As an Arsenal fan, there is no dearth of excitement on the football field. All the highs, lows and joys of football are packed into an Arsenal match. The season is barely eight competitive matches old for Arsenal and this season combined with the proceedings of the last season are an indication of the roller coaster ride that lies ahead.
Last season, the FA cup run comprised of impressive home victories over Tottenham, Liverpool and Everton followed by a nervy victory against Wigan in the semi-final on penalties. In the final, Arsenal snatched victory from the jaws of defeat against Hull after being two goals down within the first 10 minutes of the final. In the Champions League, after cruising through the qualifiers, Arsenal overcame the group of death to enter the knock out stage. However, further progress was halted as they met Bayern Munich. In the Premier League, Arsenal was top of the table more often than any other team during the season. On one hand, they ground out victories against mid-table and bottom-half teams, and on the other hand, suffered heavy, morale- crushing defeats against top-table opposition. Injuries to key players caught up with Arsenal so much that they slid to fifth in the table before embarking on a five-match winning run to snatch the fourth place and the right for the Champions League qualifier next season.
This season, the excitement started building with transfers coming early compared to the previous seasons. There were only two major departures in Sagna and Fabianski. The club moved swiftly to get Debuchy and Ospinafor these positions. The signing of Sanchez was the highlight of the transfer season and his performance in the recently concluded World Cup for Chile raised the expectations from fans. When the young and talented Chambers joined the Arsenal ranks, it was turning out to be the most productive transfer season for Arsenal in years. Joel Campbell’s return from his loan move combined with his excellent play for Costa Rica in the Football World Cup added further gloss to the transfers. Although the departure of Vermaelen was a let-down,Arsenal fans were brimming with optimism on how the new signings would play with the existing team members.
As the new season appeared in sight, the results of pre-season matches (including the Community Shield victory over Mancheter City) faded away. An anxious Arsenal fan was faced with a myriad possible paths. Would Arsenal sweep away the league title with a roaring start? Would they provide a promising start and then settle down to a fourth position? Would the existing players step-up? Would the new signings deliver on their promise?
And then the season started.The eight matches add upto threevictories (two home, one away),four draws (one home, three away) and one defeat (away). But there is much more than what meets the eye. Each of these matches evoked mixed feelings of joy, relief, bewilderment, anguish etc.
The first premier league match appeared like an easy victory in the fixture list. But it was not the case on the pitch. A rusty Arsenal encountered a defensively organized Crystal Palace. To make matters worse, Arsenal went a goal down. However, not only did Arsenal come back but they also clinched a winner in the injury time in the second half, courtesy Ramsey. This match was an early warning of the importance of being prepared to face teams coming to Emirates Stadium with the sole intention ofparking the bus.
Next on the list came a tough Champions League qualifying match in front of the hostile environment inBesiktas. Arsenal returned with a goalless draw in a bruising encounter, losing their captain Arteta to injury and with a red card against the name of their star, Ramsey. This made the second leg at the Emirates crucial.
The Everton away fixture was about to test the psychological resolve of the team with respect to addressing the collapse in the away games last season against the top 5 teams. Everton ran the show at the start and were two goals ahead (one seemed to have been offside though). It looked like Everton would beat Arsenal like they did last year. But Arsenal fought back in the dying minutes, scoring in the 83rd and 90th minutes of the match with impressive performance from Giroud. The match was leveled, but disaster struck right at the end as Giroud got a long term injury.
Besiktas visited Emirates in the mid-week on settling the qualification for the Champions League. The match revisited the intensity of the first leg and Arsenal got through courtesy of the only goal of the match by Alexis Sanchez (his first in Arsenal colors). A Debuchy red card in the second half kept the Arsenal defense on its toes during the nervous last 30 minutes.
After the qualification was secured for the Champions League, it appeared that the match against Leicester City wouldrevitalise Arsenal’s premier league campaign. This was not destinedto happen and the match ended in a 1-1 draw. Koscielny getting injured earlier in the match resulted in Arsenal letting a goal in after Sanchez had put them ahead.
Good news came with the return ofArtetaand Gibbs from injury following the international break. What lay ahead was an encounter with the defending premier league champions. Arsenal started brightly in the match. This was one of the best 20-25 minutes of the season so far. It counted for little as Manchester City scored a goal on a swift counter attack against the run of play. However, Arsenal’s record at Emirates has been impeccable for almost a season now and they recovered to take the lead in the match with super goals from Wilshire and Sanchez. But dodgy defending towards the end enabled City to draw level in the match. During the course of the match, Arsenal also suffered long term injury to Debuchy,further reducing the number of first- choice defensive players.
Next up for Arsenal were the Champions League group stages. The opponents were none other than the impressive Borussia Dortmund. Arsenal got totally outclassed in the 2-0 loss to the German club and the team came back with lot to ponder.
Back to the premier league they went, withfans uncertain aboutwhat to expect. The next fixture was an away game at Aston Villa, who sat second in the table after three wins. The first 30 minutes were inconclusive though Szczesney did make a point blank save from Klark. Then it all turned around in a space of three minutes. Arsenal produced the most breathtaking three minutes of football resulting in three goals (from Ozil, Welback and an own goal from Villa). These few minutes were the highlight of their season so far. The rest of the match turned out to bea mere formality.
In short, other than the comfortable win against Aston Villa, each and every match this season has proved to be a tough battle. Coming back from one/ two goals down against Crystal Palace, Everton and Manchester City shows the tough psychological side of the team. Their mental resolve also came to the fore in the difficult two legs against Besiktas. These battling displays augur well for the campaign ahead. New signings Sanchez, Chambers andDebuchy have impressed so far. Ramsey looks like continuing his form from last year while Wilshire has stepped up a gear.
On the negative side, long term injuries to Giroud and Debuchy are a big concern. The defensive set-up does not have adequate cover and seems to bea key risk for the campaign. Only five first choice defenders are available for four positions (Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs, Monreal and Chambers). As a defensive mid-fielder option, both Arteta and Flamini have not impressed so far, looking susceptible to pace and counterattacking teams. The forward line is yet to develop the telepathic understanding needed to trouble opponents consistently.
The numbers show that it has been a good haul of nine points from five games in the Premier League while remaining undefeated. On the Champions League front, victory over Besiktas proved a significant milestone and Arsenal need to get back in the group stages after the listless defeat to Dortmund. The Capital One cup starts this week followed by the North London derby with Tottenham.
The season is only going to become more interesting from here onwards, with the Arsenal roller coaster ride expected to put the fans throughmany highs and lows. So, fasten your seat belts and get ready to experience the football frenzy in the season ahead!
– Nitin Sinha [Nitin is a Sports Analyst with the Football Galaxy at Sportz Cosmos. You can reach him at gmail id: sportzcosmos]