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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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.


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Some Good, A Lot of Bad – Grading Arsenal’s Forwards

On a strangely happy day for soccer fans – seriously, can you think of something stranger to celebrate than the head of a company resigning in a corruption scandal? – Sepp Blatter finally succumbed to all the pressure on his place as president of FIFA. It’s good news that he’s leaving, but things will only get worse for FIFA in the coming months as more and more gets revealed. This is but the first step in cleaning up a colossal mess.

But my focus today is on wrapping up Arsenal’s season. This will be the first in a three part series grading the Arsenal squad on their season, and commenting on what might be expected from everyone going forward. Today, I will look at the forwards. Grades are based both on performance and expectation. So a B from player X does not mean necessarily that they had a better season than player Y, who had a B-. But rather, player X had a better season taking expectations into account.

Chuba Akpom – B- – The English starlet made the jump to the first-team this year, which in itself is an achievement for the 19 year old. However, he made just seven brief substitute appearances before finishing up the season on loan at Nottingham Forest on loan. He did well in his time on the pitch, earning a penalty against Aston Villa, but must have hoped to have forced his way into the side more than he did. His major success might have been signing a new contract. Next year is a crucial year in his development, and surely if playing time is not a guarantee at the big club, he should be loaned out for regular action for a lower-half Premier League side.

Joel Campbell – D – Much was expected from the Costa Rican after his strong showing at the World Cup, but he was hardly a part of Arsene Wenger’s plans, not starting a single Premier League match. And when given a rare opportunity in the cups, he wasn’t able to convert the chances. For a 23 year old, seven appearances is not enough. A January loan to Villareal gave him a shot at playing time, but one goal in 14 appearances won’t help his cause. I fully expect him to be sold this summer, even if the price is well below what it would have been a year ago.

Olivier Giroud – B+ – People have a lot of strong opinions about the French striker, but regardless of whether you like him or not, he is a consistent player. 19 goals is not a bad tally by any means, especially considering how much time he missed at the beginning of the year. In his third year at the club, he looked more comfortable, and began to win the fans over, winning the Player of the Month Award in March. But a late season swoon saw him lose out on a place to Theo Walcott for the FA Cup Final. And the questions that have always haunted him have arisen once again and will continue all summer. Is he truly good enough to win a title with? Fair or not, fans are more likely going to remember all the misses against Monaco rather than the goals against both Manchester clubs. If another striker is bought as is rumored, I think Giroud will have a hard time seeing the field next year. And if I’m the Frenchman, I might think about finding another club when I’m still in my prime. All the criticism must get old when he continues to score goals.

Serge Gnabry – F – One of the great mysteries to me of this season is why Gnabry’s year-long injury was never fully explained. Twice, he came back to training, in October and March, but neither time did he come close to seeing the field for the first team. Given the talk of him stealing a spot on Germany’s World Cup winning squad not 14 months ago, there was strangely little said about Gnabry’s continued absence. The situation is not unlike Jack Wilshere’s, when he missed a full season due to injury at a similar age. But let’s hope the road to recovery is not as long for Gnabry. He needs a big year next season to right his career that was filled with so much promise a year ago.

Lukas Podolski – C- – As a self-professed fan of Podolski’s, I was particularly unhappy that he wasn’t given more of a chance this year. With no Premier League starts to his name even when many up front were out injured, he justifiably sought greener pastures at Inter Milan in January on a loan deal. At Inter, he struggled, scoring a lone goal. But I won’t use that as justification for not getting him on the pitch in the first half of the year. A World Cup winner with his left foot should not have been relegated to the bench. Not figuring out a place for Podolski might be Wenger’s biggest failure in recent years. I’m sure I’ll get to write a farewell piece about the #9 soon, but let’s not forget all the goals he scored, including a matchwinner in extra time against Anderlecht this year. This season was a downer for Podolski, but he still rooted passionately for the club on social media like a true Gooner.

