FA Cup – Fifth round
League Cup – Quarter-final
Champions League – Round of 16
There were times during this season where Arsenal appeared to be on the verge of total meltdown. Therefore, the reassuring fact that the season ended with Champions League football safely in the bag seems bizarre.
Nine months earlier, it was all change at the Emirates Stadium; Alex Song to Barcelona, Robin van Persie to Manchester United. A summer in north London wouldn’t be a summer if the Gunners didn’t lose some players, with Gael Clichy, Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas all departing in previous seasons.
But this time, Wenger attempted to improve his squad too. Olivier Giroud and Lukas Podolski were charged with the unenviable task of replacing van Persie’s goals, while the inspired signing of Santi Cazorla was expected to conduct the Arsenal orchestra – similar to the way compatriots Juan Mata and David Silva had done for their clubs.
It all started solidly enough, with Arsenal not only scoring goals but shutting up shop at the back. Many attributed that new-found defensive stubbornness to the work of newly-appointed assistant manager Steve Bould, who was rightfully acclaimed for his backline tinkering over the summer.
But the first defeat of the season, at home to Chelsea in late September, marked a change in Arsenal’s fortunes. As quickly as short-term defensive stability brought whispers of a title challenge, they quickly vanished amidst a tirade of inconsistency and mediocrity.
Desperate defeats to Norwich in the Premier League and Schalke in Europe followed, before Arsene Wenger’s unpredictable unit shipped five at strugglers Reading but somehow managed to emerge with seven goals of their own in the League Cup. Some pointed to that result as proof of the team’s fighting spirit; in truth, there was little coherence going forwards or backwards.
A 5-2 win over Tottenham in November briefly raised spirits at the Emirates but it was the side’s only victory of the month as confidence continued to drain from the pores of Wenger’s men. That came to a head in the Carling Cup defeat to League Two side Bradford City – a match in which the Frenchman had sent out a full first team in an effort to raise spirits at the club.
Separate from the doom, there was Theo Walcott. He was enjoying the best campaign of his career, grabbing hat-tricks and headlines – most notably in 7-3 crushing of Newcastle United to bring the curtain down on the calendar year. With his contract up in the summer, speculation about his future was rife, but he eventually signed a new deal in January and Wenger breathed a sigh of relief.
Little did he know, Arsenal were on the verge of another drastic dip in form. Blackburn knocked the Gunners out of the FA Cup on their own turf, before Bayern Munich’s 3-1 win in north London days later effectively dumped them out of Europe too. When Spurs won the derby at White Hart Lane to go seven points clear of their rivals, the season looked all but over.
But Wenger has the incredible knack of lifting his team when all logic points to capitulation. After nearly completing a sensational comeback in Germany, Arsenal embarked on a ten-match unbeaten Premier League run. That, combined with the traditional end-of-season Tottenham surrender, was enough to edge them into fourth place.
Meltdown averted. Job done.
Manager – Arsene Wenger: It’s another season without a trophy and another season with sections of the fans and media breathing down his neck – but ultimately, Wenger delivered. Taking into account the power of the Manchester sides and Chelsea, fourth place was the minimum target and he secured it. But whether another season of this ilk will be accepted is questionable.
Player of the season – Per Mertesacker: Santi Cazorla was, at times, dazzling, particularly in the first half of the season, but Mertesacker’s presence in the Gunners back four has been huge – literally. A calming influence on his teammates, he’s been a major factor in Arsenal’s new-found defensive stability.
Turning point – The March defeat to Tottenham: When Spurs beat Arsenal 2-1 at the beginning of March, Andre Villas-Boas declared that Wenger’s men were in a ‘negative spiral’. 10 weeks later, the Gunners had secured fourth place ahead of their rivals after picking up 26 points from a possible 30 in the last ten matches.
Any other business: After Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, David Moyes’ switch and Roberto Martinez’s relegation, Alan Pardew is now the Premier League’s second longest-serving Premier League manager, having taken charge of Newcastle in December 2010. That makes Arsene Wenger’s 16 years, 7 months and 26 days (and counting) in charge in north London all the more praiseworthy.
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