Pick the allegory you want to use because the end result is still the same: Arsenal ended their nine-year trophy drought when they won the FA Cup on May 17th, 2014.
A lot of the perception on how this season went will be coated in the glitter of a cup triumph. It can’t be helped. It’s the last open bus top parade of the season and it’s held in North London as hundreds of thousands of Gooners filled the street in order to cheer on the team that finally ended the trophy-less streak. Nor should we ignore that a lot of that nine-year drought occurred not just on the league table – as title campaigns in 2008, 2010 and this season fell short – but also in the various cup tournaments, where Arsenal have been heavily involved. Just notice this list:
- 2004-05: FA CUP WINNERS!!·
- 2005-06: Champions League Final (Lost 2-1 to Barcelona)
- 2006-07: League Cup Final (Lost 2-1 to Chelsea)
- 2007-08: League Cup Semis (Lost 6-2 to Tottenham)/CL Quarters (Lost 5-3 agg to Liverpool)
- 2008-09: FA Cup Semis(Lost 2-1 to Chelsea)/CL Semis (Lost 4-1 agg to Man Utd)/League Cup Quarters (Lost 2-0 to Burnley)
- 2009-10: CL Cup Quarters (Lost 6-3 agg to Barcelona)
- 2010-11: Carling Cup Final (Lost 2-1 to Birmingham)
- 2011-12: Carling Cup Quarters (Lost 1-0 to Manchester City)
- 2012-13: Carling Cup Quarters (Lost 2-1 P to Bradford)
- 2013-14: FA CUP WINNERS!!
Arsenal have been involved in 3 finals, 3 semifinals and 5 quarter-finals in the years between their FA Cup triumphs. Some of those were lost through unfortunate bad luck: If Jens Lehmann doesn’t bring down Samuel Eto’o…if Koscielny and Szczesny don’t blunder at the same time before Obafemi Martins…if the ref at Anfield is a bit fairer to Alex Hleb…. Such is the way of cup tournaments though. A lucky strike here. A bad bounce there. A wrong decision. That’s what makes them so exciting and so horrible to live through.
It also highlights how close Arsenal have been at ending that trophy drought. They’ve competed in multiple fronts over the years and been close on several occasions, only to be denied at one point or another. Let’s be honest: some of those losses were to teams better armed than ours (Barcelona, Chelsea, Manchester City). But in others, it’s been losses to Burnley, Birmingham or Bradford that have ruined the runs – teams that a club of Arsenal’s stature should be beating. So what happened? Injuries, inexperience, a bad day at the office. Take your pick.
Through February 3rd, Arsenal had played 28 games, won 19, drawn 6 and lost 3. They stood 4 points clear of 2nd-placed Liverpool. Even through the six weeks after that date, Arsenal were neck and neck with Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City in spite of the 5-1 drubbing they’d taken at the hand of the Merseysiders on February 8. Built on two solid unbeaten runs of 9 games (from beating Fulham 3-1 to the draw against Everton) and 8 games (from the 0-0 against Chelsea to the 2-0 win over Crystal Palace), Arsenal spent the most time this season atop the Premier League table.
This form was built on a specific team. Not coincidentally, these were the players who played the most for Arsenal. Wojciech Szczesny, Bakary Sagna, Laurent Koscielny, Per Mertesacker, Kieran Gibbs, Mikel Arteta, Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere, Mesut Ozil, Santi Cazorla and Olivier Giroud started the most games. Seven of them played over 40 games in all competitions, with Per Mertesacker playing a total of 51 games. That number would have been higher had Mesut Ozil (39 games), Kieran Gibbs (34 games), Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey (28 games each), Lukas Podolski (21 games), Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (14 games) and Theo Walcott (13 games) had not spent some time in the physio room.
Even so, check out some of the stats that Arsenal put up this season. At Emirates, the home record was a solid 13-5-1 (4th overall in the league), with the single loss occurring in the first game against Aston Villa. That said, Arsenal scored 36, conceded 11, for a goal differential of +25. All of which translated to 44 points total. Meanwhile our away record, which so many people maligned, was 11-2-6 (1st overall). That’s right. Arsenal had the best away record in the Premier League this season. Goals scored was 32, but the problem here were the 30 goals that were conceded 30, leading to a goal differential of only +2, but still a respectable 35 points total amassed from those 19 away fixtures.
