Report Card: Arsenal, Aston Villa, Birmingham, Blackburn & Blackpool

With the 2010/11 season now done and dusted, FourFourTwo.com assesses the campaigns of the Premier League's 20 clubs, starting with Arsenal, Aston Villa, Birmingham, Blackburn and Blackpool. Our ratings are a reflection of pre-season expectations and the campaign as a whole - not just the league...

ArsenalLeague position: 4th – W19 D11 L8 F72 A43 Pts68FA Cup: Quarter-finalistsLeague Cup: Runners-upChampions League: Last 16RATING: D

How bad can a season really be, for a team that finishes in the top four, reaches a cup final and is only eliminated from the Champions League by arguably the best team ever?

In the case of Arsenal, disastrous.

Much was made of the Gunners hopes of winning an unheralded Quadruple back in February, but this was perhaps premature given there were still months remaining and very little room for slip-ups. After all, Blackpool were second in the table after the first round of matches and nobody claimed they had a reasonable shot at Champions League qualification…

Arsenal didn’t have the complete team needed to win the Premier League or Champions League. This was more evident this season than in any of their previous six trophyless campaigns. Points were dropped, chances were spurned and any hope of winning a trophy was blown in a fashion quickly becoming painfully familiar for Gunners fans.

What Arsenal lacked most was heart. While Manchester United’s winning mentality helped them stumble through mucky patches smelling of roses, Arsenal’s heads dropped as soon as they lost that League Cup Final to Birmingham (indeed, Jack Wilshere said as much in June’s edition of FourFourTwo).

There were few happy memories in a season to forget: a derby defeat to Tottenham having led 2-0 at home was especially galling.

But it wasn’t all bad. Wilshere went from an emerging young talent to a key player at just 19, and even if his defensive partners rarely threatened to show him up, Johan Djourou came on leaps and bounds at the back. For all the talk of Wenger needing to sign a quality ‘keeper, too, 21-year-old Wojciech Szczesny showed true promise.

Arsenal also won more away games than any other side in the Premier League - thanks in no small part to 11 away goals from Robin van Persie, so perhaps making the Emirates more like a fortress and less like a bouncy castle could be the key to success on the league front next term.

And maybe it was a season of excruciating bad luck. They were inches away from beating Barcelona; and could well have claimed the League Cup but for an unfortunate mix-up between Szczesny and Laurent Koscielny.

That, however, is what football is all about. Arsenal may  need one or two summer additions, but with a relatively young squad perhaps what they really need is time to learn and gel as a unit, rather than an overhaul.

STAR MAN Jack Wilshere. If Cesc Fabregas does leave the Emirates Stadium, the Englishman is already equipped to take his place.

Words: Huw Davies

 

Aston VillaLeague position: 9th - W12 D12 L14 F48 A59 Pts48FA Cup: Fifth roundLeague Cup: Quarter-finalistsEuropa League: Play-off round RATING: D-

Having finished each of the previous three Premier League seasons in sixth place, Aston Villa headed into 2010/11 rightly expecting another year of rubbing shoulders with the top flight's big guns. Yet what they endured was a season peppered with uncertainty, inconsistency and an unexpected flirt with the drop.

Their cause was not aided by the upheaval of Martin O’Neill’s departure from the club less than a week before the start of the season, which appeared to pull the metaphorical rug from under the team and leave them without any real leadership or direction. The low point came on the second weekend of the league season, when Villa were obliterated 6-0 at Newcastle, with the farce continuing  four days later with elimination from the Europa League at the hands of Rapid Vienna.

The malaise wasn’t halted by the appointment of Gerard Houllier as O’Neill’s permanent successor, with the Frenchman refusing to terminate his contract with the French FA early, meaning the club were forced to wait a further two weeks before their new man finally took the helm. This waiting period didn’t much impress Houllier’s new public, nor did attempting to shrug off a 3-0 humbling at Anfield by stating; "If I have got to lose 3-0, I would prefer it to be to them as I like Liverpool."

It took the club record signing of England striker Darren Bent to galvanise the club, both on and off the pitch. His nine goals in 16 Premier League matches were worth nine points and helped Villa avoid being too deeply embroiled in the relegation quagmire in the final weeks of the season.

