SMR end-of-season review 2014-2015: The Midfielders

In the penultimate post reviewing the 2014-2015 season, I’m going to assess the performance of Arsenal’s midfielders. As with the previous ones, there’ll be a short review of each player’s season and a one-word summary.
7. Tomas Rosicky
It was a frustrating season for Tomas Rosicky as he didn’t get as much game time as he wanted, or deserved. Despite being one of the oldest players in the squad, he still brings energy to any game with his driving runs forward and turn of pace to change the tempo of an attack. During the random start to the season, Rosicky was unlucky to not play more often as Arsene Wenger seemed determined to shoe-horn Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere into the same starting XI, despite both not quite being at their best. When he did get an opportunity, Rosicky made telling contributions with goals against QPR and Everton, and a sublime performance away to Brighton in the FA Cup.
I’m pleased he’s got another year at the club, and hopefully Arsene Wenger won’t be so reluctant to use him because of the different dynamic Rosicky can still bring to any Arsenal performance.
One-word summary: Persistent
Rating: 6/10
8. Mikel Arteta
Mikel Arteta’s season was ruined by injury, and the form of Francis Coquelin in his position means that it is likely Arsenal will go through another season with the club captain operating mostly from the bench. People shouldn’t be so quick to write Arteta off though as he remains a steadying influence on the rest of the team. This was typified by the Anderlecht capitulation at home in the Champions League. Arsenal were playing ok and were 3-0 up when Arteta went down injured. Anderlecht scored with the Spaniard on the ground and went on to draw 3-3 as Arsenal’s midfield disappeared when Arteta left the field. He will still be a quality player to have in the squad next season.
One-word summary: Respected
Rating: 5/10
10. Jack Wilshere
Another midfielder whose season was disrupted by injury. As with everyone in the early part of the season, there were glimpses of Wilshere’s undoubted ability without any consistency. The brilliant performance and goal at home to Manchester City was mixed in with pretty drab performances like Anderlecht away. Apart from his finishing, Wilshere was playing well in the game he had his ankle mangled in against Manchester United, so to see him on the side lines again was incredibly frustrating. His return was excellent though. Given how settled the side looked around April, Wilshere made some energetic cameos off the bench force his way into the starting XI before scoring that thunderous, net-busting, goal against West Brom.
Forget the newspaper rumours about Manchester City, there’s no way Arsene Wenger would let a home-grown player with this amount of talent leave.
One-word summary: THRIKER
Rating: 6/10
11. Mesut Ozil
Mesut Ozil typifies the two halves of Arsenal’s season. He looked off the pace after the World Cup before getting injured at the beginning of October. Ozil also wasn’t helped by playing out on the left as Arsene Wenger tried to get all of his attacking midfielders in the team. The time off the pitch injured did allow Ozil to bulk up and look refreshed when he returned in January. Several gorgeous and instrumental performances followed including a goal and an assist at home to Aston Villa, a spirited showing in the attempted fightback in Monaco, the glorious free-kick against Liverpool and *that* flick against Hull City. He almost saved his best for the FA Cup final as he strolled around Wembley in complete control of the game. He seems to have got to the grips with the Premier League and is a joy to watch play.
One-word summary: Silky
Rating: 7.5/10
15. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain
2014-2015 was the first season that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was able to hold down a regular starting place for a sustained period of time before injury (what else?) disrupted his progress. The Ox was one of the positives to emerge from the early season performances with some excellent displays. Before his last injury of the season, Oxlade-Chamberlain was superb at Old Trafford in the FA Cup as he bagged an assist and forced Louis van Gaal to substitute left-back Luke Shaw at half-time after he was rinsed by the Ox. He’ll still only be 21 at the start of the next season, so there’s plenty of time for further progress as he’s got all the attributes to be a phenomenal player for the club.
One-word summary: Maturing
Rating: 7/10
16. Aaron Ramsey
It was a strange season for Aaron Ramsey as it’ll probably go down as a disappointing one, but there were still some brilliant moments. He didn’t quite hit the goal scoring heights of the previous campaign, but it’s telling how high his standards have now become that he reached double figures from midfield and it’s still a disappointing campaign. Ramsey had moments where the old tendencies of giving the ball away and shooting wildly wide returned, but generally he was a driving force in the Arsenal midfield. Even when playing badly, he has a knack of making something happen or emerging on the scene at the right time to make a pass or have a shot. Overall, Ramsey is unrecognisable from the player he was two years ago. Oh, and there was that goal at Galatasaray. Phwoar.
One-word summary: Bearded
Rating: 7/10
19. Santi Cazorla
2014-2015 was the Spaniard’s best season for the club. Without Mesut Ozil for a lot of the first half of the season, Cazorla was able to be the attacking hub of the team again, which helped him regain his mojo after a slightly slow start to the season and the terrible World Cup efforts from Spain. The dominant showing at home to Newcastle, which was topped off by a glorious chipped goal and Paneka penalty, was a particular highlight in that period of the season. When Ozil returned, Cazorla remained central, but dropped deeper and showed what a sensational footballer he is. He would have been the obvious man to drop out when the German returned from injury, but Cazorla made himself un-droppable with consistent, brilliant performances. I believe that his display away to Manchester City was the best all-round performance from any midfielder in the Premier League in 2014-2015.
One-word summary: Majestic
Rating: 8/10
20. Mathieu Flamini
Flamini is now nothing more than cover in central midfield. He’s clearly a respected and popular member of the squad, and he did a good job in the previous season after signing on a free transfer, but I don’t think it was a coincidence that some of Arsenal’s worst performances in 2014-2015 had Mathieu Flamini at the base of the midfield. He did provide one of my funniest moments of the season though by coming on to play on the right wing against West Ham and scoring a tap-in a minute after arriving into the game. You can never question him for commitment or effort on the pitch, but he’s now the third-choice holding player in the squad.
One-word summary: Usurped
Rating: 4/10
24. Abou Diaby
The case of Abou Diaby makes me very sad. He could have been majestic in Arsenal’s midfield for many years, but some bad tackles and his body letting him down has meant his career at Arsenal could be at an end. He did get more game time in 2014-2015 than in the previous season, but it was only by a matter of minutes and still totalled less than 70 minutes. It’s unlikely he’ll play in the Arsenal first team again, but that isn’t a reflection on his character and commitment to try and play again.
One-word summary: Saddening
Rating: 2/10
34. Francis Coquelin
The story of the season. I’d almost forgotten he was at the club until he suddenly appeared at left-back in the Capital One Cup against Southampton. A loan move to Charlton seemed like the final step towards a permanent move away from the club in January before injuries to overs intervened, and suddenly the Coq was in the squad for a Premier League game. When he got his chance, he took it with interception after interception, tackle after tackle and disciplined displays that took pressure off the rest of the team. Like Cazorla, his performances made it impossible to drop him from the starting XI. Whether Coquelin can maintain his high standards into next season will be interesting to see, but he thoroughly deserves his chance to continue to patrol the midfield after a stellar second half of the season.
One-word summary: Immense
Rating: 8/10


