2008-09 Player by Player Part 1
Having now completed the rundown for my top five players of the season, I thought it only fair not to spare the waifs and strays and give each squad member a thorough grilling. From the quietly improved (Bendtner, Song, Eboue) to the fair to middling (Sagna, Nasri, Clichy) to the downright underwhelming (Diaby, the lanky one who spent two semi finals with his hands on his hips. Adebango I think he`s called). Those that have only completed a nominal number of games won`t be included, it`s pretty worthless me assessing Wilshere`s season on the back of a couple of Carling Cup games and a Youth Cup Final. Those included in the player of the year rundown will be spared an exhaustive diagnosis compared to "the others."
1.Manuel ALMUNIA- A season of consistency amidst a squad that has been horribly inconsistent. Manuel poses an interesting paradox, as one of the elder statesmen of the squad, he has tried to take on the position as a leader and a voice for the team with some success. However, despite his age, he is still relatively inexperienced at this level, mistakes against Chelsea, Liverpool, United and Spurs again this season leave question marks over his big game temperament; but the Champions League Semi Final at Old Trafford might just have been a turning point on that score. Almunia has improved on a number of facets of his game which I have already alluded to in another article. Not at the stature of a Seaman or a Lehmann, which means he gets a lukewarm reception from Arsenal fans, I`d perhaps compare him more to Lukic (who was good enough to win a title with Arsenal). In terms of the Premiership`s current custodians, Almunia is one of the best. I wouldn`t have asked much more from Almunia this season, key saves in Champions League games will feature in many a UEFA highlights reel. Overall a thoroughly decent season from Almunia, he certainly impressed me more than Cech or van der Sar did. (Let`s face it, I could have kept goal for United for large chunks of this season). 8 out of 10.
Highlight of the Season: His one man team impression at Old Trafford in April.
2.Vassiriki Abou DIABY- Officially Arsenal`s appendix. Nobody knows precisely what it is there for, or what it does, but you`re sure there must be some reason for it. Diaby is considered not defensively disciplined enough to play central midfield, not good enough to displace Nasri, Arshavin, Cesc etc as an attacking midfielder and too gash to play on the wing. Has the infuriating habit of beating seven players at once with a mesmerising piece of skill, striding majestically past a sea of befuddled opponents, before whacking the ball out of play under no pressure. Diaby does not seem to fully understand what his qualities are, if he does he seldom plays to them. The manager has deployed him in big games due to his power, but that physical prowess counts for little when you continually give the ball to your opponents, I`m at a loss to understand why Diaby hasn`t used the last three years of being dispossessed by opposing midfielders to stop and think to himself, "hmmm, perhaps if I release the ball inside ten minutes this will stop happening?" Diaby undoubtedly has some qualities and when he engages his brain for long enough to tie all of the component parts together, he can be devastating. Goals against Fenerbahce, Villa and Newcastle all point to how he can roar through defences when he`s decisive. There is a good player in there somewhere, but my main worry is that, whilst Diaby has very good feet, I`m yet to see much evidence of a brain. 5
Highlight of the Season: The delightful kicking (in the metaphorical sense) he gave Fenerbahce`s defence in October.
3.Bacary SAGNA- Cries of second season syndrome have echoed throughout the press, but perhaps that exemplifies just how excellent Sagna`s inaugural campaign was. The truth is, Sagna has had to adapt to a shifting Arsenal midfield as much as any of the midfielders at the club. With Walcott in front of him, Sagna has to be far more defence minded as Walcott still hasn`t really nailed the tracking back as well as his predecessors. Hleb is a dream to play in front of for a full back as Sagna could motor forwards, confident that the Belarusian wouldn`t surrender possession cheaply. Walcott, to paraphrase Sally Fields, "is like a box of chocolates." You know he is capable of producing the proverbial toffee fudge by beating three players and sprinting to the by-line with gazelle like grace, but he is equally capable of the coffee crème, tripping over the ball, falling on his arse and leaving the opposing full back to rush forwards unchecked. Overall, I think Sagna, considering the readapting period of playing behind two polar opposites in Eboue and Walcott, has produced a solid, if unspectacular, seven out of ten season. He does however need to work very hard indeed on his crossing, which is terrible. 7.
Highlight: His bicycle kick goal line clearance at Villa Park.
