It took over seven months, forty-two matches, and quite a bit of celebratory/commiserating alcohol, but I think I have finally figured out the way to explain the 2011-2012 Arsenal season. At first blush, none of it makes sense. Or rather, it does make sense until a startling bit of contradictory information is presented to us, thus causing us to reassess everything that we have seen so far. Arsenal was a middling to bad team at the beginning of the year until the ten game unbeaten streak, including a 5-3 away victory over Chelsea, that only ended with a defeat to Manchester City, the best team in the Premier League. At this point the Gunners were a scrappy competitor who was dangerous regardless of who they were playing. But then came the holiday dog days when Arsenal struggled to win against average competition, an indication that they were not deep enough or talented enough to hold on to a Champions League spot. Their embarrassment at Milan in a Champions League match and then poor bow out of the FA Cup against Sunderland reinforced the idea that they simply did not have what it takes and were no longer an elite club. But then. THEN. A stunning 5-2 come from behind defeat of arch rivals Tottenham and a gutty road win at Liverpool including typical late game heroics from Robin Van Persie, and no one has any idea what to think. Suddenly Arsenal is not only three points clear of Chelsea for the fourth spot in the Premiership, but the Gunners are also only four points back of Tottenham for the third spot and a guaranteed Champions League birth (no annoying playoff). On the surface, none of this makes any sense. Not at all. Arsenal can't be this talented and clutch but also bereft of moxie and ability. Then it hit me. This entire season has been Arsene Wenger's master plan to drive the majority of soccer writers mad with confusion.
There can be no other answer. A team does not learn how to win tough games all of a sudden, just like they don't forget how to put in a modicum of effort in huge matches. It is nigh impossible to reconcile what we have seen over the course of this season into one, unified view of a team. Arsenal only makes sense when viewed without glasses on, duplicate visions of the physical representation of the club standing side by side. But consider: Arsenal is a very polarizing Premier League team (although what established or successful team isn't at this point?) with one of the most polarizing managers leading the way. Fans of the team point to their gloried past, their enticing style of play, and their off the beaten path method of buying young talent low and selling high rather than splashing money around every transfer window. Critics of the team point to the entitled attitude of both players and fans, the way Wenger seems to assume moral superiority at every turn, and the "continental" passing style that values style over substance. It is a club that is easy to love, easy to hate, and especially easy to use as a jump off point for hyperbole and/or criticism of the utmost conviction. It is this rush to judgment that Wenger masterfully seized on during this season to eliminate some of his most vocal critics.
Knowing that Gael Clichy, Samir Nasri, and Cesc Fabregas were all set to leave for greener pastures, the Frenchman purposefully waited until the last day of the transfer window to grab replacement players, while still building for the future (a future cleansed of criticism) by signing Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. With the blood swirling in the waters, Wenger implored his players to ease into the season, only barely making the Champions League while also starting horribly in the Premiership, losing to Blackburn and looking dead to the world against Manchester United. With his critics calling for his head and predicting an end to Arsenal's image as a top team in Europe, the team was urged to turn on their full abilities, leading to the aforementioned unbeaten streak and bringing the club up to fifth on the table despite starting the season so atrociously. This would be enough for most men, but Arsene Wenger is not most men. He is a mastermind and genius in every sense of the word. He brilliantly ordered his team to take some time to rest in the middle of the season while secretly telling the medical staff to start weakening the legs of every single defender on the roster. To drive the point home, Arsenal used their games against Milan and Sunderland not just to eliminate themselves from competitions they knew they couldn't win, but increase the soccer punditry to a fever pitch, with the calls for blood, hellfire, and general other-worldly destruction returning in earnest. Then, the masterstroke. Wenger once again turned loose his physically and psychologically rested squad, taking command of the last Champions League spot while also putting the Gunners in position to deliver a killing blow to the hated Spurs. What else can you call this but genius?
Soccer commentators are completely befuddled at this point. On the surface they mumble platitudes about talent rising to the top, or commenting on the "deeply flawed" nature of the team, but inside they are all manic, twitching views into the psyche of Jubal Early. Arsene has them right where he wants them, waiting for more powerful, authoritative analysis of the talent of this Arsenal team and how they are in the driver's seat for the third spot in the league. However, I predict a cessation of winning at the end of March, including an uninspired performance at Swansea (a team Arsenal should have all the motivation in the world to beat considering that earlier in the year, after a home loss, everyone and their mother were calling Swansea "the new Arsenal) and an absolute shellacking at the hands of Manchester City. Then, just when the uproar is at its highest, the kid gloves come back off as the Gunners embarrass Chelsea and finish the season with four straight wins, driving the dagger into the hearts of Spurs fans as Arsenal moves past them into third place. The critics, no longer with any solid grasp on the physical world, hurl themselves into the Atlantic all the while screaming about the evil professor. All part of Arsene Wenger's master plan. That has to be it, right? Otherwise this season makes absolutely no fucking sense.
-Wojciech Szczesny played like a man among boys on Saturday, stopping a penalty as well as the rebound, and generally being the force that kept Arsenal in this game. To their credit, the defense mostly played strong as well, under pressure most of the match but careful to not give up too many chances. The shots that did get through were turned aside by an impressive Szczesny, though he was not dominate enough to stop the fearsome scoring force that is Laurent Koscielny. The young Arsenal keeper has shown all season long that he can be a brick wall in goal when he puts his mind to it, and under normal circumstances would have been the man of this match. However...
-It is becoming very hard to write about Robin Van Persie. Rather, it's becoming hard to write anything new about him. He is having an absolute monster of a season, is the odds-on favorite to be the Player of the Year, and is almost single-handedly carrying Arsenal to victories. But, we all know that. So when he keeps doing these things, it's hard to find something to say besides "Robin Van Persie is really good." But he has been so good that it's impossible to ignore his accomplishments. We'll just end the tension of this situation right now by awarding him the man of the match title and breathlessly waiting for his next superhuman feat.
-It may not be smart to talk of next season already, but I was discussing it with a friend today so what the hell, why not post it here? For the record, this is all wishful, but possible, thinking so trust me when I say I'm aware that this could all turn up the wrong way instead of the right. Let's assume that Arsenal do well enough to keep Van Persie when his contract is up as well as present themselves as a club in contention for titles. Lucas Podolski seems Arsenal bound based on his comments and that signing, plus the resigning of Van Persie, could be enough for Wenger to spend for either Eden Hazard or Mario Gotze to place in midfield. With the return of Jack Wilshere, that would yield a lineup of:
Striker: Van Persie
Midfield: Hazard/Gotze, Wilshere, Alex Song, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Theo Walcott
Fullbacks: Thomas Vermaelen, Per Mertesacker, Bacary Sanga, Andre Santos
Keeper: Wojciech Szczesny
That leaves Aaron Ramsey, Mikel Arteta, Gervinho, Podolski, and Laurent Koscielny coming off the bench, with youngster like Ignasi Miquel, Emmanuel Frimpong, Francis Coquelin, Carl Jenkinson seeing time as well. With only two buys and everyone getting healthy, that makes for a much more dangerous Arsenal team in 2012. We'll see if that actually happens. As Always, Go Gunners.