A strong end to the season - their final eight matches garnered 15 points and included back-to-back wins over Arsenal and Liverpool despite Houllier missing the run-in after falling ill - saw the Midlanders wind-up in a surprisingly high ninth place, a finish that shouldn‘t be allowed to paper over the cracks of a disappointing campaign.

While there may be plenty about which to be positive going forwards - most notably a batch of vastly talented youngsters who displayed impressive maturity and application when thrown into the deep end in the earlier part of the season - there are some big questions to be answered, most pertinently around the management of the club. With Brad Friedel and Ashley Young very possibly heading for the exit in the coming weeks, the manager is likely to have a rebuilding job on his hands... whoever he may be.

STAR MAN Stewart Downing. Perhaps the only Villa player to really impress on a consistent basis this term, Downing has more than rebuilt his reputation by becoming an unexpected talisman at Villa Park.

Words: James Maw

 

Birmingham CityLeague position: 18th - W8 D15 L15 F37 A58 Pts39FA Cup: Quarter-finalistsLeague Cup: WinnersRATING: D-

The 2010/11 season was very much one of contrasts for Birmingham City. Barely three months after the high of winning their first major trophy in 48 years, came the far more familiar experience of relegation from the Premier League - their third in six seasons.

Things had started relatively well for Alex McLeish’s side - an undefeated start saw Brum sat in fifth place after four matches - though they quickly slid down to 15th, a position around which they would float for the rest of the season. Indeed, Birmingham were relegated having spent just three weeks of the season in the bottom three prior to the final day.

As it became obvious the side wouldn’t be making a splash in the league, more emphasis was placed on the Carling Cup. A quarter-final victory over arch-rivals Aston Villa in December delighted fans and left them dreaming of a first trip to the new Wembley Stadium. That dream came true thanks to a semi-final victory over West Ham, although the same fans must’ve wondered whether they will still in the land of nod when Obafemi Martins’ pounced to seal a sensational victory in the final against a much-fancied and trophy-starved Arsenal.

Yet even the highs of Wembley couldn’t inspire the team enough to pull themselves away from the relegation scrap. Their struggles were not helped by the injury suffered by last season’s star man, defender Scott Dann. With Dann in the side, Birmingham conceded just 24 goals in the 18 Premier League matches (1.33 per game), without him they shipped 34 in 20 (1.7 per game) - the statistics tell their own story. Suddenly a team who didn’t score many goals but were defensively sound were struggling at both ends of the pitch.

With five games to go, Birmingham were sat in 15th place, and with a five point buffer between themselves and the drop zone. Yet those final five matches saw the Blues secure just one point - in a home draw with fellow-strugglers Wolves - and suffer humiliating defeats away to Liverpool (5-0) and at home to a Fulham side left with nothing to play for (2-0). Wigan's win at Stoke left them needing a win at White Hart Lane on the final day, which they were unable to muster.

Winning the Carling Cup may take the edge off, but this season will likely be remembered more for the bad than the good - at least in the shorter term.

STAR MAN Stephen Carr. Relegation was perhaps more cruel on Carr than most. The full-back rebuilding his career after being thrown on the scrapheap has been one of the game’s more remarkable stories of recent years, and that determination and desire should serve Birmingham well in next season’s promotion push. 

Words: James Maw

 

Blackburn RoversLeague position: 15th - W11 D10 L17 F46 A59 Pts43FA Cup: Fourth roundLeague Cup: Third roundRATING: D

As the 2010/11 campaign approached its half-way mark, another solid if unspectacular season appeared to be heading Blackburn Rovers’ way under Sam Allardyce. However, off-field upheaval would transpire to leave their Premier League status in serious jeopardy and immediate future far from crystal clear.

Defeat to rivals Bolton in mid-December left Blackburn 13th in the standings (a win over Wanderers would have lifted them as high as sixth), five points clear of the drop zone, having won six and lost eight of their opening 17 matches.

But the club’s new Indian owners Venky’s had other ideas. A month after completing their £23 million takeover, they chose to turf both Big Sam and his assistant Neil McDonald out on their respective ears, deeming their style of football not conducive to their plans, with a 7-1 drubbing at Old Trafford hardly helping the sacked duo‘s cause.