4.Francesc FABREGAS Soler- 15 assists (including 9 in the Premiership) from a central midfield player who has missed half the season with injury would be considered an exquisite return from most midfielders. But Cesc Fabregas isn`t most midfielders. By his own lofty standards, you could say Fabregas has stood still somewhat this year, it`s perhaps the first season since he`s been at Arsenal where you cannot really pinpoint a part of his game that has improved dramatically. However, this is easily explained. Following his exploits with Spain in the summer, Wenger tried to rush Fabregas through pre season, which inevitably led to injury. He was then rushed back from injury again, so perhaps Wenger was the only person surprised to see him sit out three months when his tired muscles were not sturdy enough to withstand a crunching 50-50 with Alonso in December. Added to the fact that his three amigos Hleb, Rosicky and Flamini have been absent for various reasons, multiplied by being lumped with the captaincy in very difficult circumstances, it is not difficult to decipher the reasons for his comparative inertia. Upon returning from affliction, he was then cast into a new position behind the striker, an experiment that I would venture failed. His defence splitting assists for Nasri against United and Bendtner against Kyiv show Fabregas is more comfortable dictating a game from deep. Fabregas` workload has been made heavier by his manager being overly reliant on him, whether that be by placing physical or psychological demands on him that have been too great. Without Hleb, Fabregas has felt less able to get forward and replicate his goals tally of 2007-08 and has been cast with the burden of being Arsenal`s sole creative hub prior to the arrival of Arshavin. However, the Russian`s elevation to prominence should help Fabregas immeasurably next year, an experienced head, a leader and somebody to share the burden of playmaker. Fabregas has still enjoyed a very good season indeed, but we know and he knows that next season should see him produce even more. 7
Highlight: His last minute equaliser at Sunderland in October. Beating a very tall Mackems defence in the dying embers of a lost game. It was a goal borne of desire and an ability to drag an underperforming side out of the doldrums. It was the reason he was made skipper.
5.Kolo Abib TOURE- Taking the season as a whole, you cannot help but be a little under whelmed by our longest serving player. One of the players who I think has struggled in the absence of more experienced heads to supplement him, Toure is an excellent defender when placed alongside a centre half of physical stature, such as Campbell or Senderos. The word on the street, by the manager`s own admission, is that the Toure- Gallas axis lacks the requisite height to deal with the Premiership`s loftier opponents. Toure is now our longest serving player and often our oldest outfield player and I do not think he has quite taken to those waters with duck like aplomb. Shorn of a Gallas or a Campbell figure, Toure`s organisation skills are often found wanting, he is an able deputy that has struggled to make the step up to sheriff, I simply do not think he is that type of defender. A difficult opening to the campaign culminated in him losing his place to Silvestre and then Djourou, an injury to the latter at Villa Park in December saw Toure called into the side at the last moment and ended in a blazing row with the ever combustible Gallas. Toure handed in a transfer request but was quickly talked around. To his credit he has shown great mental aptitude to bounce back and cement his place in the team once again and make his partnership with Gallas work again- despite their indifference to one another. Toure, in defensive terms, is an eligible bachelor looking for a soul mate. Perhaps Vermaelen`s arrival will see him find happiness. But this season has been one largely spent in the lonely hearts column for Kolo. 6
Highlight: Breaking back into the team on Valentine`s weekend and looking like the defender that won our hearts back in 2002.
8.Samir NASRI- An encouraging debut season for Nasri. Asked effectively to fill two roles with Hleb and Rosicky unavailable and then again with Fabregas injured, when he was effectively asked to be the creative fulcrum of a side he was still getting to know. Even his more established hombres in midfield were struggling to get to grips with the shape of an ever shifting midfield, so it must have been doubly difficult for the new boy. Scoring three minutes into your full debut will always buy you patience amongst the support (ask Freddie Ljungberg) whilst the two goal salvo against United sticks out. I think he struggled slightly towards the end of the season and the fact that Arshavin outdid him for assists in half a season points to room for improvement, but at 22 it`s reasonable to expect he will develop. He was also asked to play on the wing, in the centre and latterly as a defensive midfielder throughout the season, but Nasri took to life very quickly at Arsenal and settled instantly. He appeared a tad injury prone in the autumn, causing his manager to publicly declare Nasri would need to be stronger after a robust challenge from Palacios in the home game with Wigan saw him hobble off once more. Since then injury has not plagued him nearly as much, so he must have worked on his physical strength. Very good for a first season, with him acclimatised to the English game I expect to see a lot more next season with him adding even more goals to his game. In all, I`d perhaps liken Nasri`s maiden voyage with Pires` back in 2000-01. If he can come close to matching Bobby`s second season, we`ve a lot to look forward to! 7.5
Highlight: Smashing the ball past van der Sar from twenty yards and slaying the European Champions at the Emirates.
