That the season came down to one final match is cause for praise and concern in equal measure. Whatever your view is, the League table does not lie. A fair assessment of Arsenal’s season is that the squad is fourth best in the country, holding its own in a little group below champions but closer to missing out on Europe than winning the title.
Many will point to the loss of two pivotal players to the team, taking them out and introducing three in their place. That is contradictory; Arsenal began the season with a run of five games unbeaten until Chelsea won at The Emirates. Four points were accumulated from traditionally tough away matches at Anfield and Eastlands. Arsenal responded to that defeat with a win at Upton Park. The new squad had – the logic of the time went – gelled quickly.
But the wheels came off. Two wins in the next eight games saw the club drop, the nadir that horrible afternoon when Swansea left The Emirates having beaten Arsenal the Arsenal way. A performance so abject that it almost defies description. It left Arsenal languishing in 10th place, ten points from the top four. The team needed time to gel became the mantra. Except it went deeper than that, the forward line was misfiring and the defensive line resembled the scribble on a piece of paper that your offspring tell you is a lion.
A short unbeaten run lifted the gloom until it returned as Manchester City and Chelsea both took maximum points in consecutive weeks. And then things began to go right, in the Premier League at least.
Domestic and European cups were another matter. Bradford City would be despatched mercilessly by Swansea at Wembley and Arsenal remained their highest profile victims en route to the final. It was a defeat that should not have happened. A full strength Arsenal went to Yorkshire, expecting to win, coming away humbled as chances were spurned, most notably by Gervinho at the death. Penalties are always a lottery and Bradford’s winning ticket was at hand. In the USA at the time, I felt fortunate in some respects to be away from the maelström.
The FA Cup was little better. That Premier League defeat was almost avenged at the Liberty Stadium, Swansea hammered 1 – 0 in the replay. Brighton threatened briefly but a comfortable win ensued. And then Blackburn, hell-bent on rivalling Portsmouth for the sobriquet ‘crisis club’, arrived at The Emirates. Arsène changed his line-up, played with fire and got burned. If Swansea was the season’s nadir, the FA Cup exit was not far behind. The team was lifeless, devoid of ambition and idea until late substitutes added impetus. The watching Bayern Munich scouts would have relished playing that Arsenal.
Having made the knockout phase again by finishing second in their Champions League group, the all-conquering Germans awaited. A dismal first half was countered by the second but a 1 – 3 defeat effectively ended the tie. The players did not listen, showed the mental strength that would follow, pulling off a thoroughly deserved 2 – 0 victory in the return, to exit under the Away Goals Rule. A glorious failure, as with Milan the year before. That win is at once over- and underplayed in arguments but its primary function was one of confidence-boosting, coming in the immediate aftermath of the North London Derby. Self-belief flooded into the XI and a ruthless streak emerged in the manager.
Ruthless or fortunate? He would have been a favoured Napoleonic General, luck was on his side when he took a brave decision; or was his philosophy more akin to Gary Player’s? Whatever the reason, it was about time his turned in what had been thus far, a wretched season.
Vermaelen and Szczesny were rested for the trip to Munich. Had Mertesacker and Koscielny not formed such a strong partnership, I wonder whether pragmatism would have held sway with the Belgian recalled? Equally, Fabianski was outstanding, making crucial saves against Norwich in particular, as the season headed toward its climax. Both circumstances were as welcome as they were unexpected. Szczesny was reprieved with a strong sense of déjà vu. His first-team chance came as Fabianski played well until injury struck, his redemption the same. Vermaelen? The captain was reduced to a back-up and introduced when injury required. He played a captain’s role though. No bleating, stomping or requesting a transfer; quietly getting on with his work, keeping his thoughts to himself.
But this Arsenal squad repeated the cycle of the previous season. Poor form left them with a lot of work to do, relentless though their pursuit was, they capitalised on Tottenham’s stumbles. That is not to denigrate Arsenal’s work but to deny that happened is madness. Like 2011/12, it was a combination of both and again it came down to the wire. Again it was Laurent Koscielny who scored the goal which mattered.
A weakness in the arguments over the improved form comes in the shape of the opposition, underlining the complexity of the issues. Extrapolation of the run since January, claiming that next season will show a points harvest far more than this season’s total does not make sense. Arsenal claimed seven points from thirty against top six teams; seven. Champions will gain somewhere near treble that. Being flat-track bullies is necessary to underpin any challenge for honours but ceding twenty-three points in the key matches causes insurmountable problems.
There is space for strengthening. The exit door will barely have time to stop spinning with the numbers expected to go. Even if contracts are not yet expired, surely Arsenal have to cut their losses and pay a number of serial achievers off to free spaces. Losses can be consumed within FFP regulations.
And with this activity, a different problem emerges. The sixteen game run was forged on consistent team selection, on the squad ethic with minimal interruptions. A full season is not like that with suspensions, injuries and internationals intermingled with the demands of the four competitions in which the club will strive for success. Improving and moving forwards is the trickiest balance a manager can strike.
Undoubtedly some will think that they deserve their place and strong arguments will persist over Giroud, for example. His first season in English football garnered a goal every three Premier League goals. If that improved to two, a problem is solved but it is a big ‘IF’. The squad needs another central striker, for as hard as Lukas Podolski worked in Giroud’s absence, he is not a long-term solution. He is extremely effective on the flanks, a wide goalscoring forward on both sides of the pitch? We can dare to dream.
And the strength for the future emerged from the darkness. As abuse rained in, Aaron Ramsey moved into a central midfield role and shone. Having been berated for his performances on the right side of defence, midfield and attack, the Welshman came of age in his favoured role. Continuing to improve and show his strength in the final stages of the season, culminating in a wonderfully taken final home goal at The Emirates against Wigan.
Others, Arteta and Cazorla, more experienced but settling in new roles and countries, minimised the disruption of departures. The former was consistent throughout the season and it strikes me – for that reason – as a red herring when Alex Song’s departure is cited as a disruption. If rumours are anything to go by, it meant a more harmonious dressing room.
And that sums Arsenal’s season up; a mass of contradictions on the pitch and off it. One where improvement was shown, where weaknesses still exist. One where a strong squad emerged, one that will inevitably change.