On The Arsenal Beat: Season Press Review

Every kick, every point, every decision, every signing, every non-signing, absolutely everything about Arsenal Football Club is scrutinised by the Press and fans alike. wearethenorthbank.com met with three of the Press Pack’s finest – Amy Lawrence of the Observer, the Sunday Mirror’s Matt Law and Charlie Wyett of The Sun – to discuss the season that was.

In three words describe Arsenal’s season

Matt Law: Mental, Inconsistent, spirit.

Amy Lawrence: Can I have four? Simultaneously devastating and delirious.

Charlie Wyett: Meltdown, Brave, Fortunate.

Was third place enough for Arsenal?

ML: Given the circumstances, yes. It was a fine achievement in terms of being a good rescue. Before the season if you said Arsenal couldn’t win anything by January I think many wouldn’t consider it a great season. But it certainly was when taken into context the start of the season.

AL: Yes. If you want to be a half glass empty person you’ll say ‘well the fact Arsene Wenger got himself in that position in the first place speaks volumes for where Arsenal are at’, but people forget that Arsenal have been in the Champions League for 15 consecutive years and the bulk of the last few years have been through fourth place and a qualifier. To not have to qualify is an improvement in a Premier League that was apparantly going to be more difficult than ever because of the arrival of Manchester City, and Tottenham’s threat etc.

CW: Yes, they were in meltdown – one win in their first six and 17th in the league! They’d got to August 30th and Wenger hadn’t signed anybody and it was a terrible start. I feared for them even getting into Europe and they looked a poor team. They got a couple of wins – the key one was Swansea at home when they were really down and they were very lucky to win and then they went on a run.

They had their Christmas blip, but again they turned it round and I thought they had some brave characters in there which was good to see. None moreso than Laurent Koscielny. Last season he was fortunate to be given the run he was by Wenger which cost Arsenal some matches, including a cup final, but on the back of that this season he’s been a hero. He showed courage and really helped Arsenal get out of that mess.

What was your highlight covering Arsenal this season?

ML: There were a few games that stood out but generally just watching Van Persie. To be able to watch, every week, probably the third best player in the world this season you’ve got to feel pretty priveledged about that.

AL: The 5-2 against Tottenham, marginally from the 5-3 win against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Both were games that made you feel glad to be alive and glad to be an Arsenal supporter. It was also cathartic coming at times when it was ‘backs against the wall’, and it was understandable that Arsenal fans were pessimistic going into the kind of games that are difficult to accept going badly. It was very meaningful to get those kind of results. The atmosphere from the crowd and what you saw from the players mirrored one another.

Those were the moments that glued what had been a fractured relationship between the fans and the players/Wenger. It felt like everything was coming back together during those moments. It was really important as well as being immensely good fun. It took you back to what supporting a football club should be. It’s too easy nowadays the way football is to slip into hatred. The atmosphere can get quite negative very quickly in all football fans and in different circumstances but it’s nice to have a reminder that football can be hilarious at the same time and gives you buzzes that you don’t get in other parts of your life.

CW: Everyone will remember the last day of this season for Man City and the way they won it but the drama at The Hawthorns was unbelievable. Arsenal go one up after four minutes, then West Brom turn it round with Arsenal’s Champions League hopes in tatters, then Arsenal turn it round again thanks to the worst goalkeeping performance I’ve seen in the Premier League, ever! And then in the last minute Kieran Gibbs delivers the most amazing tackle of the season, one that will be forgotten by all but Arsenal fans. It was world class.

What was the low point of the season for Arsenal?

ML: There were a few you could pick out like AC Milan away, but the biggest low was the mess of the summer that created such a bad start. It’s just unbelievable that a club of Arsenal’s size could allow themselves to be put in that position and take such a big risk. They could’ve easily ended up ninth or something which would’ve been a complete disaster for them. There was a horrible atmosphere around the place.

AL: Unfortunately there were quite a few contenders. The 8-2 at Old Trafford was incredibly disturbing and humiliating but in some ways losing at Blackburn was as bad or argubly worse. It’s never nice losing at White Hart Lane whatever the circumstances and there wasn’t much fight in the last 20 minutes which was disappointing. And the 4-0 at San Siro. Arsene Wenger summed it up as a profound embarassment – he’s rarely so critical. You could really pick any of those – they were all really unpleasant.

