BY EUAN DEWAR
A quick reminder of an important Arsenal stat: Ever since Wenger took the reins of the club in the 1996-97 season, they have never missed out on Champions League qualification. Think about that for a second. It is astonishing consistency. When the club was weighed down by the debt of moving to the Emirates Stadium, such assuredness was vital. Yet Wenger’s consistency also extends to the frustrating aspects that have plagued Arsenal for around a decade now, and their 2014-15 campaign was another rollercoaster ride of familiar headaches.
Cast your mind back to the beginning of this season. What was at one point a promising title challenging from Arsenal in 2013-14 had collapsed in quite embarrassing fashion with several heavy defeats to other big clubs. However, they managed to come through these troubles by ridding themselves of the two most oft-mentioned monkeys on their back, namely the trophy drought and the lack of cash-splashing, which were rectified when they won the FA Cup in dramatic fashion and also managed to open up their pockets to sign Barcelona’s fantastic Alexis Sanchez, among others. Unfortunately though, it’s never quite that simple with Arsenal.
Their title challenge this time spluttered and ground to a halt before it could even find its footing. Silly points were being dropped against sides they should’ve been beating, and their hoodoo against the big teams seemed present as ever. Sanchez was dragging them through matches with his Duracel Bunny-esque energy and his extraordinarily swift adaption to the English game. It all came to a head with a 2-0 loss away at Southampton on New Year’s Day. The discontent with Wenger among the fans reached a (ludicrous) boiling point, their squad was decimated with injuries and then-no.1 goalkeeper Wojciech Szczęsny was reprimanded after a bizarre incident involving smoking in the showers. “Nadir” doesn’t even begin to describe it.
However, the turnaround was on the horizon. That loss became a catalyst for Arsenal to do some self-reflection and try to remedy the deep-seated issues they had, as Per Mertesacker has noted. Since then, 2015 has been a mostly positive year for the North London reds.
Their horrendously large injury list forced Wenger to bring back Francis Coquelin, a defensive midfielder then out on loan at Charlton with very little hope of getting into the first team. And, when he was given his opportunity, he took it firmly with both hands. He has been emblematic of a more cautious, savvy Arsenal we’ve seen this year. One defined by a landmark 0-2 away win at Manchester City. A game that they would’ve been expected to lose going into it, yet they defied the odds by employing a controlled, defensive game-plan that you rarely see them try or, at the very least, rarely see them get so right.
As players have returned from injury and others who were previously lower down the pecking order, such as the incredibly rapid right-back Héctor Bellerín, have shown their worth, Arsenal’s squad has begun to look like one of the strongest in the league. This consistency (that word again) in personnel was integral in their storming eight match winning streak that ended with a disappointing but far from disastrous goalless draw at home to Chelsea.
The second half of the season wasn’t all rosy. Outside of the Premier League they conspired to sabotage the positive reversal in form by absolutely throwing away their Champions League round of 16 tie with Monaco in the home leg. It was a needlessly gung-ho performance that showed the senseless naivety is not out of their game yet. The typical ‘heroic’ almost-enough-but-not-quite win in the away leg was cold comfort.
One thing they must be credited for is reaching the FA Cup final yet again, with a convincing away win at Old Trafford on the way there. Whether they will finish the job and retain it remains to be seen, but they’ve set themselves up well for it and doing so would lay down a serious marker for next season.
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
For all of their recent success, the gap between Arsenal and this season’s champions Chelsea is still very evident. That 12 point difference is down mostly to two factors: The few weaknesses that do exist within the squad as well as the vulnerability of mentality that leads to those silly mistakes of the kind that Champions shouldn’t make.
There are no positions in the squad where they are clearly lacking but there are several where an upgrade can be made and doing so would go a long way to bridging that gap. The most obvious is in the goalkeeping position. Szczęsny’s future at the club is looking uncertain right now, and while David Ospina has certainly been solid since he stepped up to the no.1 role he is still not a keeper who will save you several dropped points over the course of a season like De Gea or Courtois will.
Coquelin is a fantastic holding midfielder but his abilities as an attacking outlet are still limited, which can be an issue in a team with such a strong offensive style as Arsenal. He is also the only option in that position who truly convinces, so a backup will be needed regardless.
The final weak spot is right at the tip of the attack where Arsenal lack a 100% reliable goalscorer. Or a ‘world class’ one, if you’ll allow me the term. Olivier Giroud had some fantastic form when he came back from injury but his eight game goal drought at the end of the season is worrying. Danny Welbeck is a solid backup and can really stretch a back-line with his pace, but has shown himself throughout his career thus far to be far too lacklustre with his finishing to be a first choice. Theo Walcott has had a couple of good performances in this position but not enough to say it is where his future lies just yet.
On the latter issue of mentality, there has been some progress. The confidence imbued in the squad by their fantastic recent form is obvious, and it’s all the better that they ended strongly this time rather than the limp finish to 2013-14. That strong sense of morale will, theoretically at least, be fresh in their mind at the start of next season.
Over the last two seasons Arsenal have had two fantastic halves of a campaign, yet they’ve never been able to put the two pieces together. It’s obvious that Wenger desperately wants to lift the Premier League trophy one more time before he steps down, as well as make a mark in Europe. If he’s to do that he needs to make sure his squad burst out of the gates next season and conduct their title challenge with the consistency that Wenger has built his legacy on.
They’re as strong right now than they’ve been in a long time, and should get stronger in the summer. But too many times Arsenal have been the team for the next season. Too many times there’s talk about what could or should have been. No more. This next one is make or break for them.