I’m going to tell you a little story about heartbreak. One of my regular readers bought me the 2009/2010 Arsenal season review DVD and it is, in a word, a story of heartbreak.
Arsenal went into that summer hoping to keep top striker Emmanuel Adebayor but after a mega offer from Man City turned his head, Arsenal were forced to sell. The Gunners also sold Kolo Toure to City, though that was planned and Wenger brought in Thomas Vermaelen as his replacement.
Vermaelen was Wenger’s only buy in the summer. The logic behind not buying anyone, despite losing Adebayor’s 10 goals, was that Arsenal already had a young, world class, striker on the books in Robin van Persie. In fact, Arsenal’s strike force was amazing on paper; van Persie was deployed as the tip of the lance in a three forwards formation and Wenger had his choice of Nicklas Bendtner, Андрей Аршавин, Theo Walcott, Eduardo, Vela, and Samir Nasri to either play as the center forward or either of the two wide forwards next to him.
In midfield, Arsenal also boasted some of the best young players in England. Cesc Fabregas was not only captain but ran the Arsenal offense and ended the season with an amazing 15 goals and 13 assists. Diaby had his best season in an Arsenal shirt, Alex Song developed into a top defensive midfielder, Denilson started the season well for Arsenal, and a very baby-faced Aaron Ramsey even contributed 3 goals and 3 assists.
It was also a season when many players were returning from injury. Eduardo was returning from having his leg snapped in two by Martin Taylor and Tomas Rosicky returned from an 18 month layoff. Neither player would regain their former glory, though both had a part to play in the season.
And Wenger seemed vindicated in his vision for the club as Arsenal raced out to a crazy start to the season. On opening day, the Gunners beat Everton 6-1 at Goodison Park and followed that up with a 2-0 win over Celtic away in the Champions League qualifier. Then in the home opener, Arsenal beat Pompey 4-1, only conceding when Kaboul jumped into the Arsenal keeper, Manuel Almunia, and the referee allowed the goal to stand.
What was remarkable about that opening run of games was that goals were mostly coming from defenders and midfielders. Eduardo was the only forward to score in that run, the 6th against Everton, and the remainder of the goals came from players like Thomas Vermaelen and Diaby.
Vermaelen scored 7 goals for Arsenal that season, with 5 of them coming before October. He scored in his first match of his Arsenal career, making him the 84th debutante to score. He was an instant hit among fans who loved his tenacity, marveled at his leaping ability, and loved seeing their center back bombing forward to score — a habit they would just as quickly grow unfond of.
The first big controversy of the season came in the fourth game. Arsenal beat Celtic 3-1 but it was the opening goal which stirred the villagers into grabbing torches and pitchforks. Arsenal had been struggling a bit to break down the resolute Scottish defense but in the 28th minute Eduardo collected the ball on the edge of the box, drove straight past the defenders, and forced Celtic’s keeper to come out. Eduardo went down, the referee awarded a penalty, and Artur Boruc and the Celtic team claimed that Dudu had dived. Eduardo stepped up and scored from the penalty spot and Arsena went on to win the tie 3-1, 5-1 on aggregate.
Replays showed minimal contact and the British press went into full witch hunt mode. The Daily Mail started a campaign against diving and bowing under enormous pressure from Celtic and the collected outraged media, Eduardo was charged with diving and given a two match ban. Arsenal appealed and won. Thanks largely to the referee who saw the video replay and told the judges that he still would have given the penalty. The UEFA official statement read:
“Following examination of all the evidence, notably the declarations of both the referee and the referees’ assessor, as well as the various video footage, it was not established to our satisfaction that the referee had been deceived in taking his decision on the penalty.”
And the football gods have a sense of humor as well. In the very next match, Arsenal played Man U with Mike Dean the referee. Arsenal were denied a stonewall penalty when Fletcher took out Arshavin on the edge of the box. And of course, Man U were awarded a penalty when Wayne Rooney clashed with Almunia in almost the exact same way that Eduardo had clashed with Boruc. Arsenal lost 2-1.