CW: Fulham away wasn’t great; Arsenal didn’t look as though they really wanted it. That festive period was the worst because I thought Arsenal had overcome their terrible start and then suddenly the doubts were creeping back in, but again they did well to ride that out. The biggest low was Man Utd. To get eight put past Arsenal was absolute humiliation.

Best scoop from your Peers?

ML: You’re gonna get me in trouble here because people dispute everything. I’ll give a joint one because I think two people got it – John Cross and Sami Mokbel on getting the Henry signing. They can argue between themselves which one got it first.

AL: There have been some great Nicklas Bendtner stories! I think it’s a measure of the clubs’ PR that in a season that’s been quite difficult you don’t see too many stories come out. A fraction of what Mario Balotelli or Joey Barton alone would manage.

That may be something that suggests Arsenal need a bit more character, but there aren’t too many unsavoury incidents that tend to come out of the Arsenal dressing room these days, and that’s a reflection that the squad is made up of some fairly decent people who behaved pretty well in what’s been some difficult circumstances. A couple of notable sales in recent seasons went a long way to changing the mentality for the better within the squad.

CW: None stand out. I think everyone has chipped in.

Player of the season?

ML: Van Persie of course but I’d give an honourable mention to Koscielny because this time last year we were all pretty worried about him after the Carling Cup Final. It just shows that Wenger can see things that the rest of us don’t. This season Koscielny has been far better than Vermaelen even.

AL: Has to be Robin. However, a massive pat on the back to Laurent Koscielny for a fabulous season, barring one or two individual errors that he’ll no doubt curse himself for. Over the course of the entire season he has been first class and that shows that Wenger – who is not always famed for his acumen in signing defenders and spent a lot of money on a player with such little pedigree – had a hunch that really paid off.

The French marketplace that was the cornerstone for him at the beginning of his spell with Arsenal looked like being slightly less fertile territory in recent years – the likes of Chamakh and Park suggests that they don’t all work out – but with Kocielny it’s paid off. Mikel Arteta deserves a big amount of credit as well for having become a very important member of the squad.

CW: It’s gotta be Van Persie hasn’t it, but I’m having Koscielny right behind there. I was really critical of him and he’s certainly proved me wrong. I’ve been a real admirer of some of his tackles – goal saving tackles that show real courage, which I love.

Can you assess Arsene Wenger’s performance?

ML: Wenger was put in the most difficult of circumstances – he keeps promising that one day he’ll write this book and tell us what happened from his perspective in the summer which will be fascinating. My reading of the situation is that he was put in the most difficult of positions by uncertainty and messing around from above him. He’s too much of a gent to make that public. He was given a difficult job and in the end he did brilliantly.

Wenger does make mistakes and is too stubborn at times though so I’m pleased Steve Bould has come in as Arsenal really need some coaching in defence. They’ve not got bad defenders but they make the same mistakes all over again, so I think the coaching must be wrong with the defence. With the hand Wenger was dealt and the way they had to do business on the last day of the transfer window – and what he saw to bring Henry back when a few of us were having a chuckle about that, but he knew Henry would lift the place, which was pretty low at the time – Wenger did really well.

It will be interesting now with Bould because I would hope that Wenger will have more of an open mind and let a few specialists take on some of the tasks. It’ll be interesting to see what Bould will do on the touchine too – when Gibbs or Vermaelen fly forward will Bould be up shouting at them to get back in position or not? I’ve been covering Arsenal closely for four seasons and it’s not the most talented squad but they have the best spirit of all the Arsenal teams I’ve covered and Wenger should take credit for that.

AL: In many ways it was miraculous. I was only just talking to Philippe Auclair and we both noted that the media are very quick to jump on managers when things are going wrong, but there has been a conspicuous silence and few, if any, articles saying ‘well done Arsene Wenger’ after a very impressive turnaround of the season. If you weigh up the column inches when things were going badly compared to praise for the fact that Arsenal finished third when they were 17th there’s a huge imbalance. It’s an amazing acheievment with a squad that looked so ill-equipped.

When Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was signed it reminded me of the famous Rafa Benitez quote during his time at Valencia: ‘I asked for a sofa and they bought me a lampshade’. It felt at the time like ‘hang on Arsenal need experienced, tough, defence minded players; what are you doing buying a teenaged, inexperienced attacking player’. It was almost the opposite of what everybody was crying out for.

It just goes to show that Wenger doesn’t care what people think and if it goes against him he will live and die by his decisions. And you have to congratulate him on what may well be another great find.

CW: It was OK. Again, stubborn with signings. He left them all so late and how many have really worked? Santos hasn’t. Mertesacker, the jury’s out – is that a fair comment? Arteta has been the one; you can’t argue with his record. Podolski is a good signing. Wenger did well to get Arsenal into the Champions League but have they moved on? No. Have they won a trophy? No. But then is there anybody out there that could do any better? Probably no. I’d give Wenger 6.5 out of 10.

Game of the season?

ML: Tottenham at home. Incredible turnaround and you couldn’t see that coming at all. In terms of covering Arsenal, the Norwich game was incredible as well.

AL: Tottenham 5-2.

CW: The most crucial game was West Brom. The most enjoyable game was the 3-3 with Norwich – that was one of the games of the season. Norwich could’ve been four up at half time, then Arsenal came back and should’ve had a penalty at the end and could’ve won 4-3 – there were all sorts of permutations there. A briliant game of football. I gave John Ruddy man of the match – when Arsenal were battering Norwich at the end he made some great saves from Van Persie, and especially the save from Kieran Gibbs.

Player you’ve most enjoyed interviewing/speaking to this season?

ML: Szczesny is the one. Szczesny is fantastic – he’s mental. The club probably don’t love it all the time but we do. Just after Chelsea had sacked AVB he came out and said all the English players run the Chelsea dressing room; the look on Arsenal’s Press officer’s face was priceless and Szczesny was just laughing – and we were all laughing as well. He does not care and will say what he wants to say. The year before it was Jack Wilshere – he’s very good as well.

AL: We don’t get that much player access these days but I was lucky to interview Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain recently and what a fantastic, impressive and extremely likeable and together young man he is. He obvioulsy has the talent to suggest he’ll go far but in terms of his personality, and the way he thinks and conducts himself, he’s really got every chance of making the best of what he’s got. If he ends up being a player who falls into bad habits and starts getting a reputation I’ll be absolutely gobsmacked. He seems to be the last kid that would go off the rails.

Foreign kids playing in England tend to be more grounded individuals that can deal with what they have to face in the goldfish bowl of football. With the English kids you just don’t get that same feeling that they’re as composed in their manner and the way that they think and live. Alex seems more like Fabregas (when he was young) than a young English lad, in the way that he presents himself.

CW: Wojciech Szczesny. A few years ago I helped with media training at Arsenal with Sam Wallace from the Independent. We had two different groups of 17 to 18 year olds and I remember this very inquisitive lad sat at the back who was asking questions you wouldn’t expect from footballers. He was asking journalistic questions and I thought ‘aye, aye who’s this kid?’. Most of the others were just staring out of the window bored shitless. I asked afterwards who this kid was and was told he was a very talented Polish goalkeeper.

From then on I’ve always hoped he does well and I tell you what when the chips have been down during the last two years and when there’s needed to be some straight talking Robin Van Persie has been nowhere near. Cesc Fabregas nowhere near last year, neither was Samir Nasri but there were two lads to really face it – and I have the utmost respect for Szczesny and Jack Wilshere. Despite being young they have put older and more experienced players to shame. It’s a shame that many older professionals can’t have the same attitude, bottle and professionalism as those boys.

It’s important that there is independent questioning of the players as supporters want to know what they’re feeling after a win or a bad defeat; even if they are towing the party line. Szczesny and Jack are always there, always available, always on it. When you speak to Van Persie he’s good, but it’s a case of getting hold of him. As club captain I felt that he should’ve been around more to talk about the wins and the losses but he always shirks that responsibility. And in my opinion that is a responsibility: speaking to the fans as club captain.

Follow Matt Law and Charlie Wyett on Twitter. Read Amy Lawrence in the Observer.