May 23, 2011 5 Comments
Sidwel 26, Zamora 57; Van Persie 29, Walcott 89
Arsenal ended their agonising 2010/11 campaign by twice coming from behind to scrape a point at ten-man Fulham. It brought their season full circle, having also scrambled a late equaliser away from home against ten men on the opening weekend at Liverpool. Some things never change, it seems.
With Manchester City winning at Bolton, the result was effectively meaningless as Arsenal finished fourth, 12 points behind Premier League champions Manchester United and with the second-lowest points total of Arsène Wenger‘s 15-year tenure. A disastrous post-Carling Cup sequence which saw them gain just a dozen points from their last 11 games put paid to their title challenge, and is likely to prompt a summer of intense navel-gazing and change.
Needing to win at Craven Cottage and then hope that City slipped up at the Reebok, Arsenal made three changes to the side which surrendered to Aston Villa last week. Out went Alex Song (knee), Sebastien Squillaci and Andrey Arshavin (both dropped), with Johan Djourou, Abou Diaby and Marouane Chamakh returning to the starting line-up.
Sagna – Djourou– Vermaelen – Gibbs
Ramsey – Diaby – Wilshere – Nasri
Chamakh – van Persie
Arsenal had won the reverse fixture at the Emirates in December 2-1 thanks to a spectacular brace by Samir Nasri, a result which had put them top of the Premier League.
The season in microcosm
It was perhaps fitting that this final game pretty much summed up Arsenal’s season. The visitors dominated possession and played their usual aesthetically pleasing game for 25 minutes, but had little other than a Kieran Gibbs header, well saved by Mark Schwarzer, to show for their efforts. Then, almost on cue, they fell behind.
As has so often been the case, particularly in the last three months, they were the architects of their own downfall. Just inside the Fulham half, Aaron Ramsey attempted to back-heel the ball to Jack Wilshere. However, the ball was stolen by the alert Clint Dempsey, whose penetrative pass sent Bobby Zamora racing away down the right. With three white shirts arriving at speed in the box, the striker had a straightforward task of finding a teammate with his pull-back, and Steve Sidwell duly applied the finish.
Stung, Arsenal responded quickly and were level within three minutes. Diaby won possession in his own half, interchanged quick passes with Chamakh, and fed Robin van Persie with a first-time through ball. The Dutch striker advanced into the area and made no mistake sweeping the ball past Schwarzer. It extended his Premier League record streak of having now scored in nine consecutive away matches, and matched the record of Cristinao Ronaldo and former teammate Thierry Henry of scoring 18 league goals between the turn of the year and the end of the season. In total, it was his 21st goal in his last 23 games.
Characteristically, though, Arsenal’s defence looked fragile, and they were grateful to Thomas Vermaelen, making only his second start after a nine-month absence, for maintaining parity at the interval. Zamora provided a simple lay-off direct from a throw-in, and sprung Danny Murphy through on goal, only for Vermaelen to lunge in with an interception just as Murphy was about to walk the ball over the line.
The second half opened with Nasri bringing a full-length save out of Schwarzer with a testing free kick, but it was Fulham who broke the deadlock. Jonathan Greening found himself in acres of space on the left, and Zamora ensured his head was first to his fine centre.
With the visitors’ vocal support reduced to a pointed chant of “Spend some f***ing money”, Arsenal looked to be heading for a third straight defeat. But then substitute Zoltan Gera – who had only been on the field for three minutes – was sent off for a sliding two-footed tackle on Vermaelen. It was the ninth time an opponent had been sent off against Arsenal this season; all nine have been straight reds.
It set up a tense final 15 minutes as Arsenal poured forwards in search of an equaliser, and Theo Walcott duly obliged a minute from time with a real beauty. Stationed wide on the right, he collected a long diagonal ball on his chest and accelerated away from young left back Matthew Briggs before firing a low shot across Schwarzer which the goalkeeper could only touch onto the inside of his post and watch rebound over the line.
In a performance which was nothing to write home about, Arsenal had at least produced two goals worthy of winning any game. The only problem was: they didn’t win. And therein lies the problem with Arsenal.
Post-match reaction and analysis
After the match, Arsène Wenger reflected on what had turned out to be a meaningless game at the end of a season which had promised so much for so long:
I thought it was an average game. In the end, we felt fourth place was disappointing because, three weeks ago, we were in a position to win the league. We didn’t lose third place today, we lost it last week.
I think I am responsible for the results and I am very disappointed. The players have had an outstanding attitude. We have accumulated disappointments that have had a big impact on the moral of the team. We have played 58 games. Fabregas has played 22 games, Van Persie 18 or 19 games and Vermaelen has played four or five games. In decisive moments, we have never had the whole team together. We have to rectify some things in our squad and we will try to do it. But it is not easy, even with money.
But he did have time to praise the fans’ travelling support, despite their obvious frustration:
Our away fans have been outstanding all season and we would like to thank them. They are not happy, I am not happy, and we have to accept that. But we are not to go overboard. We cannot buy players for £50 million and, even if we try to strengthen our team and spend money if needed, that is fact.
On his rebuilding plans for this summer, he added:
We will try to do the right thing. We will try to buy the right players. The amount of money is not always linked with the quality of the player. We will spend the needed money but you first have to find the right players and then turn up with the money. If we find the right players we will spend the money.
And so ends another season, one which – as pundits have so frequently and gleefully reminded us – marks six years without a trophy. There is certainly a significant war chest available for Wenger to spend in the summer, which is likely to be supplemented with outgoing player sales. No Arsenal fan is expecting the club to go out and spend £50m on one player, but certainly there will be an expectation that new signings with both experience and quality will be recruited in time for next season. Having come close on multiple fronts and yet faded so badly this year, it will no longer be enough to recruit just young players with potential or 30-something journeymen like Squillaci. In an era where the traditional ‘Big Four’ has effectively become a Big Six with the inclusion of Manchester City and Tottenham, Arsenal will need to take significant steps forward just to stand still, let alone win a trophy.
In the meantime, we can close the book on 2010/11. Roll on next season.
- Fulham 2 Arsenal 2: match report (telegraph.co.uk)
- Fulham 2-2 Arsenal | Premier League match report (guardian.co.uk)
- Walcott rescues late point after Fulham expose familiar frailties (independent.co.uk)