Wild American Gooner

When Sports Are More Than Just Sports


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Emirates Cup Day 1 Recap – The Gunners Aren’t Messing Around

After trips to Wimbledon and The Open in recent weeks, the Emirates Cup felt like something straight from Mars yesterday. Seated firmly in among the hooligans behind the goal, my friend and I got the flip side of the British sporting experience. Preseason or not, the Emirates crowd and the team on the pitch turned the welcome-back outing into an absolute party.

This was my second ever trip to the Emirates, so for me, the magic of being there was still fresh. Walking into the stadium and getting a look at the immaculate grass still gave me the rush of a newcomer. And where last time my dad and I were comfortably on the club level, this time I ended up in the thick of the crazed fans. I certainly prefer the former experience in most ways, but I’m glad I can now understand what it’s like behind the goal. I don’t think I’ll be able to get “What do you think of Tottenham?” out of my head before Christmas. The kid in front of me who looked stunningly like Syndrome from The Incredibles made sure I had every vulgar chant imprinted before halftime.

Given an entire warmup game between Wolfsburg and Villareal to get ahead on drinking, the crowd was in a great mood when Arsenal finally took the field. But what got everyone so energized was the return of Nicklaus Bendtner, the self-proclaimed greatest player in the world and former Arsenal talent at the end of the opening game. Maybe in jest more than in sincere admiration, Bendtner was loudly greeted upon his entrance, and got loud shouts every time he touched the ball.  It was wonderfully entertaining.

With the exception of seeing that Petr Cech wasn’t going to play, I was pleased with the team yesterday. From where I was sitting, twenty rows up behind the goal in the North End, we had a spectacular view of the action on our end. And thankfully, in the first half, Arsenal headed towards us. What immediately stood out to me was the movement of Mesut Özil. Normally, when somebody is described as floating on a sports field, that is a bad thing. But the ease and fluidity with which Özil moved up and about the pitch was stunning. I’m certainly an Özil lover, but seeing him in person and up close made me appreciate how good of a player he is on another level.

The first twenty-five minutes went by uneventfully. Arsenal seemed to be going through the motions, and Lyon somehow had the best chance. Alex Iwobi was impressive on the left flank, but he looked indecisive in the final third and afraid to shoot. Then, after Özil broke free and saw a shot blocked from close-range, things really got going. The first goal from Olivier Giroud was typical. A straight-forward set-piece ended up in the back of the net after Giroud missed the ball with his head, as his shoulder did the work instead, looping it into the top corner. Say what you want about the man, but he’s going to get his fifteen to twenty goals. I’m certainly not opposed to upgrading, but he’s pretty reliable when it comes down to it. Also, I’m glad I finally know na-na-na Giroud is sung to the tune of Hey Jude. It makes so much sense now.

Minutes later, a brilliantly worked counter-attack led by Aaron Ramsey and held up perfectly by Giroud saw Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain sent through on goal. Blowing by defenders all game, the Ox calmly slotted the ball into the far corner with his right boot. The celebrations in our end hadn’t yet ended when but a minute later, Ramsey threaded a ball through to Iwobi, who powered it into the goal. Where most players had muted celebrations in this preseason friendly, Iwobi boosted the atmosphere with a jubilant slide in front of the corner flag. His teammates might give him a hard time, but that endeared him to me all right. Suddenly, the crowd was only interested in celebrating. Our Arsenal were back.

And before we could settle down, Özil set up another with a perfect ball into Ramsey’s path, with a deft flick off the outside of his foot nestling into the net. 4-0. I couldn’t have asked for more excitement on our end as the goals flooded in right in front of us. Arsene Wenger is going to have tough choices to make in the midfield all season. But one thing that is entirely clear is that Özil and Ramsey need to be on the field together. They seem to have a second-sense for where the other is going to be. And the Ox is going to have a special season if he stays healthy.

