The dissection of the 2008-09 campaign continues in earnest. Having exhaustively pored over each player`s individual contribution, I will now spend the next ten days or so deconstructing the team`s performances on a month by month basis. Points to note include euphoric victories over the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea, as well as spirit crushing defeats by the aforementioned, spineless collapses to the likes of Stoke, Hull, Villa and Man City, Adebayor`s prurient eyeing up of the cream of the continent, the Eboooooooue saga, Gallas having the captaincy relinquished from him in disgrace, the arrival of the impudent Arshavin, five scoreless matches in six and Robin van Persie actually staying fit for more than five minutes. It`s been a very eventful season with discussion points and bones of contention never far from the horizon. This has probably been the manager`s most challenging season to date as his doubters have been more vocal than ever, culminating in one or two shareholders violating the codes of common courtesy in umbrage, whilst the prospect of mediocrity loomed large for significant chunks of the season. There have been improvements to expand upon too, the development of the likes of Denilson, Song and Bendtner have been obvious since Christmas, the defence has also shared in that improvement- or it did at least until Gallas` untimely knee injury in April. Manuel Almunia too might not be to everyone`s tastes, but his improvement as a goalkeeper this season has been scarcely refutable. But there were also mysteries 2008-09 did not reveal; like what is an Abou Diaby and what does it do? And who the hell is this Tomas Rosicky fella I keep hearing about? We start dear reader, with August.
August of course began with the now annual Emirates Cup, and discontent was already reigning from the stands. Emmanuel Adebayor`s summer of skirt lifting was given short shrift by a public who could see through the demagoguery he had tried to create to diffuse the situation by claiming that Togo apparently does not have any televisions, telephones or computers, leaving him unable to refute quotes attributed to him agitating for a pay rise. (Presumably the lack if internet prevented him from seeing that the club had removed his photo from the publicity shoots advertising the new "Charlton-a-like" home strip). The club announced his contract renewal, with significantly increased terms, with some fanfare during the two day tournament. The news was met with lukewarm suspicion from supporters that felt he had achieved his swollen salary with avaricious means. He scored a penalty in the second day 1-0 victory over Real Madrid and made another massive publicity faux pas by regurgitating that most sickeningly regarded of practises. By kissing the club badge. It is a practise that has become so clichéd and hackneyed, that it is now considered an absolute parody of affection, much like a rock star throwing a television through a window, or a politician that says "trust me." The Arsenal marketing department, still inebriated on the success of the redcurrant shirt, decided that nostalgia sells and released a 1989 Anfield memorial away kit (nostalgia of this kind is gold for marketing, because "sentimentality" is a big seller and these sorts of memorial shirts can only last for one season, allowing the perfect excuse to release another shirt after one season). But supporters were hungrier for news of signings, with Flamini, Hleb, Lehmann and Gilberto all having departed North London to varying degrees of acclaim, that Nasri and Ramsey were supposed to make up the shortfall left most supporters ill at ease as they furiously cranked the numbers and realised that they just did not add up.
The serious stuff started with the Champions League Qualifier at Steve McLaren`s new pierre deterre against F.C. Twente from the Netherlands. With Twente`s stadium still under renovation, the match was held in Vitesse Arnhem`s Gelrodome Stadium. We were treated to some very British conditions upon arrival, not only were the trains into Holland incredibly expensive and very unreliable, but the mid August weather conditions called for torrential downpours. With Cesc Fabregas rushed through pre season, injury was inevitable and the Gunners began with an unfamiliar midfield four of Ramsey, Eboue, Denilson and Walcott. Had Twente demonstrated more composure in their finishing, they might well have found themselves two goals down at half time. With the midfield beset with inexperience and a lack of familiarity, as well as lacking the creative harnesses of Hleb and Fabregas, Arsenal huffed and puffed in an underwhelming manner. Supporter discontent that was to become a feature of the season was foreshadowed by two gentlemen to my right who, I kid you not, left the game after 31 minutes in disgust! Arsenal eventually got their precious away goals, Gallas groining in van Persie`s right wing set piece, before Adebayor converted from Walcott`s run and cross in the dying minutes. The passage to the Champions League group stages had been smoothed, in what were at times, tumultuous circumstances in the Netherlands. After the match, Wenger pledged that a new signing would allay fan fears before the second leg; he signed an injured Mikael Silvestre. The seeds of breakdown were being sewn between supporters and club.
The Premiership fixture list cranked out the kindest possible opening for Arsenal with a visit from newly promoted and soon to be vanquished again West Bromwich Albion. Emmanuel Eboue started in central midfield- one of three positions he would occupy in August alone. Samir Nasri gave the home crowd a dream start to the season with a debut goal inside of four minutes, with Clichy and Bendtner cutting a swathe down the Baggies` left side, before Nasri elegantly swept home a Denilson cut back. The supporters sat back and waited for the team to bathe them in glorious, destructive football as the stadium was enveloped in sunshine, but a nervy 86 minutes ensued. Adebayor missed a pair of absolute sitters and was roundly booed by the home support. Adebayor`s expediency in agitating for a salary increase meant he had forged swollen expectations for himself. The first signs of Gallas` tenuous grip on the captaincy also began to appear when Djourou`s mistake allowed Morrison through on goal. Djourou amended his error with a goal line clearance, but Gallas` subsequent outburst at his deputy was overly dramatic and a little too public. It was clear the media glare upon the appendage fastened to his arm was becoming too much. The sales of Gilberto and Lehmann made sense from a purely playing point of view, but their leadership in the squad was a shortfall that was not replicated, which in turn put even more pressure on an already flaky captain. The team opened with three points, but doubts continued to pervade over the team`s ability to compete at the very top.
