Wednesday, June 3, 2015

A Season of Arsenal Ribbons

Seeking the superlatives of Arsenal's 2014-15 season, we could find a bounty in the 4-0 FA Cup Final victory over Aston Villa. It featured contenders for goal of the season in Alexis Sanchez's magnificent second-half strike, for the year's best midfield performance from Santi Cazorla and Mesut Özil, for its most canny and organized defensive display, and for its most confident goalkeeping work.

To call off the search with Saturday's match, though, would be to neglect many captivating events, performances, and developments since August 2014. You'll no doubt read and hear many opinions on the standard categories, such as goal of the season and player of the season, in upcoming days.

I've chosen a different framework to describe what this Arsenal season offered: Nine perhaps offbeat categories to capture the entertainment, engagement, and (rarely) enragement sparked by the 2014-15 Arsenal team. Within each category, I identified three standouts and bestowed them with ribbons. This seems an apt award system after Saturday's Cup Final success: Yellow goes to the top choice in each category; the second choice gets a red ribbon; third earns a white one.

Moment of the season

Yellow: Danny Welbeck's goal against Manchester United (a), FA Cup (appears at 3:20 mark of this video)
Red: Olivier Giroud's goal against Manchester City (a), Premier League (1:35 mark of this video)
White: The reaction to Aaron Ramsey's goal against Galatasaray (a), Champions League (especially by Yaya Sanogo and Wojciech Szczesny)

A successful season features many memorable moments, and Arsenal's did not disappoint. For me, Danny Welbeck's winner at Old Trafford takes top prize, because it reversed years of frustration there, overcame the biggest challenge to defending the FA Cup, and highlighted Welbeck's quality to his boyhood club. The goal also resulted from the new, energetic pressing style that Arsenal employed to great effect in several matches.

Second goes to Olivier Giroud's headed goal to make it 2-0 at City, sealing a win that showed the team's ability to rise to big occasions. I also liked the reactions to Ramsey's cracking Champions League goal because they hinted in a humorous fashion at the team's growing unity.

Skill of the season

Yellow: Mesut Özil's flicks, such as the one to Alexis against Hull (a) (video)
Red: Özil's shimmies, such as the one against Liverpool (h) (4:50 of this video)
White: Santi Cazorla's dribbles, especially against Manchester City (a) (2:55 of this video)

When Arsenal's midfield returned to health in February, the team jelled and compiled a string of victories unmatched in the Premier League this season. The driving forces were Cazorla, deployed in a deeper role near Francis Coquelin, and Özil, given license as the primary playmaker. The pair's intelligence, vision, and skill create space and time for themselves and their teammates and make them two athletic marvels.

Unsung hero of the season

Yellow: Nacho Monreal
Red: Mikel Arteta
White: Danny Welbeck

Monreal made 32 appearances this season, including seven out of position in the center of the Arsenal defense. In his efforts there, he always did what was asked, then used the experience to excel upon his return to left back. His opening goal in the FA Cup against Manchester City was crucial, and his performance in the Cup Final outstanding.

Arteta spent all but 10 matches sidelined with injury; still, his calmness and professionalism as captain set the tone for the team. He also relished the success of his eventual replacement Francis Coquelin. Third spot goes to Welbeck for his three critical match-winning goals on the road--against West Brom and West Ham in the League, as well as against United in the Cup--and his tireless contributions to the team's emerging style.

Sub of the season

Yellow: Theo Walcott and Jack Wilshere against Manchester United (a)
Red: Giroud against Everton (a)
White: Tomas Rosicky against Everton (h)

The choices here all made telling contributions off the bench. Walcott and Wilshere supplied the energy and drive needed to overcome United's dominant midfield performance. When Walcott's effort deflected into United's goal, it rewarded the pair's efforts and all but clinched Arsenal's third-place league finish.

Giroud's introduction against Everton changed the dynamic of that match; his late equalizer was early evidence of this team's grit. Rosicky makes the list because his goal secured the home win against Everton and because of his overall awesomeness.

Cynical foul of the season

Yellow: Ramsey against Manchester United (a), FA Cup
Red: Cazorla against Chelsea (h)
White: Gabriel Paulista against Reading (n), FA Cup

You won't find these contributions in many highlight reels, but they're notable signs of this team's maturity. At important points in important matches, Ramsey, Cazorla, and Gabriel took yellow cards to snuff out opposition threats. Cazorla's foul was one of three delivered late against Chelsea to stop counterattacks, while Gabriel displayed his willingness to flatten an opponent before danger could materialize.

Set piece of the season

Yellow: Özil free kick against Liverpool (h) (6:12 of this video)
Red: Alexis corner to Giroud against Middlesbrough (h), FA Cup (1:25 of this video)
White: Cazorla free kick to Giroud against Manchester City (a) (1:35 of this video)

According to OptaSports data on, Arsenal ranked third in the Premier League with 22 goals from set pieces. For their combination of timeliness, quality, and importance, I chose Özil's free kick against Liverpool, which capitalized on Liverpool goalkeeper Simon Mignolet's positioning to solidify Arsenal's advantage in that match, and Cazorla's delivery to Giroud for the definitive goal against Manchester City.

Also noteworthy was Alexis's corner preceding Giroud's second goal against Middlesbrough, when the pair's quick combined thinking paved the way for Giroud's execution of a difficult skill.

Personnel puzzler of the season

Yellow: Leaving Alexis on the bench for Tottenham (h)
Red: The great midfield shoehorn of 2014, featuring Wilshere and Ramsey
White: Starting Yaya Sanogo against Dortmund (h)

Although most of manager Arsène Wenger's decisions proved justified over the full season, it would be interesting to hear him reflect on some of the season's choices, particularly the reluctance to use Alexis from the outset in the fall North London Derby. Given that he had already delivered in a high-stakes match, the Champions League qualifier against Besiktas, Alexis seemed just the player for this occasion. If he needed resting, the Capital One Cup match against Southampton four days earlier looked a better bet.

Wenger could also clarify the rationale for deploying both Ramsey and Wilshere in central midfield, which complicated other early season adjustments. Sanogo's opener against Dortmund silenced questions about his inclusion, but at the time he seemed an odd choice in a meaningful Champions League encounter.

Brain fart of the season

Yellow: Southampton (a), featuring Szczesny
Red: Monaco (h) Champions League, featuring Per Mertesacker and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain
White: Swansea (a), featuring Mathieu Flamini

The then-number-one goalkeeper's fumbling performance, followed by his nicotine-fueled dressing-room indiscretion, tops this category by some distance. David Ospina replaced him and held the starting job for Arsenal's remaining League matches. The other two choices here were surges of tactical naivete when the motivation to score overwhelmed good sense. The good news is that these occasions arose less frequently than in seasons past.

Missed opportunity of the season

Yellow: Giroud misses a pointblank shot against Monaco (h), Champions League (1:08 of this video, for the sadists)
Red: Alexis & Walcott miss in succession against Swansea (h) (5:20 of this video)
White: Alexis pulls a shot wide against Crystal Palace (a) (4:53 of this video)

Let's not dwell on the failures. We can note them and revisit them on days we're feeling particularly morose. The one point I'd  make is that, from a style perspective, Alexis's chance against Crystal Palace would have been a wonderful 26th goal. It would have capped a perfect counterattack and served as a fitting finish of Özil's ingenious lob to himself and deft pass.

Such scintillating plays became more commonplace in 2015 and defined the performance in the FA Cup Final. They're just reward for the off days, which were compelling in their own ways. I've tried to highlight both here to remind us of our good fortune to follow such an extraordinary sporting endeavor.

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