Once the action went to the other end and the substitutions came in droves, the game was a bit harder to follow, especially as the drunkards around us were all turned around trying to think of the next song to sing. My friend, a D-1 cross-country and track runner, was particularly interested in watching Per Mertesacker’s dinosaur-like movements. She had asked in the first half whether everybody out there could run a sub-5 mile, and I guessed yes with one exception. After watching him intently for a while, I don’t know if he could break 6. But none of that distracted from the magnificence of Özil, which continued with the fifth goal. And by the time Santi Cazorla cheekily went under the wall with his “weak” left foot for the sixth goal, we’d all come to the conclusion for the day that our team is a good one.

Of course, that assessment could change rather quickly. Next Sunday’s date with Chelsea looms as a potential bubble-burster for all the optimism, but for the moment, it’s quite nice dreaming of a title-winning side. I’d have more to say on personnel and their performances, but from where I was, it was hard to judge a player fully, though I suspect most would be rated quite highly.

Before the match, I ended up going with a gold Francis Coquelin jersey, much to the kit personalizer’s dismay. Somehow Coquelin isn’t on file in the Arsenal store yet – nor is Hector Bellerin – so the attendant had to carefully cut out and measure each letter individually before carefully placing them on the shirt and heat-pressing them on. Coquelin might seem an odd choice, but I am confident he will remain firmly in the side and I like that he wears Boston’s number of choice, 34. Plus I always like to be different with my favorite players and jerseys, and Coquelin certainly fits along with the middle relievers and second-unit Celtics I’ve adored. With Wilshere, Özil and Coquelin shirts now at my disposal, I should be ready for any match-day.

All in all, the return to the Emirates proved to be a grand celebration of what’s to come. If Özil can stay healthy, there is enough talent around him to make this team extremely competitive. It may just have been preseason, but 6-0 against a decent Lyon side is a statement of intent. The Gunners aren’t messing around this year.


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What I’m Watching at the Emirates Cup

Now back from a memorable five day trip to Scotland, I’m getting fully pumped up for the Arsenal season to start. Tomorrow will be the first of three straight weekends I’ll see the Gunners play before I head back to the states. While the Emirates Cup may only be a preseason match, that hasn’t tempered my excitement for my second ever trip to the Emirates. Getting to see Wolfsburg take on Villareal beforehand is a welcomed bonus for what should be a fun day. (Can we also note how weird the marketing for the event is this year? Those robot eyes are downright creepy.)

There’s been relatively little in the last few days about the squad for the tournament, so anything about who the team will be is merely guesswork at this point. The starting XI I’d like to see would be Cech, Bellerin, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal, Coquelin, Wilshere, Ramsey, Özil, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Walcott, but I suspect it’ll be a mixture of presumed starters and squad players. But given that this isn’t my only chance to see the team this summer, I’ll be happy with whoever is out there.

The depth across the board right now is truly ridiculous, as Arsene Wenger could field two legitimate XIs without having to dip into the academy. We could just as easily see Ospina, Debuchy, Gabriel, Chambers, Gibbs, Arteta, Flamini, Welbeck, Cazorla, Rosicky and Giroud. And that’s before factoring in the likes of Serge Gnabry, Gedion Zelalem and Chuba Akpom, who probably will feature in some role this weekend. I haven’t even mentioned Alexis Sanchez, who will be returning from his post-Copa America holiday at the start of August. That depth is a large reason why I’m so optimistic about the season right now.

While Manchester United and Liverpool have been throwing around the cash, Arsenal has quietly built a very strong squad around their marquee signings of the last few years. Liverpool and United both still have obvious holes in defense, but the Gunners squad has none. Even at forward and in the defensive midfield role, Arsenal have two or three legitimate options. I’m not saying Wenger couldn’t add an even better player in the coming month, but any other business in the transfer window would augment an already strong squad. Even Chelsea is looking a little thin in midfield right now.

