Just like that, the Premier League closes its doors for the Summer. With the end of the season, comes the obligatory end of term reports. I’ve decided to start with what always becomes the most inflammatory and controversial aspect of these – the player ratings. For context, I begin from the perspective that 5/10 is the baseline ‘average’, and then move from there. Also, the ratings are for the individual concerned, and so based on the expectations of them and how I feel they’ve performed relative to that. Just because I award one a higher rating than another, it doesn’t mean I am saying they are definitively a better player. Ok? Good, I hope that will stem the tide of some of the Ozil fanboys, at least for a Fortnight.
Leno – 8
After a shaky start to his Arsenal career, the new signing, like his late-night host namesake, he has taken those criticisms on the chin to emerge from his debut season with real credit. He has been fundamental to Arsenal’s attempts to build play from the defensive third, which has perhaps been most evident when he hasn’t been in goal. Most impressive to me has been some key saves in matches that otherwise appear to have been a comfortable victory; although you should know, comfortable victories are a rarity for Arsenal. I think of Bournemouth, Southampton, Burnley, and Huddersfield at home in particular, where the German produced excellent saves when the dynamics of the game were in the balance. Given the defensive fragility, a goal at times like that often precipitates a collapse for the Gunners, but Leno has ensured as best he can, that some semblance of defensive order remains. He has definitely been the player I have noticed the biggest difference in since August, or at least in a positive way (stay tuned for the negative side later). My unsung hero of Arsenal’s season, and after years of struggling to nail down a sustainable man between the sticks, I am confident Leno is a keeper.
Cech – 5.5
Beginning the season as number one, his early attempts to adapt to Emery’s style felt like a visual representation of trying to teach an old dog new tricks. Apt then that at the end of the season he is being put out to pasture, joining the Chelsea pensioners to presumably teach Kepa how not to be a mouthy toddler. Although he technically lost his place in the starting line-up due to an injury, it felt like it was only a matter of time before Emery did the equivalent of a footballing mercy killing. This is not to say Cech has been completely awful the entire season. He has been extremely overworked, and at his age the fact that he looks increasingly slow to ground has meant the opposition has been able to exploit this weakness. Perhaps the biggest disappointment from me is the loss of command of the area. Previously, he stood out as a real leader in the Arsenal backline, and I very rarely saw him flap away at a high ball. This season, however, he has increasingly looked uncomfortable, unsure, and uncertain when previously you’d expect a keeper of his stature to feel assured. It feels like the right time for him to retire, and a Europa League medal against his former side would be a nice way to end what has been a spectacular career.
Bellerin – 7.5
A fashion-forward presence off the pitch, Bellerin’s early season contribution typified the in vogue attacking fullback. His pace and delivery were pivotal to the attacking strategy of utilising the overlapping width and delivering a low cross into the box. Such was Bellerin’s good form he even made Mkhitaryan a viable fantasy asset for at least two weeks; I’m not sure praise gets much higher than that. His defensive contribution had improved too, which had been the major area of stagnation under the previous manager. Struggling with his positioning in the new system initially, he quickly adapted after a slightly shaky start against Manchester City and Chelsea to become the most reliable player in Arsenal’s defence, however little that may actually mean. And then came the cruciate injury. A hammer blow, not only to Arsenal’s season, but to his personal development. He had managed to rack up 5 assists in the 18 Premier League games he played and given the continued dependence on fullbacks as the season progressed, I imagine that figure would’ve reached double figures. I hope he is able to recover fully, and that his energy and speed is not lessened by what can be a debilitating injury. Arsenal might have used up all their ankle-related luck with the unlikely return to fitness and form of Koscielny, although the years of Wilshere, Diaby and Rosicky should give the Gunners some credit in the ‘ankle bank’.
Maitland-Niles – 6.5
I’m going to put forward that Maitland-Niles has had one of the most bizarre and remarkable seasons of any player this season. As a 21 year-old academy graduate, he has made 29 appearances this season in all competitions, suffered a broken leg and subsequent 3 month injury lay-off, and probably hasn’t played a single game in his preferred position. That opening game of the season was a baptism of fire, with the injury coming after a torrid lesson on ‘What happens to your defence if you play Ozil out wide’ given by Kyle Walker. His issues this season were exacerbated when he was forced into a back 4, as he isn’t defensively aware enough to perceive when threats might emerge to his centre backs. In a back 5, the lapses in concentration can be mitigated; this was shown after Sokratis’ injury in late January. I think he can at times be too casual in his play, which is probably born from the fact he was always streets ahead when rising through the youth ranks and the different pressures on a defender to his ideal position in central midfield. Reports around the time Emery was appointed indicated one of his most impressive pitches to the board was a detailed analysis of AMN’s weaknesses, strengths, and how he would improve him. I don’t think it is a coincidence he was given a long-term contract relatively shortly after, and imagine the Spaniard had wished to use him more as a box-to-box midfielder this campaign. Bellerin’s long-term absence curtailed that plan, but the way in which he was been willing to adapt and still contribute very diligently to the side has been admirable. A goal in an otherwise terrible defeat at Anfield might be his personal highpoint, and he is probably one of the few Arsenal players over recent seasons to be able to return from Liverpool with his head not completely hung in shame.