10.William GALLAS- What`s to be done with a problem like William. Harmful for team spirit? Possibly. Best defender at Arsenal? Definitely. Maybe his rant back in November was ill advised, but he appeared to unwittingly clear the air in a squad that was permeated by a poisonous atmosphere, the first stage of recovery is acknowledgment and Gallas, however malleable his moods, seemed to have said what was needed. Even if cost him the captaincy, Gallas showed his best form post outburst and the team got back on track too. Gallas, freed from the glare of captaincy which his flaky character could not handle, became the lynchpin of a defence that began to look sturdy again. When his knee collapsed underneath him in Spain, Arsenal`s season limped down the tunnel with him. You may not like the man beneath the scowl, but as a defender, he is one of the very best around. 8
Highlight: Using his shiny bonce to score a controversial late winner in the F.A. C up Quarter Final against Hull and booking Arsenal their first trip to the new Wembley. Anything that gets up Phil Brown`s nose that much is fine with me.
11.Robin van PERSIE- What can a fully fit van Persie do when he stays fit for a whole season has been one of the great philosophical hypotheses of the 21st Century. How about twenty goals and thirteen assists? Curbing his volatile temper once and for all as well as learning that his right leg is for a lot more than just standing on? Learning that ten other players play alongside him and that, you know, sometimes it`s a decent idea to pass to one of them once in a while? Two goals at Stamford Bridge to beat Chelsea? Not missing a single penalty all season? Player of the season by quite some distance. 9.
Highlight: Feeding off Adebayor`s scraps in the Stamford Bridge penalty area to score his second goal in three minutes and win the game for Arsenal away at Chelsea, proving he can deliver against high quality opponents in pressure cooker situations.
12.Carlos VELA- Vela instantly captured the hearts of the Emirates faithful with a swashbuckling hat trick against Sheffield United, followed by an audacious goal in the next round of the Carling Cup against Wigan. A speedy young forward who runs at defenders with gusto and that is capable of sublime finishing, as Burnley keeper Brian Jensen will attest. Carlos is still very rough around the edges, his decision making sometimes leaves a lot to be desired, but you expect that from a teenager. At times, he has lacked composure at the right time, as his myriad of misses against Burnley in the League Cup and his snatched last minute effort in the 0-0 draw with Sunderland demonstrate. However, having been foiled three times by Jensen at Turf Moor with low one on one finishes, the manner in which he lofted the ball over the big Dane at the Emirates shows Vela analysed that game and amended his finishing to suit the keeper he was facing. That`s a very promising sign of his intelligence and a lip smacking prospect of what`s to come. Hopefully, next season will see him progress further and become a mainstay of Arsenal`s frontline as Bendtner and Walcott have now managed. 7.5
Highlight: Outmuscling the considerable frame of Titus Bramble at the Emirates before sending a breath taking sand wedged shot over a bemused Chris Kirkland from the edge of the area.
14.Theo WALCOTT- Theo`s progress may have been enervated slightly by a couple of injuries, however, he has now become a first choice player on the right wing. His hat trick for England in Zagreb thrust him into the spotlight and he has handled the expectation excellently. You still sometimes get the impression that Walcott is a sprinter above all else as his feet sometimes let him down in tight situations, as does his brain. But his accomplished finishing, as seen against Villarreal cause me to think he has to make the switch to centre forward sooner rather than later. Evra marked him out of two games simply by closing him down quickly and denying him space to run into. I think being able to lurk in behind defences will add a great deal to Arsenal`s build up play and will occupy defenders in the way that Adebayor used to with his work rate and physicality. The fact that Walcott is often double marked in games, particularly in Europe, is the ultimate compliment for him. 7
Highlight: Assists at Ewood Park and the Reebok rove he can make things happen from nothing, but it has to be his outrageous finish against Villarreal at the Emirates, deftly spooning the ball over Diego Lopez from a tight angle.
15.DENILSON Pereira de Neves- Possibly the only Arsenal midfielder who has done his job consistently and well, but there again probably the only Arsenal midfielder who has been tasked with the same job all season. He is a young man who has been asked to adapt to a new role and has done so impeccably. No Premiership midfielder has better ball retention or more interceptions, only two tackle with a better success rate than the young Brazilian and only four make more tackles. The biggest compliment you can ever pay a screening midfielder is if you do not notice him, Denilson`s immaculate work has gone largely unnoticed by doing those jobs that defensive midfielders must master so well. No Arsenal player has more minutes under his belt this season and that shows the players and the manager trust him implicitly. With three goals and seven assists he adds more than Flamini did too, even if most won`t acknowledge it. 8
Highlight: Absolutely bossing de Rossi and Totti in the home leg against Roma. Two of Serie A`s most revered sons kept well and truly schtum by an immaculate midfield display from Denilson.
Part two will follow tomorrow.LD.