As far as this weekend, it’ll be a vital last bit of a rushed preseason before the FA Community Shield next weekend, which while many call it a glorified friendly, I doubt Wenger will want to lose to Jose Mourinho again. He will have his team ready. So this weekend then offers the final chances to many to impress. The name being thrown around the media this week as needing a strong Emirates Cup is Chuba Akpom. While I agree, I don’t think he will start a game given how close we are to meaningful games. If he isn’t loaned out, he will be required consistently to make immediate impact off the bench if he wants to contribute. So perhaps bringing him on late would be better preparation. I just don’t see a scenario in which he is starting Premier League games this campaign.

For me, the player with the most to prove is Mathieu Debuchy. With Debuchy being Wally Pipp’d last year by Hector Bellerin, he never got a chance to show his worth. Everybody seems to want Bellerin back in the side straightaway given how much promise he showed, but I wouldn’t bet against the French international Debuchy. If he shows he’s the same player he was at Newcastle in the early going, the right-back spot might be his to lose. I think we’ll see a lot of rotation between the two of them this season, but it will ultimately come down to form. Making a good impression in the final preseason games wouldn’t hurt.

I’m also quite interested in how Wenger sets up the midfield. Will he push Jack Wilshere wide again? Will he pair him with Aaron Ramsey in the middle? Where will Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott start? These are all crucial questions in the buildup to the season. Remember that last year Wenger deployed Tomas Rosicky as a false-9 in the first preseason games, so I’m not convinced he’ll stick with Wilshere out wide. However, one of he or Ramsey needs to play wide if they hope to start, because I don’t see Santi Cazorla being dropped next to Francis Coquelin. And up front, I’d stick with the Ox out wide and give Walcott another few chances through the middle. Altogether, we’ll learn a lot about Wenger’s thinking this weekend.

On another note, I’m thinking about getting a new jersey tomorrow to mark seeing Arsenal play a few times in person. I’m not especially in love with either the home or away though, so I’m going to wait to see them in person to make that choice. The next choice of which player to get though is even tougher. With Walcott’s contract status up in the air and Alexis likely sitting the three games I’m attending, I am now picking between Coquelin, Ramsey, Bellerin, and the Ox. I was given an Özil shirt from last year, so he’s out of the equation for this one. I’d go with Coquelin, but I’m afraid he won’t stick with the number 34 for long. I used to say Ramsey was my favorite player but I’m not so sure anymore. He’d be the safe choice. However, I might still be leaning Coquelin’s way. I might have to flip a coin between those two. If you have any advice, put it in the comments.

Anyway, this is a great time to be in England. Away from the miserable Red Sox and still able to follow all the NBA drama, I’m in the heart of soccer country as the season gets going. And by the time I get back it’ll be nearly football season. I get more excited about Bret Bielema’s Razorbacks every day. It’s always this time every year where I start watching Youtube videos of great Razorback games and listening to the networks’ college football theme songs. For the record, I think putting the offensive line on the media guide is extremely cool.

I can’t believe the news about the three Arkansas basketball arrested for forgery. Beyond being stunned by the impact to the program, I’m astounded by the stupidity of their actions. The evidence sounds pretty convincing to me, so I suspect they won’t play for the Hogs again and will spend the next few years in prison. What a shame.

Lastly, to end on a happier note, I want to congratulate former Davidson basketball star Tyler Kalinoski on signing with Elan Chalon in France. I can’t say I know much about that team, but they’ve got themselves a real winner and a heck of a basketball player.

I hope to write again this weekend about my day at the Emirates Cup tomorrow. Thanks for reading.


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Arsenal Excitement

Despite being in England, this was the first men’s final at Wimbledon I have missed in many years. I looked everywhere around Cambridge and online, but no success. So I can’t offer much analysis of that one.