Lichsteiner – 4
I’m not sure there is really much to say. Signed as a back-up option to Bellerin, it tells you all you need to know the aforementioned 21 year old midfielder was chosen as the right back when Hector got injured. It’s been a very disappointing season from Lichsteiner, who has looked every one of his 78 years. Low energy, slow, and lacking stamina, I can’t think of a player less suited to a manager who wants high-intensity full backs, in arguably the most physically demanding league in the world. Appropriately, every time he has played, he has left holes in the defence that would be the envy of his nation’s cheesemakers. Still, I have enjoyed the extreme levels of annoyance he has caused opposition forwards; he might be the biggest b*stard to step out of the home dressing room at the Emirates in quite some time. In conclusion: elite level sh*thouse, Sunday League level right back.
Sokratis – 6.5
To describe him as unspectacular may seem a criticism, but honestly with the Arsenal defence it basically marks you at as world class. His grit and determination provide a nice contrast to defenders of years past. Too many times have Arsenal defenders allowed themselves to be dominated by the opposition, and the Greek’s sense of cynicism, and his willingness to tactically foul to stop even more dangerous situations emerging has been a welcome sight. This has at times been an annoyance. 12 yellow cards, a couple of red cards, and a few injuries thrown in for good measure have meant he has had something of a stop-start season. His absence in January though exposed how important he has become to Arsenal’s defence, although this could be the fact that he benefits from comparisons to the other centre backs. He has also proved surprisingly quick, and I see stories that he is actually the second fastest player in the squad in the sprint tests they run on the training ground. This enabled him to cover for some of his adaptation difficulties in the early season, where he looked very uncomfortable playing on the left of the two centre backs. The ‘wrong side’ of 30, it is a concern that the defence next season looks to be resting on his and Koscielny’s weary, ageing, injury-prone shoulders, but in a way that is a testament to the ‘unremarkable’ season he has had. At times, you almost forget he is a new signing. Whilst not being a spectacular stand-out player, he has meshed in well with the side to the point where not seeing him the starting line-up seems out of place. Like the statues of his philosopher namesake: Solid, slightly unremarkable, but worthy of note.
Mustafi – 2
*Takes sip of coffee, cracks neck, and breathes in deeply*
So … Shkodran Mustafi. Let’s start with the positives. He is capable of playing well. Believe it or not, I have actually seen him have matches where he looks like a competent footballer. The problems are that everything he does well in those moments, could easily be down to luck as they are the precise reasons why he is cataclysmically, apocalyptically, stratospherically out of his depth. The combination of arrogance and fear he has is bizarre, and at times admirable. He lunges in with needless slide tackles out of arrogance that he could get the ball, and also fear of what the attacker will expose should he be allowed to run at him. I think back to the start of the season against Chelsea, when he allowed Alvaro Morata to stroll towards the Arsenal goal without challenging him. He is scared of committing to a challenge because he doesn’t know if he will get the ball, but his arrogance thinks he has the positional ability to manoeuvre Morata into a position where he won’t score. NEWS FLASH. He doesn’t have that ability, and Morata scored. This cowardice is infuriating. It’s an abdication of defensive responsibility, and often results in him knowingly leaving his fellow defenders in much more difficult situations than necessary. There are times when he doesn’t have the guts to defend terribly. The Crystal Palace home match wasn’t the final straw, because the camel’s back and snapped into a million pieces long before that. It was the point where I ceased to care, and highlighted the self-preserving nature of his performances. Allowing Zaha to run through by once again failing to hold the defensive line was one thing, but subsequently blaming Leno for the ball falling at the striker’s feet was annoying beyond belief. There is no conceivable way he should still be at Arsenal come the start of next season, and undoubtedly the fee received from any poor club who somehow missed the entirety of this season will be meagre. Too many individual mistakes at crucial moments in games that, in retrospect and at the time, have cost Arsenal a place in the top 4.
*Takes deep breath. Stares out window, hears the birds singing and remembers the world can be good place after all*
Koscielny – 7
He may look like the lovechild between Jean-Claude Van Damme and a velociraptor, but he certainly doesn’t play like one (although I imagine that weird dinosaur hybrid would actually be quite an effective centre back). You could’ve been forgiven for thinking that the 33 year old’s time as an Arsenal regular were done after he returned from his horrendous Achilles injury in November. Indeed, it looked as though that may have been the case on his outing against Southampton. You could see the ring rust pouring off him, as he looked beleaguered in one-on-ones, and made uncharacteristically naïve mistakes. Given his pace was such an asset in previous seasons, I was seriously concerned that this most recent injury may have effectively ended his utility at the top level. I was wrong. It has been amazing to see how, once he was back up to his version of full fitness, he is clearly still Arsenal’s best defender. Commanding the line takes some serious leadership and control when you have to play alongside a midfielder deputising on the right, someone with occasional allergies to defending on the left, a Greek who is as combustible as butane, and Mustafi. The fact that he has been able to do all of this whilst still suffering from chronic tendonitis is a true testament to his character. There is a YouTube video released by Arsenal documenting his recovery and I implore you to watch it, even if you hate Arsenal. Watching him play after seeing all he has been through to get back on the pitch gives me such respect for him, and gives me even greater palpitations every time I see him go down clutching his leg. It is uncertain whether or not he will be able to keep up this performance going into the next campaign, with talk of retirement or a move back to France murmuring in the background. Regardless of his future, his return to the Arsenal side this season has provided the most chaotic of back lines with an infrequent sense of order, which is a compliment just below the distinction of the Balon D’Or.
