most important players picked up. Theo was definitely out of the final. Cesc had a 'slim chance' but, sadly it was slightly too slim.

If Barcelona was one of the best memories for Arsenal fans, Birmingham will probably rank quite high up in terms of disappointment. It was a wet, grey February day, and I still haven't seen the replays so being at the game I can't really remember much. What I do remember is that we didn't play at our best. We were nervous, edgy and Birmingham sensed it. They took the lead through someone I can't remember, and our centre-backs who only a few weeks previously had dealt fantastically against Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, Villa and co. just couldn't deal with the Birmingham aerial attack. Van Persie equalised with, what people tell me was a brilliant goal. We were better in the 2nd half but could turn possession and chances into goals and were punished.

A cataclysmic mistake/error by Szczesny and Koscielny presented an open goal to Obafemi Martins who slotted home into the empty net easily. Sitting in the Wembley crowd I just couldn't believe it. I couldn't bring myself to leave, and even though I knew we wouldn't equalise, I was glued to my seat until full time. It was a quiet trip home from Wembley.

That's the end of part one. Stay tuned for the next instalment.

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