The season that started so brightly for Wenger and his young squad ultimately ended in tears. Literally in tears, shed by Gallas on the St. Andrews pitch if you take the results at face value. Unbeaten at the beginning of 2007-08, when and why did Arsenal fade away?
Firstly the goal difference of each match shows a very real drop in league form after the 26th game of the season. The run until then had been near perfect. The first major blip you see for games 10 and 11 was the 2-2 at home to Manchester United and then 1-1 with Liverpool away.
Graphs courtesy of Arsenal Stats Centre
The first League loss at Middlesbrough actually came after a 3-1 loss in the Champions League dead rubber at Sevilla away. The Arsenal beat Aston Villa away 2-1, drew at Newcastle 1-1, before succuming to Middlesbrough 2-1 away too.
In retrospect this looks like four fatiguing away games slowly taking their toll. But the team still bounced back. Arsenal lost 1st place on Game 29. Game 30 came against Chelsea where Arsenal slipped further behind.
A bit of nifty work on Excel highlights the point where the form turned bad. Games where Arsenal scored first are highlighed, because the pattern is fascinating.
The first bad result is in the FA Cup at Old Trafford, where a weakened side lost heavily. The Arsenal then lost top spot after drawing at Wigan, having surrendered a five point lead to United at this point.
The Champions League results against AC Milan were a bit of a blip. The players were possibly more focused on these big games than those against teams like Wigan and Middlesbrough.
After Sagna’s injury at Chelsea the team surrendered a lead and then conceded two at Bolton, and this pattern continues, as Arsenal lost their leads in the the next four games. This shows just how fragile the team was, the defence especially brittle.
At home Arsenal only drew during this period, but only scored first there in the two games at Liverpool, the rest all required equalisers.
The terrible run highlighted can be summed up in the fact that in 13 games Arsenal went out of all three major competitions. The confidence of the young squad was affected, but in some ways this was not a collapse. The results don’t show the full picture.
The problems can be simplified into four categories:
A key point in the awful form, conceding too many in the last few games. All the goals from Liverpool and Manchester United in the last four games were preventable, stemming from a lack of concentration. I suspect some of it has to do with confidence but concentration is needed.
The thin squad provided little cover for wingers and few experienced defenders or strikers. Arsenal were predicted to struggle at the beginning of the season so the good form was surprising. The team performed well until the Spring, and showed potential, but it is a common for small squads to fail through the Spring. Here, fatigue showed through in the last month resulting in costly mistakes. The team requires signings of one or two key experienced players who can bolster the squad, maybe three if you count the ‘keeper.
This follows on from the last point. Wenger lost an in form Van Persie early in the season, then Fabregas too, whilst in form. Fabregas hardly scored after the injury, and definitely suffered from a break in playing time. Rosicky was key on the wing for the large part of the season, was also injured.
The mother of them all was the horrific leg break Eduardo suffered. Undoubtedly this had a negative psychological impact, as well as ruling out a key striker, who Wenger said, “would be like a new signing” in the new year.
In terms of defence, the team lost experienced Toure, although Senderos filled in admirably. Then Sagna was also injured, which exposed our defensive problems further whilst desperate measures were taken, playing Toure out of position.
More controversial is the point that key decisions went against the team. This cannot be an excuse for failure, but it does provide some context to compare to the psychological state of the side. At Birmingham, a last minute debatable penalty was given, resulting in two points dropped after a terrible game. Again, against Liverpool in the Champions League arguably Toure did not foul Babel, but a penalty was given seconds after Walcott’s run put Adebayor through for a goal to put Arsenal in front.
I am not slating the players, Wenger, or the club. Almost every player invested a huge amount of effort this season. Wenger was right at the beginning of the season when he said the team could achieve great things. They have played fantastic football regularly this year, and mounted a title challenge.
The side needs to aim as high as possible. They now sit, only four points behind Chelsea after their 1-1 with Wigan. Once the season is over Wenger needs to focus on strengthening the squad and maintaining the quality within the side. The key to success is stability in the team and in management.