In years to come, other Arsenal strikers are likely to surpass the 30 Premier League goals and 37 overall scored by Robin van Persie during the 2011-12 campaign. But all will struggle to emulate the immense individual contribution of the Dutchman in rescuing a season which began so poorly for Arsenal.
It’s easy to eulogize about De Kapitein’s achievements. Robin scored a staggering league high 40% of Arsenal’s goals, netted against all but two opponents (City and Fulham) and won Man of the Match awards once every 3 games. It wasn’t only his goal scoring prowess which was noteworthy though, the tweet below shows his overall involvement in Arsenal’s attacking play.
What the numbers fail to show is the sheer beauty of some of the goals he scored. The curler to level the match against Spurs, the equalizer against Newcastle at home and the volleys against Everton and Liverpool to seal victory were absolute gems scored under pressure. The short compilation below will help refresh the memory of some of these works of art.
Robin’s contribution off the pitch was crucial as well. After the early shocks at United and Blackburn, Arsenal had to dig deep to ensure they didn’t implode and Van Persie’s contribution as captain has to be applauded. Somewhat surprisingly, even for his manager, he took on the responsibility with an earnestness that you wouldn’t have associated with a younger wilder Robin.
Theo Walcott had his most involved season at Arsenal yet, starting as many as 32 games in the league. Like Van Persie, Theo also benefitted from a long run without injury and his link up play with the captain improved as the season progressed – in fact, Walcott-to-Van Persie was the most common assist-to-goal combination in the league this season (6 times – stat courtesy @OptaJoe).
While Walcott made some key contributions in important games, he hasn’t really shown the progression one would expect from him at this stage of his career. The table below compares his Premier League performance in 2011-12 against the previous season based on certain passing and attacking attributes.
As we can see, Walcott certainly established himself as a regular starter but as we go down the list, there aren’t any real areas where there is a marked improvement – in fact there is regression in certain areas. For e.g. it took Theo almost twice the amount of time to score a goal this season than it did the last.
Of course, everything cannot be explained purely by statistics. What the numbers don’t show is the threat of Walcott’s pace. Even when he’s not contributing actively, opposition defenses are wary of getting turned over and are forced to protect Arsenal’s right from counter attacks, which reduces their potency going forward. Having said that, Walcott has struggled against teams that defend well and with his experience, he needs to bring more to the party than just raw pace.
In my opinion, Gervinho did reasonably well for his first season in England. He was very influential in the early part of the campaign, especially after the Spurs loss in September. In the six games following that defeat at Shite Hart Lane, the Ivorian assisted six times and scored once himself in Arsenal’s 10-game unbeaten run. Since the interruption of the African Cup of Nations, it’s fair to say that the striker has not been as impressive although his performances in the last few matches of the season suggested he was rediscovering his form.
As Gervinho was essentially brought in as replacement for the wide berth occupied by Samir Nasri, I have compared the Ivorian’s first season with Nasri’s last in the table below.
Certainly, Gervinho has not been as involved as Nasri was last season, with attempted open play passes, minutes per accurate cross and mins per chances created all in favour of the departed Frenchman. We have to bear in mind two things though – one, Nasri had his best season for Arsenal in 2010-11 and two, Gervinho is much more direct and not in the playmaker mould, which means he sees much less of the ball.
Considering this, the Ivorian’s involvement in 10 goals is impressively just one short of what Nasri managed, although Gervinho played only about two-thirds of the time. Of course, Gervinho also displayed some poor decision-making and that’s an area he must improve on. For the positions he gets into, the quality of his final ball or finish leaves a lot to be desired. If he can put that right, there is no reason he can’t hit double figures for goals scored next season.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was used sparingly by the manager during the first half of the season, but the Englishman has gradually made more appearances since the turn of the year. The youngster weighed in with 4 goals and a couple of assists in the 15 starts and 11 sub appearances, his best performance coming in the 3-0 defeat of AC Milan at the Emirates where he was very impressive in the first half while playing through the middle.
Still, Arsene has not played the youngster as much as many fans would have liked. I believe one reason for this caution was to avoid a Wilshere-type injury. Another could be Oxlade-Chamberlain’s lack of defensive awareness at this stage of his career. In a season where more than two-third of Arsenal’s matches were either drawn or decided by a single goal (stat courtesy DesiGunner) and the Gunners already looking vulnerable in defense, Arsene probably felt he did not have the luxury of letting the Ox loose while leaving the stable door open.
Marouane Chamakh continued to slip spectacularly off the Arsenal radar. One start in the Premier League and just the one goal in only 16 appearances meant the Moroccan really had no impact on Arsenal’s season. With Robin in terrific form throughout the season and Arsene unwilling to play 4-4-2, even Chamakh’s substitute appearances came late in games and mostly when Arsenal were chasing or drawing games, more a sign of desperation than tactical planning.
The other striker, a certain Ju-Young Park has literally gone missing since the season ended, the Korean FA unable to trace his whereabouts. It’s fair to say that if it had happened earlier in the season at Arsenal, no one would have missed him for weeks, such was the dormancy of his first year at the Emirates.
Overall, Arsenal’s three forwards Van Persie, Walcott and Gervinho combined impressively throughout the season. Out of the 30 goals scored by RvP in the league, one-third were assisted by the other two. But for better finishing by Walcott and Gervinho, Arsenal would have scored more this season. Arsene Wenger will be acutely aware of retaining this understanding and continuity next season.
Lukas Podolski has already been signed as well, although Robin van Persie’s future is still not clear. It’s safe to assume that one or both of Chamakh and Park will exit the club. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is likely to be much more involved next season, while there is also the possibility of Ryo Miyaichi and Joel Campbell staking a claim for a spot in the squad. As for Walcott, his fate could be as much tied to Robin’s future at Arsenal as the role AW sees the Ox playing in next season.
There are so many combinations possible at the moment that it’s futile to speculate what Arsene Wenger might do. Once the RvP situation is resolved post Euro 2012, we should have more clarity on how Arsenal will shape up in attack next season. Even if he stays though, it’s unlikely the Dutchman will be able to match this season’s tally so it’s essential for the other strikers to step up and increase their goal contribution in the forthcoming campaign.
Be back tomorrow with more thoughts.