In came first team coach Steve Kean, previously assistant manager to Chris Coleman at Fulham, Real Sociedad and Coventry, whose initial managerial press conferences involved fielding questions on the possible arrivals of Ronaldinho and David Beckham rather than tactics and team selections.

Rovers looked more pantomime than Premier League, a division Blackburn looked increasingly unlikely to be in come the summer as results failed to take a significant turn for the better.

Despite wins over a yet-to-be-transformed Liverpool and West Brom (twice), a 10-match winless run from February to April left many tipping them to suffer the drop as they continued their descent with no solution seemingly in sight.

Martin Olsson’s drive against Bolton ultimately proved the turning point, as Rovers went the final four games of the season unbeaten. Draws with West Ham and Manchester United kept their heads above water going into D-Day at Molineux, where they would take a 3-0 half-time lead before almost blowing it.

Although Kean’s credentials remain under scrutiny, the character his side showed in the closing weeks of the campaign will have offered hope that he can build a team capable of delivering the displays desired by Venky’s – given the necessary backing.

Keeping hold of coveted defensive duo Christopher Samba and Phil Jones will be key to Kean’s plans, as the Scot seeks fresh faces in attack after Jason Roberts and Nikola Kalinic managed just five league goals apiece while Benjani and Mame Diouf – on loan from Manchester United – scored a meagre three.

STAR MAN David ‘Junior’ Hoilett. Often a substitute under Allardyce, the Canadian has been a revelation under Kean, using his trickery and pace to terrorise defences as well as weighing in with five league goals.

Words: Gregg Davies

 

Blackpool League position: 19th - W10 D9 L19 F55 A78 Pts39FA Cup: Third roundLeague Cup: Second roundRATING: C+

The Seasiders’ tangerine dream may have ended as many had predicted – with an instant return from whence they came – but fewer would have foreseen the unrelenting entertainment they provided along the way.

Ian Holloway’s men had reached the promised land of the Premier League via thrilling play-off victories over Nottingham Forest and Cardiff, and although they themselves would have half-expected to be heading straight back down to the Championship, they were determined to do it playing their way.

Blackpool started their first top-flight season since 1971 where they had left off at the City Ground and Wembley, winning 4-0 away at Wigan as their swashbuckling 4-3-3 setup not only left the Latics lampooned.

In both league encounters, Manchester United had to come from behind to see off the Seasiders, Liverpool were slain not once but twice, Spurs were disposed of at Bloomfield Road, as were Bolton, 4-3 in a repeat of the 1953 FA Cup Final on the same day of the 2011 showpiece.

But their free-scoring nature at one end sadly could not be matched by a stubbornness not to concede at the other, which would ultimately prove their undoing over the course of a 38-game campaign.

The final chapter of the season at Old Trafford epitomised their rollercoaster ride of a season as a whole; a superb Charlie Adam free-kick and well-worked second to give them the lead at the home of the champions being cancelled out by some haphazard defending and galling own goal from captain Ian Evatt.

Not one of the six sides who finished directly above Blackpool in the table could match their 55 top-flight goals, while they scored the same amount on home soil as Spurs did at White Hart Lane (30) who finished fifth.

But only West Brom (71) and bottom-dwellers West Ham (70) came anywhere close to matching the 78 goals that flew in at the wrong end. And it was Blackpool’s inability to hold on to draws that arguably led to their downfall, as a naivety to continue pouring forward in search of  victory left them exposed – something both Blackburn and Aston Villa gleefully exploited by snatching last-gasp winners to deny the Seasiders a share of the spoils.

STAR MAN Charlie Adam - the central figure to Blackpool’s thrilling season with a dozen league goals. One in each of the final three games of the season took the Seasiders’ survival fight down to the wire.

Words: Gregg Davies 

Report Card: Bolton, Chelsea, Everton, Fulham & LiverpoolReport Card: Man City, Man Utd, Newcastle, Stoke & Sunderland Report Card: Tottenham, West Brom, West Ham, Wigan & Wolves

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