However, in the heart of soccer country, the excitement is building quickly for the upcoming Premier League season.I’ve been checking everyone’s websites on the regular for updates on ticket info for games on the opening weekend. At the moment, the hope is to see Norwich-Crystal Palace on the opening Saturday and Arsenal-West Ham the following day. But all of that could quickly change if the games sell out too quickly. Wish me luck.

I do have a ticket to the opening day of the Emirates Cup secured, which I am extremely excited for. Every time I’ve rode the train to King’s Cross, the Emirates comes into view and I can’t help but smile. Because in less than two weeks, I’ll be there seeing the boys take the field, even if only for a preseason competition.

I wrote about this pretty extensively last year, but I love watching preseason games much more than the average person. To me they are fascinating for many reasons – foremost the chance to watch the youngsters like Gedion Zelalem and Chuba Akpom. Rarely do we get a chance to see the young talent mixed with the current team, and it provides a glimpse of what could be. Even when players like Kris Olsson and Thomas Eisfeld get sold, summer tours made me fall in love like with any other Arsenal player, so I continue to check up on them as they play elsewhere.

This season, I’m particularly interested to see Dan Crowley and to get an opportunity to see if the hype is for real. I’m quite skeptical at this point I must say, but I hope to be wowed. Zelalem and Akpom too need to make some sort of mark if only to remind Arsene Wenger that they have promising futures that deserve reward. Last year, Hector Bellerin helped claw his way into the mind of the manager with some confident preseason displays. Sure he wouldn’t have gotten a chance without the injuries, but because he’d already played well with many of the first-teamers in preseason, the transition was easier.

I haven’t yet written about any of the summer goings-on with the club, but that does not mean I wasn’t ecstatic about the arrival of Petr Cech. Unlike Iker Casillas, Victor Valdes and Pepe Reina, Cech doesn’t leave Chelsea a formerly great goalkeeper. He wasn’t let go because he was getting worse with age like the other three, who have all left their famed clubs in recent times. Rather, Cech was a victim of Thibaut Courtois’s brilliance last year, and was dropped through no fault of his own. We have no reason to believe he isn’t the top-5 goalkeeper he has always been. Getting him for only 11 million pounds is a steal.

For me, he is the automatic starter when healthy. And if Wojciech Szczesny is willing to take a back seat to learn from the veteran, everybody will be all the better for it. Szczesny would make for a top of the line backup. I feel as if David Ospina has to leave though. Having all three of them around wouldn’t foster competition so much as jealousy and unhappiness. It’s an interesting debate as to who Arsenal should keep around, but for me, the choice is clear if Szczesny is willing to be mature about being second choice.

I haven’t gotten too caught up in the transfer rumors recently, but that’s largely because I believe there won’t be another signing made. I wouldn’t be shocked if someone else came in, but looking at the squad as a whole, there is depth across the board at every position. Especially in the midfield and wide-forward areas, this team is loaded. The only positions I think could use extra help are striker and defensive midfielder. However, I wouldn’t buy a striker unless they were guaranteed to start over Oliver Giroud. And I wouldn’t buy a defensive midfielder that is going to start ahead of Francis Coquelin. He deserves a chance to continue his dominance in the side.

There are a number of interesting choices Wenger will have to make from day one. But I wonder if he’ll finally feel comfortable enough with his depth to make better use of squad rotation from game to game, something he really hasn’t done in recent years. Especially with Alexis Sanchez being so overworked, it wouldn’t be a bad thing if he started a game on the bench every now and then. Between Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Danny Welbeck and others, there are plenty of players who can fill in when needed.

The one I’ll be watching closely is the battle at right-back. If it were me, Bellerin would be first-choice until he falters. Again, I would rotate Mathieu Debuchy in every now and then, but I think Arsenal should mirror what Chelsea did with Cesar Azpilicueta and give the youngster a real chance to develop into a star at a young age. However, I think Debuchy will be preferred, if only because Wenger will want to redeem his buying the Frenchman. And don’t forget about old Carl Jenkinson. He wouldn’t be a bad option, though he’s likely off on loan again.