Walcott puts his hand up for Wembley

After three scoreless games at home, there was a worrying sense that the season was petering out for Arsenal, which was a big concern given there is still a cup final to play. But all of the frustration that built up on Wednesday evening as the Gunners couldn’t break through a stubborn Sunderland side was blasted away as Arsenal rampaged their way through West Bromwich Albion in the first half of the final league match of the season, and certain players made a strong case for inclusion in the FA Cup Final starting XI.
Leading the charge was Theo Walcott. Olivier Giroud has looked slightly off the pace in recent weeks, so it wasn’t too much of a surprise to see Walcott given an opportunity by Arsene Wenger to play as the main striker, especially as the Englishman was lively in his cameo against Sunderland. Walcott can often look ineffective as the main striker if the opposition sit deep and don’t allow the space to run in behind he defence, and I was worried that might be the case against Tony Pulis’ West Brom. But Walcott dispelled those doubts with a cracking opening goal. On receiving the ball on the right of the penalty area, he instinctively thundered the ball over Boaz Myhill and in via the bar. It was a real statement goal from Walcott.
He followed that up with a well-taken second goal, showing quick footwork in the box to engineer the space to poke the ball under Myhill. West Brom’s defending was very static, despite being relatively deep, and Walcott was able to dance around the challenges.
With confidence flowing through the Arsenal team, the lead increased to three as Jack Wilshere submitted his late entry for the ‘Release the Kraken THRIKER of the Season’ award. Receiving the ball from a lay-off just outside the box, Wilshere produced a stonking shot that almost ripped the net out of the ground. Myhill could only wave at the ball on its way past into the top corner.
More chances were created as Walcott and Alexis Sanchez had further sights of goal, before a typically well-crafted passing move finished with Santi Cazorla’s cross-shot being poked in from a yard out for Theo Walcott’s first half hat-trick. 4-0 at half-time didn’t flatter a dominant Arsenal.
Predictably, the Gunners dropped the intensity in the second half, and West Brom did sneak a goal back following some strange flapping at a corner from David Ospina. At the end of the game, he almost spilled a long-range shot into his net, meaning there are still more questions than answers about goalkeeping situation for next season.
While it’s pretty much certain that Wojciech Szczsny will play between the sticks at Wembley, the rest of the team is slightly more unknown, especially after the encouraging performances of Walcott and Wilshere. Aaron Ramsey, probably slightly fearful of his own cup final place, came on the second half and looked hell-bent on scoring with a serious of excellent forward bursts in a lively cameo. He was incredibly unlucky to see two shots come back off the post, the second of which was brilliantly saved by Myhill.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain got minutes off the bench when it’d been expected that we might not see him again this season. He’s had an impressive season, and was one of the main positives in the slightly random form earlier in the campaign. After Walcott’s goal-laden burst on Sunday, it’s likely that the Ox will only be needed as a substitute, but it’s another good option for Arsene Wenger to have at his disposal at Wembley.
West Brom didn’t really have anything to play for, and there want too much pressure on Arsenal, but even though the cup final will be a completely different beast, it was great to see Arsenal get some zip and clinical finishing back in their attacking. It was a good end to a satisfactury season, and confirmed Arsenal finished a place higher than the previous campaign to secure a Champions League group stage place. Ultimately though, it will be events at Wembley on Saturday that will determine if this season is deemed a successful one or not.