Alexis Sanchez – A – With all the expectations on him from the moment he signed, Alexis was a revelation at Arsenal this year, scoring 25 goals and providing 9 assists. When Arsenal needed goals in the fall, he provided them, often in spectacular form, and his drive and motor impressed nearly everyone. And despite tiring as the season wore on, he played nearly every match, stepping up time after time with big performances, including a marvelous goal in the FA Cup Final. Once he and Mesut Özil figured out how best to combine, they were a lethal duo behind the main striker. After a successful first year at the club, expectations will be even higher next year. But the Chilean’s best days are in front of him still.

Yaya Sanogo – C -You may forget Sanogo led the line in Arsenal’s successful FA Community Shield, playing a part in the first two goals. But despite success in the preseason and many opportunities at the beginning of the year, he didn’t really succeed when things mattered. He finally got his first goal – and an important one at that – against Borussia Dortmund. But that goal didn’t open the floodgates for more like many were hoping for, perhaps due to injuries that slowed him late in 2014. He finished the year at Crystal Palace, where he didn’t play as big a part in their survival as he would have hoped. You wonder what sort of future he has at Arsenal. It’s a good thing Wenger seems to like him.

Theo Walcott – C+ – Walcott would have received an F were it not for a final week of the season that might have saved his Arsenal career. From his return in October, he seemed far from the manager’s plans, rarely given a start. And when he was on the pitch, he was skittish in front of goal. But all of that will be forgotten because Wenger gave him a chance in the final week. A season marred by a long injury recovery and missed chances will now be remembered for a final-day hat-trick and the opening goal in the FA Cup Final. Suddenly, he looks like a viable center forward option. And a contract extension seems to be on the cards.  It was an awfully long year for the English speedster, but one that may be the turning point in his career.

Danny Welbeck – B- – After a full year in Arsenal colors, I still don’t quite know what to make of Welbeck. The talent is clearly there. And he brings a lot to the side, with his impact generally being positive. But I’m not sold on his being good enough to start long-term unless he improves dramatically next year. Eight goals in 35 appearances simply isn’t good enough, even when considering many of his starts came on the wing. He had his moments to remember in his first year. A hat-trick against Galatasaray and a winner at Old Trafford against his old club will stand out. But the fact that he was goalless in the Premier League in the 2015 calendar year won’t sit well with many, who expected more from the new signing. An injury kept him off the pitch for the month of May, but it was in many ways a fitting way to a frustrating first season at the club. Welbeck will have to do a lot of work to get back into the side in August.


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She Wore a Yellow Ribbon Indeed – Analysis & Player Ratings from Arsenal’s FA Cup Final Rout

Days like this one are rare for an Arsenal fan. From the opening whistle to the final one, there was absolutely no doubt or fear among the players. They knocked the ball around the pitch with complete confidence and had smiles on their faces as they raced towards the corner flag with each successive goal. And as a fan, it made for the most enjoyable 90 minutes I’ve experienced in recent years. Another year. Another trophy.

4-0 was a completely deserved scoreline for Arsenal. Not a player on the team played a poor match. It took some time to find the opening goal through Theo Walcott, but Aston Villa never looked like they were a threat. And once Alexis Sanchez sealed the deal with an absolute firecracker early in the second half, it was a full-on party. Per Mertesacker and Olivier Giroud added to the tally, but this game was about the whole rather than the parts.

The passing through the midfield was slick. The flicks were seamless and easy, and nearly every cross-field pass found its mark. I’m not sure Arsenal played a more complete game all year. Arsene Wenger gambled with selections of Theo Walcott and Wojciech Szczesny, but both contributed mightily to the win.

I struggle to name a man of the match because there were so many players on top of their game. Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Özil, Santi Cazorla, Laurent Koscielny, even Wojciech Szczensy all deserve it, and I easily could have added more names to that list. But more importantly, they all leave with winner’s medals and a giant trophy that can now call the Emirates home.

There could not be a better way to go into the summer than coming off of a high like this. For never has this group of players showed so much potential. Money can be spent this summer to complete the team, but it doesn’t have to make it. This is a special group of players and the talent is palpable in the final third. This is a team that not only can challenge in England but also has the potential to make a run in Europe. It will take many months of performances like this one. But with a few top-class signings, this team can turn heads next year.

For many of these players, it’s been more than a year since they’ve had a proper rest with national team obligations. So apart from Sanchez, who has to participate in the Copa America, everyone should be back in July ready to go. There won’t be any World Cup hangover that derails a season before it starts. And more importantly, players like Theo Walcott and Jack Wilshere can work on getting healthy.