And lastly, this summer has seen the departure of some formerly beloved figures. It’s never easy to say goodbye, but for me, Lukas Poldoski was a favorite. I will always wonder what could have been had he really been given a chance to succeed. Nothing makes me happier than seeing a truly loyal athlete – one who loves their team and club as much as I do. And Podolski was that player. I’ll miss him dearly. And sadly, this was the end also for Abou Diaby. There is no story more tragic in football than his. I wish him only the best as he goes forward, and I hope Arsenal fans treat him as one of their one forever.

Until next time. Football season (of both kinds) is close.

 


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Bellerin and Monreal Earn Top Marks – Grading the Arsenal Defense and Keepers

After looking at the forwards and midfielders last week, today I examine Arsenal’s defenders and goalkeepers. Once again, grades are based not only on quality of play but on expectations. My next Arsenal post will cover what I think must be done in the summer transfer window. But for one last time, I look back today.

Much of the year was season in what was repeatedly labelled a defensive crisis. Between injuries, poor form and a lack of options, the fall was particularly ugly defensively. But considering all that, Arsenal’s defense ended up being one of the most consistent in the league that latter half of the year. A number of players stepped up as Arsenal made its move up the table.

Defenders

Hector Bellerin – A+ – When considering he was the fourth-choice right back during preseason, Bellerin’s rise is nothing short of remarkable, especially when considering he only turned 20 in March. Thrown into the fire at Dortmund in September amid the injury crisis, Bellerin’s potential was obvious if he was a little raw and undersized. But it wasn’t until Debuchy’s second major injury in January that he got a true run-out. When given the opportunity, the Barcelona product blossomed. Blessed with tremendous skill going forward, he learned the intricacies of defending quite quickly, impressing even against bigger teams that tried to isolate him. Making 17 Premier League starts, Bellerin has staked a claim on the right back position going forward. Arsene Wenger will have a hard time taking it away from him, even for the experienced Debuchy. It won’t be soon that we forget his left-footed curler that opened the scoring against Liverpool.

Calum Chambers – B – Two months Bellerin’s senior, Chambers’s season was a mirror of the Spaniard’s. Where Bellerin made his mark in the spring, Chambers’s 17 Premier League starts came in the fall. After a brilliant start to his Arsenal career when he won the club’s Player of the Month award for August, Chambers was almost forgotten about entirely in the spring.  Either at center back or at right back, he was confident in his reading of the game, and his poise was well beyond his years. But the new signing from Southampton faded dramatically in the second half of the year, rarely seeing the field beyond a minute or two at the end of a match. In total he made 36 appearances, which is probably more than was expected. Chambers’s versatility is considered a strength, but I think it might be hurting him in a way, as he is not often considered a part of the long term plans at any position right now. Despite making the same amount of starts as Bellerin and having early success, it’s hard to think of Chambers as quite as exciting a prospect.

Mathieu Debuchy – C- – Were it not for the success of his replacements, Debuchy’s debut season would be considered a massive failure. Making a grand total of 15 appearances due to two long-term injuries, the Frenchman wasn’t able to leave his mark on the team. The injuries were unfortunate, but disappointing nonetheless. And he’ll have a hard time taking his position back next season. However, Debuchy did impress me twice. His goal against Liverpool in December was key, as a loss there could have been catastrophic for morale. But more impressive was his performance at center back against Newcastle, when Arsenal badly needed a body in the middle. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him get more minutes at center back next year. He’ll be eager to put this year behind him.

Gabriel – B- – I don’t have much to say about Gabriel. His signing in January was a necessity given Arsenal’s poor health and lack of depth at center back in the early parts of the season, but thankfully, Mertesacker and Koscielny stayed healthy, and Gabiel wasn’t needed for the most part, making only 8 appearances and 5 starts. He seems to have the attributes needed for an EPL center back, so at this point, I would say the signing was a mild success. But I haven’t seen him play enough minutes to get a true reading on him. However, while he might be eager for a run in the side, we’re better off when the third-choice center back starts the game on the bench, so I’m not too eager for that chance.