So, if Arsenal were so good at home and away, why did they end up in 4th place once again? What fell the title challenge? There’s two ways to look at it:
- Arsenal’s challenge fell due to the big lunchtime defeats away from home. That’s the 6-3 drubbing at the Etihad, the 5-1 at Anfield, the 6-0 at Stamford Bridge and the 3-0 at Goodison Park. Not only did the four losses hurt badly in terms of the dropped points, but they had a knock-on effect on the next game. Those would be the 0-0 draw against Chelsea, the 0-0 draw against Man Utd, the 2-2 draw against Swansea and 1-1 draw against Manchester City. Notice that these are all home games where Arsenal managed 4 points out of a potential 16.
- Arsenal’s challenge fell because of the bad run from March 22 to April 6 This would include the 6-0 loss at Chelsea, the 2-2 draw against Swansea, 1-1 draw against Man City and 3-0 loss at Everton. This was the longest winless run by Arsenal and it came at a time when the club could not afford any more dropped points if they were hoping to stay in the title race.
Obviously there’s a lot of correlation between the two points of view. In some ways, they’re halves of the same coin. But consider that, even with the 6-3 at Etihad and the 5-1 at Anfield along with the draws they caused, Arsenal were still in the title race. It wasn’t until that 1,000th game of Arsene’s and the fallout from the 6-0 debacle at Stamford Bridge that Arsenal began their tail spin that took them completely out of the race for the Premier League trophy.
So Jose Mourinho can at least gloat that he helped drive the knife into the heart of Arsenal’s title hopes. (And you know he would too). But that, in a sense, would be kind of limiting. The issues that kept Arsenal from staying in the title race had more to do with a bad day against the Special Winless One. In no particular order:
- Injuries: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Yaya Sanogo and Lukas Podolski spent much of the first half injured. No sooner were they back that Theo Walcott did his ACL in and was lost. He was promptly followed by Aaron Ramsey, Mesut Ozil and Jack Wilshere right as the Death Run happened. This went hand in hand with the other major reason
- Dearth of Options: Or rather quality options. It was no surprise that Olivier Giroud leads the team with 22 goals in all competitions. But it was also clear that, by the midway point of the season that he was spent from so many games. Unfortunately, the injuries to Podolski and Sanogo meant there was no viable alternate at striker. (Don’t even consider bringing up taxi humper Nick Bendtner). His was the most visible situation, but not the only one. Consider what happened to the side after Theo’s injury – there was no one even remotely close who could replicate his speed and threat on the wing. Serge Gnabry tried but it ended up being a forward 3 of Podolski, Cazorla and Ox; not exactly lightning and thunder.
- The Death Runs: Do you realize Arsenal did not beat Manchester United this year? That’s not a dig at United. This year they were awful and surrendering games to sides that haven’t beat them in a generation or two. And yet, thanks to the scheduling gods, United managed to play Arsenal right in the middle or at the end of a big team run – losing 1-0 after playing Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund and drawing 0-0 right after the 5-1 beating at Anfield. The schedulers did Arsenal no favors this year.
- The Set-up for the Big Games: It has to be mentioned that,perception would lead one to believe that the four big losses were all equal. Fact is that, if you look back at that Manchester City game, Arsenal went toe-to-toe with the eventual Premier League champs. But the massive 4-0 and 3-0 holes the team was in inside of 20 minutes against the Reds and the Blues will do that to you. Whatever the reason for such lack of concentration in key games – not just those but the ones against Man United as well – has to be found and solved.
- The arrival of Mesut Ozil: Without doubt, the story at the start of the season was the record-smashing transfer for the Real Madrid midfielder. 42.5 million pound? For a team whose record was in the mid-teens? The thing is Ozil was worth it and proved it with 7 goals and a club-leading 14 assists and lots of midfield generalship. Don’t discount the knock-on effect his arrival had on our season given the rancor following the 3-1 loss to Aston Villa. Within 72 hours, the season took on a whole new outlook and the impossible seemed real. How will he do after a year adapting to the league?
- The ascendance of Aaron Ramsey: Without rehashing everything that’s happened to him, this season was the season of Ramsey. Emerging from the shadows of a congested midfield, the Welsh midfielder fired 13 goals, 9 assists and countless magic moments. Take your pick: the thundershot against Liverpool, the brace against old club Cardiff, the winner in the FA Cup Final. He’s one of the first names on the team sheet for next year.