So as this season comes to a close, be thankful for yet another triumphant end to what was a frustrating season at times. Be thankful that this group of players has finally become healthy. Be thankful for Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Özil. And be ready for a fun 2015-2016 season. A trophy sure help morale.

Player Ratings (1-10)

Theo Walcott – 7.5/10 – Walcott justified Wenger’s selection with a magnificently struck goal late in the first half. He’d been in and out of play, but had already been a part of a couple of chances at that point. Anybody watching his celebration could see this is a man who wants to stay. He might have added a second with a series of chances once the game was decided, but on the whole, it was a performance that showed just how bright a future he still has.

Alexis Sanchez – 9/10 – Sanchez’s goal was a thing of absolute beauty, the strike dancing from left to right as it cut through the air. He worked ever so hard with what little energy he has left in the tank. And in addition to his goal, he played a crucial part in the opener, winning the header over Richardson which he sent across goal towards Walcott.

Mesut Özil – 8.5/10 – Özil silenced those who say he hasn’t shown up to the big games with a wonderful performance. All his movements were graceful, and he was involved in setting up chance after chance. Sure, he may drift or float or whatever you want to call it, but almost every pass puts his teammates in a better position. Surely all doubts about Arsenal’s record signing will be forever gone.

Aaron Ramsey – 7/10 – Ramsey played a typical Ramsey game. Combative in the midfield with a lot of late runs into the box, he seemed to be everywhere. He didn’t provide much cover for Bellerin on the right, but thankfully, that was hardly needed.

Santi Cazorla – 9/10 – Cazorla hit some brilliant cross-field balls and showed off his touch with some slick passing in tight spaces. He was orchestrating nearly everything. Cazorla has found a home further back on the pitch in a more Pirlo-like role this year and has adapted his game beautifully. And his set-pieces were top-class today.

Francis Coquelin – 8.5/10 – Not normally lauded for his passing, Coquelin played a great ball to Walcott that set up the opening goal. It was fitting that he was the player who received Walcott’s biggest hug after the goal. For Coquelin changed this team for the better in December. His bite in midfield was fully on display once again, although he was lucky not to have given away a late free kick to Agbonlahor.

Nacho Monreal – 7/10 – Assured in the back, Monreal had another high-quality game typical of his season. On the ball, he had energy, driving up the pitch and bombing down the left, and it was his cross that found Sanchez at the back post in the lead up to the first goal.

Laurent Koscielny – 8.5/10 – Koscielny was at his best today, cleaning everything up that came his way with interceptions and vital off-balance clearances. And he was winning headers on both sides of the pitch too.

Per Mertesacker – 7.5/10 – After what felt like a year of unsuccessful corners, Mertesacker finally knocked one in for Arsenal’s third, dropping off of Benteke to head home. Defensively, he wasn’t as involved as Koscielny was, but he too was composed and quick to the ball when needed.

Hector Bellerin – 7/10 – Bellerin was relatively quiet, but had a solid all-around game. Left isolated against Grealish, he was never really beaten. It was an incredibly calm display from the young Spaniard in his first Wembley start.

Wojciech Szczesny – 8/10 – Commanding and confident. Those are the only two words needed to describe Szczesny’s performance. The latter adjective is often cited as a negative for the goalkeeper, but today his confidence helped him control the game. He was quick to punch, and one particular soaring hit above Benteke was particularly un-Ospina-like. He may have whiffed on one or two, but on the whole he was excellent.

Substitutes

Olivier Giroud (77th) – 7.5/10 – Desperately unlucky not to start (although it was the decision I wanted) Giroud got a redeeming late goal with another clever flick at the near post. I wonder if he stays at the club should another striker be brought in.

Jack Wilshere (77th) – 7/10 – He made a couple of impressive, determined runs through the midfield, and will think himself unlucky not to have started. A summer of rest is on the cards so he can be fit and firing come next season.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (90th) – 7.5/10 – He didn’t see much of the ball, but got himself an assist in only three minutes of action. He will be glad to have gotten a late run-out.