Arsenal also lost the next match against Man City 4-2. It was another controversial match, the third in a row for Arsenal, but this time it was controversial because former Arsenal forward Emmanuel Adebayor stamped on van Persie’s face and then when he scored, ran 100 yards to celebrate on his knees in front of the away fans.
Van Persie, however, scored in that Man City match and whether it was Adebayor’s boot to the face or something else that goal kickstarted a scoring glut from Robin. From that City match until mid November, van Persie scored or assisted in 9 consecutive matches, including two goals and an assist* against old rivals Tottenham.
Arsenal reaped the benefit of all of these healthy strikers and in the first 19 games of the season, Arsenal scored 55 goals, almost 3 goals a game. Wenger’s transfer dealings and faith in his young players to come good looked genius. Then came the international break and Chiellini’s challenge on Robin van Persie’s foot.
Robin van Persie would spend almost the remainder of the season out. He returned to play for Arsenal in April but didn’t score again until the final two matches of the season. In theory, Arsenal should have been able to survive Robin’s absence but in practice none of the strikers listed above were able to step up and take over the center forward spot. Arsenal scored 55 goals in the first 19 games but 60 goals in the last 36 games of the season: dropping from 2.9 goals per game to 1.7.
After the international break Arsenal played Sunderland, Standard Liege (Champions League), Cheslea, and Man City (League Cup). Arsenal scored 2 and conceded 7 in those 4 games.
If you watch the season review DVD, this is where the real heartbreak starts to set in. That first part of the season was magical and if you didn’t know how the season ended you might be tempted to wonder why that Arsenal side didn’t win the League. But as you watch the second half of the season unfold it becomes clear that Arsenal lacked the depth to challenge.
Wenger struggled to find a keeper he wanted in goal, dropping Almunia and replacing him with Mannone. Wenger also couldn’t find a viable starter in the center forward role, trying Eduardo, Bendtner and even Arshavin in the role and getting precious little in return.
And then injuries started to take their toll across the pitch: Walcott was in and out, Rosicky was off the boil and still recovering, Eduardo struggled for fitness, and ironically it was Diaby (the player most known for a history of injury problems) who played more games than any other Arsenal midfielder, playing a whopping 38 games that season in all competitions. And Wenger angered everyone when he refused to buy a player in January, taking former great and imposing center back Sol Campbell on a free. At a time when Arsenal needed a forward, Wenger took a center back, on a free.
There was a lone bright spot of the season. Arsenal made it to the second round of the knockout stages of the Champions League and had to face Barcelona. This was the Barcelona side which had just won the Champions League and who would win the Champions League the next year. Arsenal was playing against peak Barcelona.
Arsenal notched a moral victory over the Spaniards, holding them to a 2-2 draw at home. After conceding two goals to Zlatan, Wenger took off Sagna and put on Theo Walcott. Walcott almost immediately scored. Barcelona were a bit shell-shocked and so when Fabregas burst into the penalty area to fire in a shot, Puyols fouled him and the referee had no choice but to award the Gunners the penalty. Cesc stepped up and struck the penalty well, giving Arsenal the 2-2 draw.
In the process of scoring, or perhaps because of the Puyol tackle, Fabregas suffered a fractured leg. There couldn’t have been any more perfect way for Arsenal to end their season Bereft of their leading scorer and now shorn of their leading playmaker, the Gunners finished the season with just 2 wins in the last 7.
Arsenal supporters have seen a lot over the last 10 years or so but none so heartbreaking as the 2009/2010 season. And when Arsenal fans complain about Wenger’s lack of transfer business this summer (2015/16) and him relying on players returning from injury, hoping that all his players will stay healthy, and banking on “team spirit” I wonder if it’s not this season that they are remembering. A season that promised so much, and delivered so little.
*He was awarded an assist for Cesc’s goal since he was technically the last one to pass him the ball.
P.S. I want to say thank you to the reader who bought me the DVD from my Amazon wishlist. As hard as it was to watch that video I think it was an important thing for me to do, to remember. Thank you.