Another blank as Arsenal stutter towards Wembley

After the 0-0 draw with Chelsea, the 1-0 defeat to Swansea and the mediocre 1-1 draw with Manchester United, it felt like Arsenal had lost some momentum towards the end of the season following the excellent winning run. What was needed was a morale boosting goal-fest that can sometimes come if there is pressure off near the end of the campaign. Unfortunately, Sunderland very much had the pressure on, and secured the draw they needed to avoid relegation with a 0-0 draw.
It was the third home game in row without a goal for the Gunners, although I don’t think they’ve come up against three more defensively minded teams during the season than Chelsea, Swansea and Sunderland. All three, especially in the second halves, showed little interest in trying to score, with only Swansea managing it with their only shot on goal. All three teams played with two or three holding midfielders sticking tight in front of their centre-backs, congesting the edge of the penalty area, and giving Arsenal very little space to create any openings.
The biggest concern for Arsenal is that having come up against the same tactics, they still haven’t worked out a way of breaking through. In all the games, one of the most promising spells came against Sunderland as the Gunners worked the ball wide and looked to attack down the right with either Hector Bellerin or Theo Walcott using their pace. But that only came later in the game, as once again, a central midfielder was deployed on the right, with Jack Wilshere notionally playing as the right winger.
With the left-footed Wilshere cutting in from the right, and the right-footed Alexis Sanchez cutting in from the left,  the centre of the pitch merely got more congested around the edge of the area. Any real space was out on the flanks, but Arsenal didn’t exploit it enough until later in the game. As previously mentioned on this blog, playing a central midfielder on the right can work if the opposition aren’t going to sit so deep and close off the space around the box, but when a game is crying out for some width to create space in the middle by manouevring the defence around, it’s frustrating to watch as it makes it easier for the defensive team when everyone looks to go through the middle.
Certainly for Chelsea and Sunderland, their positions in the league meant that playing for a 0-0 was to be expected, and a lot of teams won’t be as defensive next season. But it’s something for Arsene Wenger to ponder over the summer, as other teams will look to play that way more often against Arsenal having seen others get results that way. The onus is on Arsenal to try and pick the lock and find a way through.
While the 0-0 draw was frustrating, at least Arsenal didn’t get hit by a sucker-punch on the counter attack. Laurent Koscielny’s pace helped eliminate a lot of danger, while David Ospina made some good saves in the second half to deny Steven Fletcher.
Theo Walcott looked lively when he came on, partly because he offered Arsenal something different, and also because he actually got his head up and looked to use his pace to take on his opponents on a couple of times. Had his finishing been sharper, he may well have won the game for the Gunners, but that should come with more regular playing time. It was also one of those night where every bounce of the ball seemed to go Sunderland’s way, as the visitors had to ride their luck to make it through the game unscathed.
I expect Arsene Wenger will make changes to the team against West Bromwich Albion to keep players fresh for the FA Cup final. Tomas Rosicky also had a lively cameo with Walcott, and both should be given an opportunity on Sunday as the likes of Cazorla and Giroud looked fatigued against the Black Cats. Hopefully that will reinvigorate some of the players, because at the moment, optimism among supporters is slowly dropping off ahead of the trip to Wembley. With third virtually secure because of the goal difference to Manchester United, Arsenal can relax on Sunday, so hopefully the overdue end-of-season goal fest will follow to send everyone to Wembley feeling better about the world. Fans at the Emirates have now waited long enough for another goal to celebrate.
Finally, a word on the officiating on Wednesday evening. I don’t like writing about this as it shouldn’t detract from Sunderland’s committed defending and Arsenal’s inability to break them down. The odd decision here and there wasn’t the reason Arsenal didn’t win the game. But, it’s embarrassing how Anthony Taylor always seems to lose control of a game he referees in some way. On Wednesday night, understandably, Sunderland weren’t keen to get on with the game because of wanting to get a 0-0 draw, but some of the time wasting, particularly from the goalkeeper, was ridiculous. There were needless injury stoppages, corners that took ages and all sorts of time wasting methods thrown in for good measure. To only add three minutes at the end of the match for stoppages was almost an insult to the paying supporters, let alone the players who were trying to win the game. Refereeing is a tough job, but it needs tough characters who will actually be willing to book someone for obvious time wasting, therefore stopping it for the rest of the game having laid down the law, and who will add the right amount of time at the end of the game. Otherwise, you’ll continue to get farcical officiating performances that have been all too common in the Premier League this season.