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

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Giroud and Arsenal survive the post-Monaco hangover

Following a defeat as chastening and painful as the one suffered against Monaco last week, Arsenal were never going to be at their fluent best against Everton at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday. There were always going to be nerves, some apprehension and caution from the Gunners. Fortunately, Everton didn’t take advantage as Arsenal kept concentration and secured a good 2-0 win.
The man who’ll have had the most to worry about before the game was Olivier Giroud. In a team who all fell below the expected level against Monaco, Giroud’s wasteful performance up front stuck out horribly on Wednesday. His excellent form prior to the Champions League game saved his place in the side, and while there were a few more missed chances against the Toffees, the Frenchman opened the scoring just before half time with an excellent swept finish from Mesut Ozil’s corner.
Giroud was physical, looked to get involved and didn’t shirk responsibly, when other players could have gone into their shell after such a dreadful showing in his previous game. His usual good link-up play was off against Monaco, but his clever lay-offs and physical strength contributed to the majority of chances the team created against Everton, including an excellent flick-on that allowed Ozil the space to set up the clinching goal.
That clincher was scored by Tomas Rosicky, who reinforced his use to the squad by coming on at 1-0, when the team could have got nervous and sat back too deep, but his high-energy style pressured the visitors. After Rosicky hung back on the edge of the box just before the 90th minute, Ozil found the Czech with time to fire low at goal. The shot took a deflection off Phil Jagielka to go over Tim Howard, but after the blocks and deflections went against Arsenal against Monaco, it felt like the team deserved a bit of luck.
While Arsene Wenger kept faith with Olivier Giroud, the main team change came in the back four as Gabriel made his first Premier League start ahead of Per Mertesacker. Regular SMR readers and listeners will know of my admiration for Per Mertesacker, so I must admit to being slightly disappointed to not see him play. He was horribly exposed against Monaco, but that was partly down to the whole team being a bit kamakaze in the second half. Even so, given how he’s been a pillar of the team for the last few seasons, it was a surprise to see the Mertesacker-Koscienly partnership broken up. With doubts still existing about Laurent Koscielny’s achilles, who limped off slightly again at the end of the game on Sunday, I’m certain we’ll see the BFG back in sooner rather than later; if not against QPR on Wednesday, then I think he’ll play at Old Trafford in the FA Cup, where an experienced pairing will be useful. He’s played a lot of football in the last few seasons, so the occasional rest after a poor performance should do him good.
When he does play again, Mertesacker will know he has to perform to stay in the team, as Gabriel was impressive against the Toffees. There was a mistake in the first half where he needed to be bailed out excellently by David Ospina, and there was a loose pass in the second half that could have cost a chance, but he didn’t look overawed by his first full Premier League experience, especially against a powerful forward like Romelu Lukaku. The Belgian striker was on the end of a stunning last ditch tackle from the Brazilian in the first half, before there was a similarly no-nonsense style challenge on Ross Barkley that endeared him to the home fans.
Gabriel was in front of David Ospina, who kept his place after an iffy showing in the Champions League. The Colombian was much improved and made some excellent saves. As mentioned, his sweeper-keeping to bail out Gabriel and deny Lukaku was first class, as was his flying save from the same player in the second half. It was the sort of confidence-boosting performance he needed, and one that helped calm the rest of the team down on a day when things could have become very edgy.
Everton looked a shadow of the team that really tested the Gunners last season, but this was the sort of match Arsenal needed to rebuild some of the confidence lost in the Champions League. It strengthened the club’s position in the top four and kept the league momentum going. Realistically, knowing the type of match it was going to be, the 2-0 win was about as good as Arsenal fans could have hoped for.