Kieran Gibbs – B- – After such a promising fall that helped him get his first call-up to the England side since 2010, he’ll be massively disappointed to have lost his starting spot at left back this spring. However, it must be said, that Gibbs didn’t lose his spot due to poor performances, rather Monreal seized his chance. Gibbs’s strengths clearly are going forward, where he does an excellent job of getting to the byline. But his crossing lost a little edge without consistent starts. At age 25, he still has time to improve, but getting his spot back is crucial. That will be the battle of the summer come preseason.

Laurent Koscielny – A- – Koscielny has established himself as one of the Premier League’s best and most consistent defenders. Despite struggling with Achilles issues for much of the year, Koscielny battled with many of the top strikers around all year, beating them with his pace and strength. Quick to intercept and equally adept at making vital last-ditch clearances, Koscielny keeps getting better, even as he’s nearing his 30th birthday in September. He made 38 starts in all competitions on the year, scoring three goals. He looks to be a fixture in the heart of Arsenal’s defense for years to come.

Per Mertesacker – B – Mertesacker admitted recently that he knew he was in for a slow start to his season after capturing the World Cup for Germany last summer. And at times, he was quite bad. Never one for pace, he even seemed to lose the command for the game in the back. But Mertesacker slowly recaptured his form and was ever-present as Arsenal made its climb up the table. By the end of the season, he was back at his best. I think his role as fill-in captain proved vital as well, for without Mikel Arteta and amid all the turmoil, Mertesacker kept an ever-changing squad under control. I don’t know how many more good years the big German has in him, but it was encouraging to see the way he bounced back from a series of poor performances.

Nacho Monreal – A – A lightning rod for criticism in the season’s opening weeks as he filled in as an emergency center back, Monreal ended up being perhaps the most important member of Arsenal’s defense. Starting 26 games in the Premier League, Monreal’s assured displays helped stabilize a defense in disarray. Seizing the left back job from Gibbs, the Spaniard was a perfect match for the high-powered midfield. A slightly more conservative defender, Monreal allowed the midfielders to take chances with their positioning, but when brought into the attack, he showed off his skill as he found spaces down the left. His goal against Manchester United in the FA Cup Quarterfinal was my favorite goal of the season, and the emotion on the ensuing celebration was beautiful. Not many 5′ 10″ left backs would have volunteered to fill in at center back, but Monreal’s selflessness helped keep this team afloat. And better, it gave Monreal the run in the side he needed to recapture the form he was known for at Malaga.

Goalkeepers

Emiliano Martinez – B+ – The man formally known as Damian did much better in goal than I would have expected after watching him in his horror show against Reading a couple years ago. As the third-choice keeper, it could have proved a catastrophe that he had to make two big Champions League starts and 3 more in the Premier League. But he was solid, if unspectacular. Keeping clean sheets against Dortmund, Southampton and West Brom, he did well considering the circumstances, but was never commanding. I was not disappointed when he was restored to the bench. Despite his surprising success, I don’t want to see Martinez in goal for another important game. Quite simply, I don’t think he’s good enough for this level.

David Ospina – B+ – Ospina ended up making 22 starts this year in his debut season, many more than just about everyone would have expected, especially after a fall when he couldn’t stay healthy. In place of the benched Szczesny, Ospina was pretty good. He kept quite a few clean sheets, but most were down to good defense. I can’t think of a game off the top of my head when I was wowed by Ospina. Generally, despite the positive scorelines, I was underwhelmed, and never learned to trust him. I just don’t think he has the physical attributes to succeed in the Premier League. So despite his numbers, I hope he’s not back in goal next year. But I can’t fault him for his record.

