FA Cup: Quarter-finals
Capital One Cup: Round Four
Champions League: Round of 16
For the first time in several years, there was a genuine belief at Arsenal and elsewhere that this would finally be the season where they make a sustained challenge to win the Premier League title; a squad gaining in confidence following successive FA Cup triumphs and a terrific end to the previous campaign. Victory over their nemesis Jose Mourinho and his Chelsea side in the Community Shield represented another psychological boost and optimism was sky-high, but by the end it was a story of disappointment, with a highest league finish for nine years doing relatively little to mask their inconsistent results and failure to emerge with any silverware.
It had long been said that a top-class goalkeeper was one of the primary elements required for Arsenal to stand a realistic chance of reclaiming the crown they last won in 2004, so Petr Cech was recruited on a bargain of a free transfer from Chelsea. Following that Shield success, the Premier League season got underway with a home defeat to West Ham United, a major shock at the time that resulted from a badly off-colour performance.
They managed to turn things around and, despite losing a fiery match at Chelsea after ending with nine men, soon regained their usual place among the leading pack. The highlight of that run was a superb 3-0 victory over Manchester United, a game which heralded the start of a series of superb outings from Mesut Ozil, who racked up the assists as the Gunners found top form in the lead-up to Christmas, where the only real blemish came at West Bromwich Albion as an apparently comfortable lead morphed into a 2-1 loss.
The first game of the festive period saw them take on fellow title hopefuls Manchester City at the Emirates Stadium, and there they got the win to reassert that belief among supporters that it could be their year – a feeling soon punctured on Boxing Day following a chastening 4-0 loss at Southampton where a lack of pace at the back was exposed in merciless fashion.
From that moment on, there were severe doubts around the club and performances became jittery. Although they sat top of the table in mid-January following a fine run in front of goal for Olivier Giroud, they were labouring along and there was a sense of anxiety from the stands at every home match. The return of Danny Welbeck from a long-term injury sparked brief momentum as he headed a last-gasp winner against leaders Leicester City to supposedly re-ignite their title charge, but it was all soon extinguished.
A Marcus Rashford inspired Man Utd got the better of them at Old Trafford in what was a severe setback, before further dropped points against Swansea City and Tottenham saw them fall significantly off the pace. Leicester were playing winning football while Arsene Wenger’s men were struggling for fluency and confidence, and the Frenchman himself was coming in for heavy criticism for appearing set to blow the best chance of ending their wait to reclaim the title.
They even looked set to finish behind Tottenham, and such was their lack of form that Arsenal needed to find something in order to sure of a top four place. In the end – and very much against the odds in terms of the former – they managed to avoid both, with Spurs overhauled on the final day. By that time the title was long gone, and they finished 10 points behind Leicester. Had it not been such a surprise package leading the way there might have been less criticism fired Arsenal’s way, but it was clear over the second half of the season in particular that they lacked the mental toughness to succeed.
As for the Champions League it looked set to be an early exit, as shock defeats at the hands of Dinamo Zagreb and Olympiakos ensured the worst possible start to the group stage. A win and a loss against Bayern Munich meant they still faced an uphill task, but two victories to finish including a 3-0 win in Greece sent them through to face guess who? Barcelona. After being caught out in a competitive first leg there was never much chance of turning the tie around at the Nou Camp, so yet again they went out in the first knockout round.
Positives from the season include the form of Ozil, the re-emergence of Welbeck before he was struck down by another long-term injury, and the impact made by youngster Alex Iwobi and January signing Mohamed Elneny. But there were too many negatives for some fans to remain loyal to Wenger, going as far as to hold a protest during the penultimate home match against Norwich City. He will stay on for another year at least, but is under pressure to deliver. So indeed are the players, who for all of their silkiness and subtlety, need to become more resilient.