Arsenal survive a crazy fourth round

When the fourth round draw was made for the FA Cup, it didn’t seem like the most exciting way the balls could have been pulled out the bowl. The majority of the top teams were playing lower league opposition and it seemed like they’d all get through comfortably. As it turned out, it was one of the best fourth rounds the FA Cup has ever seen, with Chelsea, Manchester City, Southampton, Tottenham and Swansea all suffering surprise (and in most cases hilarious) defeats, while Liverpool and Manchester United have to go through replays against lower league sides.
Considering the results that had gone previously, Arsenal will be relieved to have made it through to round five, despite the 3-2 victory at Brighton being closer than it should have been. For the majority of the game, Arsenal were in complete control of the game, kept the ball well, created chances and always looked dangerous going forward. The hosts from the Championship punished Arsenal’s two slack defensive moments, but couldn’t create a late chance to grab a replay.
Apart from obviously winning the game, the main positive for Arsene Wenger was the game time he was able to give Theo Walcott and Mesut Ozil, and that both players scored. Walcott has looked very rusty since returning from knee and groin injuries, and while he still made a few poor decisions that slowed down attacking moves at the AMEX, it was by far Walcott’s best appearance since his injury problems. It was helped by scoring so early in the game as he controlled Chambers’ ball into the box and fired into the bottom corner. Walcott’s misses this season have come from over-thinking the situation, but against Brighton, his finish was instinctive and crisp.
It knocked the stuffing out of Brighton early on as the hosts couldn’t build any moment in the first half. Arsenal passed the ball around beautifully, and it wasn’t a surprise to see the intricate passes bring the second goal. Normally the assist-maker, Mesut Ozil was on the receiving end of a cracking through ball from Tomas Rosicky, and the German showed no signs of rustiness to control well and clinically finish.
Considering the problems Premier League clubs had on Saturday, Arsenal were giving a lesson in how to avoid an upset on Sunday with a professional performance. But Brighton were reinvigorated in the second half, and lackadaisical play from Chambers, Flamini and Koscielny allowed O’Grady time and space to score. Having seen Chelsea blow a 2-0 lead on Saturday, everyone was waiting for the FA Cup fourth round to throw up another unlikely twist, but Tomas Rosicky had other ideas.
Given the captain’s armband in the absence of Mikel Arteta and Per Mertesacker, Rosicky constantly gave drove Arsenal forward with his bursts of pace and clever forward passing, but his most decisive contribution came at a time in the game when Arsenal could have panicked following Brighton’s first goal. Rosicky played an excellent blind pass to Giroud before volleying the chipped return in from the edge of the area. It was a quality goal, and showed how useful it is to have a player as good as Rosicky available to rotate in when needed. Having not played too often in the first half of the season, the Czech international brings a freshness to the team, and can be hugely important in the rest of the season with the FA Cup and Champions League still to play for.
Arsenal made things hard for themselves again by letting the hosts back in the game with 15 minutes to go. Nacho Monreal, filling in at centre-back with Per Mertesacker rested and arrival of Gabriel Paulista yet to be confirmed, got drawn out of the back four allowing Baldock in behind to clip the ball past Wojciech Szczesny.
The Gunners did see the game out well for the rest of the match as Francis Coquelin gave an impressive cameo performance off the bench as he helped sure up the midfield. Brighton couldn’t create a clear opportunity, and ultimately were fortunate to not concede more with some cynical fouls on Alexis Sanchez and Chuba Akpom when the Gunners broke away.
Ultimately, it was a job well done from Arsenal, even if it should have been more comfortable. Some key players were given a much-needed rest and others that needed minutes got them, and played well. It was notable that Arsene Wenger continued his cup-keeper policy of giving the second choice stopper a run-out, meaning Wojciech Szczesny was back between the sticks for the first time since his horror show at Southampton. He couldn’t do too much about the two Brighton goals, but otherwise went fairly untroubled because of the dominance the Gunners had for the majority of the game. Without being properly tested, Szczesny wasn’t able to put in a performance that is likely to dislodge David Ospina from the Premier League line-up against Aston Villa next weekend.
With other big sides out, Arsenal are now one of the favourites for the tournament, but whoever the draws picks out for the Gunners on Monday, this weekend has reinforced that nothing can be taken for granted in the FA Cup. In round four, Arsenal heeded the warnings of those who failed before them and hopefully will continue to do so as the tournament progresses.