Those doubts were redoubled a week later when Arsenal journeyed to Craven Cottage. Gallas` psychological well being was again sprinkled on the canvas of the match as he tamely allowed Brede Hangeland to beat him to a 21st minute Danny Murphy corner to score Fulham`s winner. Adebayor`s header hit a post a minute later, but Arsenal`s attacks were very easily enervated by Murphy and Bullard as they sat deep in front of their defence. Shorn of Hleb and Fabregas, the Gunners again sparsely showed any sort of creativity or imagination to create chances for van Persie and Adebayor upfront. Fulham had set a blueprint for how to foil Arsenal in the final third of the pitch, a trick that many a team would repeat with some success against Arsenal until the arrival of Arshavin. Although in retrospect losing to a team that eventually finished seventh with the fourth meanest defence in the league probably is not quite as catastrophic as it felt at the time, the lacklustre performance was met with fierce criticism from supporters frustrated at Arsene`s austerity in the transfer market. The refusal to sign another creative element to the team was all the stranger given the fact that Wenger rushed Fabregas back from injury ahead of schedule twice in the space of three weeks in August, acknowledging Arsenal`s deficiencies in that department. Whilst the apparent belief that Rosicky would return in September bordered on delusion. (Sad as I am to say it in light of his apparently imminent recovery, a player who has around three quarters of his original hamstring replaced is never going to be the same player folks). By refusing to add further to his squad, Wenger was about to make his single most glaring error as Arsenal manager.
So Arsenal were on something of a goodwill mission when Twente returned to the Emirates for what was effectively a dead rubber second leg tie with Steve McLaren`s side who would ultimately finish second in the Eredivisie. Credit from the English media keen to scapegoat him for all of England`s failings of the last forty years was in short supply for that achievement. But the Gunners made easy work of the game, Samir Nasri scored his second goal in Arsenal colours after a clever shift of feet on the edge of the area and a left footed drive was deflected in. He would repeat that trick in more auspicious circumstances against United in November. William Gallas tucked away an easy rebound for Arsenal`s second, whilst late goals from Walcott and Bendtner were a neat forerunner into the contribution they would go onto make for the season. But the real redemption would follow in the home fixture with Newcastle United. An early Robin van Persie penalty set the tone for the Dutchman`s season, neatly slamming the ball past Given after Coloccini`s mindless handball in the area. The second goal encapsulated Emmanuel Eboue`s notable improvement; he set Adebayor away down the right flank before racing into the goal area. When Adebayor`s low cross was scuffed and placed behind Eboue, for once the Ivorian`s brain did not melt like Swiss cheese and he intelligently back heeled the ball for van Persie to slam home a second. The cavalcade of players that ran to greet Eboue in the aftermath suggests his popularity in the dressing room provided a direct paradigm for his esteem with the supporters. Eboue started this match on the right wing and finished it on the left, having already played at right back and in central midfield in August and had excelled. It was a shame that injury robbed him of that momentum in the autumn and equally unfortunate that the supporters were so quick to forget his good form upon his nightmare comeback against Wigan.
Arsenal condemned a poor Barcodes side to a 3-0 defeat when Denilson latched onto Adebayor`s through ball to score after the hour mark. Most of the headlines were dominated by Joey Barton`s first appearance since serving a jail sentence. Typically, he took the opportunity to keep his head down by immediately lunging into an unnecessarily ostentatious tackle on Samir Nasri. Nasri responded by fulfilling the fantasy of an entire nation. Nasri kicked him. Barton took umbrage and at the final whistle Keegan remonstrated furiously with Nasri as they disappeared down the tunnel. In typical Keegan fashion, he quit his job two days later. Barton attracted the sympathy of precisely no one and Nasri made a statement very early in his Arsenal career that he was not going to be bullied; even by the curmudgeonliest of the Premiership`s cowardly hard men. Whilst Hleb and Reyes had allowed such treatment to get the better of them as they shuffled off into obscurity, Nasri was marking his territory in truly animalistic style, metaphorically pissing on Barton and shouting, "dis my house bitch!" In all, August showed that Arsenal were the perfect flat track bullies (a quality they would not necessarily repeat in the next two months of the season) beating two clubs that were ultimately relegated at home, whilst seeing off the infinitely inferior F.C. Twente. But traces of the West Brom victory and the defeat at Craven Cottage showed Arsenal had neither the creativity nor leadership to barge through brick walls when the chips were down. The loss of experienced heads and of a couple of our creative cogs could be seen and as the Premiership hibernated for affairs international, all eyes were on the transfer deadline countdown as we expected and needed Arsene to address the shortfalls that were already obvious. We were to be disappointed and a troublesome winter lay ahead.LD.
VA Player of the Month: Samir Nasri.