Wojciech Szczesny – D – After an up-and-down fall, Szczesny was benched for the remainder of the year after smoking in the locker room after defeat to Southampton. In his fifth year as the primary keeper at Arsenal, his failure to learn from his continued mistakes off the pitch is disappointing to say the least. He clearly has talent – even in his demise, he led the team to winning the FA Cup in goal – but he doesn’t have the mentality of a first-class keeper. And maybe it’s our fault for ever thinking he could learn. At this point, I don’t quite know what to do with him. I’ve always admired his confidence, but at this point, I think it’s time to cut our losses and ship him out. At some point, there must be consequences.

Disagree with any of my assessments? Please comment below.

 


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The Best Midfield in England – Grading Arsenal’s Midfielders

After looking at the forwards on Tuesday, I turn to the midfielders today. It was a strong performance from this group on the whole, as they became the best midfield in England in the latter part of the season with Francis Coquelin, Santi Cazorla, Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Özil excelling.

Mikel Arteta – C – This C doesn’t stand for Captain. Unfortunately for the newly crowned captain, this was a season to forget. Arteta made only 12 appearances, picking up a series of muscle injuries that ultimately ended his season in November. When he was on the field, he was unconvincing. Out injuried, he was successfully replaced on three fronts. Per Mertesacker did admirably as fill-in captain, Santi Cazorla dispatched the penalties with aplomb, and Francis Coquelin was superb in Arteta’s defensive midfielder role. With all that going against him and with his being well on the wrong side of 30, his future at Arsenal is particularly murky.

Santi Cazorla – A- – Cazorla had a rough start to the year. A Premier League goal drought caused him to press and his overall play dropped. But a move to the middle of the park with Mesut Özil’s injury saw him get going. The diminutive Spaniard was then named club Player of the Month for both December and January as he moved to a deeper-lying role in the midfield. In that new role, he dazzled. One particular game at Manchester City was perhaps the individual performance of the season in the Premier League. The rest of the year, Cazorla was a delight to watch, working perfectly in partnership with Coquelin behind Özil. His expertise at the penalty spot was much needed in Arteta’s absence, and his set pieces led to quite a few goals. It must be noted as well that Cazorla missed only a single Premier League game. Overall, it was an excellent season from Cazorla. And going forward this is a role perfectly cut out for him as he ages.

Francis Coquelin – A+ – Not enough praise can be heaped on Coquelin for the way he transformed the Arsenal midfield upon his insertion in the team in late December. Everybody knows the story now, unwanted and unused, he was loaned out to Charlton in search of regular playing time. But to his chagrin, he was recalled when Arsenal needed bodies. To his surprise, he was given a start at West Ham, and from then on, was one of the first names on the teamsheet. On the field, he was magnificent in his defensive midfielder role, battling with players twice his size and routinely out-muscling them. He was mobile, aggressive and combative. And as he played, his passing improved too. His story is one that can give footballers everywhere hope. For despite being unwanted for the better part of three years, he seized the chance when it finally came. Everyone talked about how Arsenal needed to sign a DM. But Coquelin ended up being that player, only one without the price tag. Once an afterthought, Coquelin is now a big part of Arsenal’s future.

Abou Diaby – F – The sad story of Abou Diaby continued, with another full year lost to injuries. He played once in a Capital One Cup match in September, but was never fit the rest of the year. As tragic as his career has been, the reality is that it is time for Arsenal to let him go. He has been given a number of chances to get healthy and hasn’t been able to stay that way. He must know the end is near for his time at Arsenal.