Holding – 8
Perhaps the clearest case of Unai Emery improving the Arsenal defence was evident in the form of Rob Holding. He was pivotal to the early season unbeaten run, and never actually played in a defeat all season. His performance in the home game against Watford typified the early progress he made, and the strides he would continue to show. Pivotal to keeping a clean sheet, he was an enabler for the rest of the side to adapt to and adopt Emery’s initial desire to begin ball progression with the centre backs. Sadly, it was most evident following his injury in the away draw to Manchester United how essential he was. In that game, and subsequently, the primary distributor from the back was rotated amongst Mustafi and Sokratis (with Koscielny taking a role on his full return). This hindered the further progression up the field and inhibited the ability of the midfield to create chances; I think this is a big factor behind Arsenal’s poor chance creation stats in comparison to last season. With the midfield creatives having to drop deeper to receive the ball, the attack became more disjointed, and Arsenal suffered in their fluency. All of that from an injury to a centre back. That may say more about the squad composition, but I think it is a testament to steps forward Holding took before his season ending injury. The frequency of his minutes makes me think Emery has a lot of faith in him, and the fact that he will be fully fit for pre-season is a huge boost to his potential continued improvement moving forward.
Monreal – 6
One of my favourite Arsenal players to date, Monreal has never shirked his responsibilities. Whether in the centre or on the left of the defence, his commitment to physical duels can never be questioned despite his size. It has been sad to see this season how dramatically age has caught up with him. His transition to centre back should have been completed by now, as his lack of pace is becoming increasingly exposed when caught out by a winger. Whenever he has played as a fullback, I think back to a difficult afternoon he had against Cardiff in particular, he looks extremely vulnerable to being beaten. Add to that his age and drop off in fitness, and it is getting to the stage where playing him at left back feels a little bit like hanging him out to dry. It is why he is so much better on the left of a defensive three, where he can still demonstrate his decent ball-playing ability and quite underrated timing of tackles, with the benefit of having others around him to cover for his decreasing speed. It also allows for the wide forwards to concentrate more on creating chances, as with Nacho at left back they have to think more prominently about covering the runs of the full back. For £12 million, I think he has been one of the best value buys of the Wenger era at Arsenal. His performances are rarely spectacular, but he doesn’t let you down often. This season may have seen a marginal drop-off in his performances, but hopefully the squad will be less dependent on him moving forward, allowing him to reach Milner-esque levels of consistency.
Kolasinac – 6.5
The Bosnian brute nicknamed ‘Hulk’ for his obscenely broad physique has been more Bruce Banner at times defensively this season, especially when called upon as a left back. A combination between poor stamina, seeming disinterest, and a little bit of positional naivety leave him unable to competently play a full 90 minutes where defending is even 50% of his remit. When shifted forward as a wing back, he becomes infinitely more of an asset to Arsenal. 9 assists in all competitions speaks to this, but so does his partnership with Iwobi. Whenever the two were on the pitch together this season, they invariably posed Arsenal’s greatest threat. Dovetailing nicely, the overlap Kolasinac provided always occupied the opposing defence, regardless of whether the ball actually ended up at his feet (and with Iwobi’s sporadic passing, that is never a certainty). Perhaps the link up was almost too successful, as Arsenal became increasingly reliant on the left side – especially after Bellerin’s injury – and the responsibility appeared to weigh on Kolasinac at times. The utility of the low cross, regardless of who delivers it, is the potential chaos any rebound creates. At his most effective, Kolasinac fizzed in driven balls from the flank. At his least, and as Arsenal’s attack began to look stale in the latter stages of the season, he increasingly tried to loft the ball into the box, despite the lack of size in the Arsenal attack. With all of Arsenal’s wingers more comfortable in the inverted half-spaces between opposing midfielders and defenders, the inconsistency with which he could accurately deliver crosses became a major problem; one that appeared to weigh heavy on him. When he couldn’t quite deliver going forward, the defensive vulnerabilities became more exposed, and the lengthy campaign began to take its toll with niggling injuries. Add the lapses in concentration to the mix, and the left back position can feel like a concern moving forward, despite how important Kolasinac has been this season. Whether or not his importance and good form was a result of the system getting the best out of him, or a genuine improvement in his ability is uncertain at this point. Certainly a decent season, but I worry the good attacking stats may cover some persisting problems with his defending.