- The form of the Back 5: I was going to separate the quality of Wojciech Szczesny and the partnership by Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny, but I realized that they were parts of the same epic whole. Szczesny could have had the league’s clean sheets record had Arsene opted to play him in the league season finale against Norwich. Instead he had to share it with Petr Cech. Szczesny was in solid form all year long. But he had help with the imperious Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny, who formed the best central defensive partnership this year. Add Bakary Sagna on the right and Kieran Gibbs on the left and the defense of Arsenal was the best it had been in years.
- Olivier Giroud: For many, the French striker was a sore spot this season. This in spite of the fact that he started 44 games and came on for another 7 (that’s 51 appearances total). Or that he was basically the only senior striker available for Arsenal for this season thanks to injuries and lack of options. Or that he led the team with a total of 22 goals scored across all competitions. Or that he was second in the team with 10 assists. Unfortunately for Giroud, between the impossible comparisons to Henry and Bergkamp and van Persie and his own scandal at the worst possible time in the season, it was a tough to convince many a Gooner he was worthy of his place. Despite his end result and how he merged into the team as a whole.
So where should we end this? How about looking at where we go from here? The fact of the matter is that, while there is a World Cup on our immediate horizon, thoughts have already turned to the future season. The expectation is that Bakary Sagna will walk away from the club in the next few weeks and sign a longer deal with one of Manchester City, Paris St Germain or some other mega-rich club. Lukasz Fabianski – so solid in the FA Cup run – will also soon walk out the door as well in order to secure his own #1 shirt. We’ve already seen the end of the Arsenal careers of Park Chu-Young and Nicklas Bendtner – so storied were they. Looking at the squad, we are left with the following:
- GK: Wojciech Szczesny, Damian Martinez
- RB: Carl Jenkinson, Hector Bellerin
- CB: Per Mertesacker, Thomas Vermaelen, Laurent Koscielny, Isaac Hayden
- LB: Kieran Gibbs, Nacho Monreal
- CDM: Mikel Arteta, Mathieu Flamini, Emmanuel Frimpong
- CM: Jack Wilshere, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Aaron Ramsey, Abou Diaby, Gideon Zelalem
- CAM: Thomas Rosicky, Mesut Ozil, Santi Cazorla, Serge Gnabry, Ryo Miyaichi
- F: Lukas Podolski, Olivier Giroud, Theo Walcott, Chuba Akpom, Yaya Sanogo
Looking at the squad, the immediacy is for replacements for Sagna at RB and Fabianski at backup GK. Rumors persist of team captain Thomas Vermaelen pushing for a move out of the club for a starting berth elsewhere. There’s also a desire to bring a defensive midfielder who can better protect the back four and help avoid the massive defeats of this season. Finally, there’s an obvious desire for a striker of greater quality than Giroud. Some would prefer an out and out striker while others would rather a wide player that can stretch defenses from the left as Theo Walcott does on the right. So looking at it, we’re counting on five new arrivals: backup GK, starting RB, backup CB, starting DM and starting winger/striker.
Now who could those five be? Rumors are already circulatizSng that Toulouse RB Serge Aurier will be the man tapped with replacing Sagna. There’s talk of Carlos Vela somehow being brought back from Real Sociedad after having two really good seasons in La Liga – the advantage there being that Vela could play either at striker or on the left. That doesn’t even start in the many rumors tying Arsenal with everyone from Cesc Fabregas to Edinson Cavani to Angel Di Maria to Antoine Greizmann to Cesc Fabregas to…did I say Fabregas?
Even the World Cup will not stop the silly season.
So overall, how do you judge this season? There were some amazing highs. Jack Wilshere’s goal against Norwich. The domination of Napoli at home. Thomas Rosicky running in the first minute to score the winner against Tottenham. The penalty shootout against Wigan in the FA Cup. There were quite a few lows. Not just the big defeats, but the 3-1 loss to Villa, the 2-0 loss to Bayern Munich. The big defeats hurt, but the victories were sweet. The drop at the end that took us out of the top spots and into our usual 4th may have felt similar to season’s past. But the triumph at Wembley on 05/17/14 was like nothing we had experienced for a long, long time – and for many Gooners, never before.
Ultimately, I think that it’ll be that day’s highlights that will stick out in our memory for years to come. Santi Cazorla’s brilliant free kick. Kieran Gibbs’ massive header save. Laurent Koscielny tumbling to the ground but finding a way to stick the ball in the back of the net. And finally, Aaron Ramsey, deftly putting Olivier Giroud’s backheel pass into the lower left corner past Allan McGregor and continuing his run as the stadium roared and millions of Gooners across the world cheered.