Mathieu Flamini – C+ – At this point in his career, Flamini can’t be trusted to hold down a midfield against athletic teams. He is a step slow and too prone to gamble. After starting for much of the first half of the year with varying degrees of success, he was eventually replaced by Coquelin and was relegated to the role of late-game defensive cover. Many people think Flamini must be sold, but I think he has value in that role. He has accepted the role without complaint, and clearly loves the club. So why push him out the door? 15 Premier League starts is too many, but credit must be given to him for staying healthy and remaining an option on the bench. When he comes on, he provides stability. I say give him another year at the club.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – B – This was an interesting year for the Ox. In many ways, he began to fulfill the potential everyone has seen in him the last few years as he tore through midfields with marauding runs and blew by defenders down the right. But he struggled to lock down a place with various injuries and ended up making only 17 Premier League starts and 37 appearances in all competitions. He scored only three goals, albeit two were of massive importance, but that total will need to improve. As a player, he continues to become more dynamic year to year. But it’s fair to wonder when, or if, he’ll make the leap to that truly elite level. That will only come with consistency, which he has yet to find at Arsenal. Next year will be an important year for him, and he’ll be in a vicious fight for a place in the midfield.

Mesut Özil – A- – In Özil’s second season at the club, he finally silenced the critics that had dogged him for the better part of two years. Coming back a World Cup winner, Özil struggled as he played out of position on the left. So perhaps his injury against Chelsea in early October was for the best. As after a three-month absence, he was restored to the middle of the park and became increasingly impactful. And for the entire second half of the season, he was magnificent, creating chance after chance with silky link-up play. As he found comfort with Cazorla and Alexis Sanchez, he began hitting passes that were frankly unbelievable, with an especially pretty assist coming in the FA Cup semifinal. He even scored a marvelous free-kick against Liverpool. His goal and assist numbers from this year necessarily won’t blow you away, but don’t that fool you. Özil was a monster in the second half of the year. And best of all, you could see that he was enjoying himself again. I can’t wait to see what he does next year with a full summer of rest.

Aaron Ramsey – B+ – This season was always going to be a bit of a let down for Ramsey after his incredible 2013-2014 campaign. After a late matchwinner in the opening game against Crystal Palace, he struggled to make the same kind of impact, often straying far out of position to go for the types of goals he scored a year ago. But a couple of goals in December, including the goal of the year at Galatasaray offered a glimmer of hope before an injury sidelined him. When he returned in late January, he locked down a place on the right rather than his customary middle-of-the-park position, and there he found his form again. He finished with 10 goals to his name. Going forward, he is a vital piece of the squad with his goalscoring ability from midfield. Rumors of his wanting greener pastures will likely persist, but I’m confident he will remain at Arsenal for the foreseeable future.

Tomas Rosicky – B- – I am incredibly surprised that Rosicky signed on for another year at the club. A thorough professional and a player who always makes an impact when he sees the field, Rosicky got surprisingly little action this campaign. He made just 8 starts all year across all competitions, down from 25 the year before. And after publicly wondering aloud why he hadn’t been playing in the fall, he seized his chance in January with a couple terrific displays only to return to the bench for the rest of the season. And in a move I consider inexcusable, Arsene Wenger left him out of the squad altogether in the FA Cup Final. For his sake, I hope Rosicky finds a way to leave this summer, but for Arsenal’s sake, I hope the ever-reliable veteran stays forever.

Jack Wilshere – B – Every time Wilshere takes a step forward, he seems to take two steps back. This year, he put in a series of impressive displays through November, including a goal and an assist against Manchester City, but was again snakebitten by injuries the rest of the way. He made just 22 appearances this year, which is not enough for him as he continues to try to fulfill his potential. At age 23, he is still young enough to improve, but next year needs to be relatively injury-free. He can’t afford to have another 5-month injury, no matter whose fault the injury might be. The end of the season was quite positive for Wilshere, as he made a noticeable impact when he saw the field. His ability to pick up the ball and take it all the way through the opposing midfield is unrivaled. But soon, those glimpses of promise need to turn into consistent high levels of play. I hope he isn’t sold any time soon, because he can still be a game-changing player. But time is running out to prove Diaby isn’t his middle name.

Would you grade anyone differently? Please comment below.