Arsenal’s 4-1 victory over Wigan at the Emirates on Tuesday evening was a display that shows the progress and improvement Arsene Wenger’s team has made this season.
It’s been, in many ways, another disappointing season for the Gunners – another year without a trophy; another scrap for Champions League qualification; and, overall, the manager would likely acknowledge it’s been another season that his team have under-performed in all competitions.
However, it must also be remembered how many changes Wenger made to his team in the last year – as I wrote 5 months ago when he was getting heated criticism heaped on him from all directions, in the last 18 months Arsenal added 10 new players to their senior squad and promoted two youth players to senior level.
They lost 12 senior players either on transfers or loan moves and had 2 players out for more than 12 months through injury. That’s a huge number of changes and to expect all the players to instantly communicate and find their understanding and cohesion is placing wildly unrealistic expectation on both the team and the manager.
I believe the real turning point in the Gunners season was their 2-0 victory over Bayern Munich at the Allianz Arena – Wenger dropped key players amidst a swathe of criticism from the media and complaints from discontented fans but it was defining moment when they turned their season around.
Since that game back in mid-March, Arsenal have gone nine games unbeaten and enjoyed their best form of the whole campaign. Their defeat to Tottenham the game before their last Champions League fixture is their only league defeat in the last 15 games – the previously defeat being at Chelsea back in January.
In the space of four months Arsene Wenger’s side have come a long way – they’ve started to actually look like Arsenal, for one thing. They play with far more cohesion, fluidity and intensity – the way they did at the Allianz and their defensive record has improved tremendously – they defend as a team, right the way through.
They were so prone to individual errors all over the pitch before Christmas – every game there was some calamitous mishap resulting from a lack of concentration or a lack of composure but that it a rarity now.
Going forward they’re finding goals from a number of positions in the team – there is no over-reliance on one man as there was last season – Olivier Giroud picked up a suspension for the last 3 games and it’s barely even been an issue.
This time last season, if Robin van Persie had have been suspended, I doubt Arsenal would have made it to that crucial third place – this term, they’re surprisingly flexible despite only having one recognized centre-forward in the Frenchman.
Whilst Arsenal effectively relegated Wigan on Wednesday night, it was no stroll through the park – the way the Gunners have shown character in the final stages of games in recent weeks to find that extra gear and keep it tight at the back takes resolve and, more importantly, commitment and determination which is something this team was criticised for lacking earlier on in the season.
Despite another ‘disappointing’ season on paper, Arsenal fans can take plenty of reasons for optimism in the way their team have finished out the season – the job isn’t quite done yet, of course but Wenger has had to rebuild this team for the past two seasons now and, barring any transfer shockers this summer, he has now a solid foundation on which to build next term.
Wholesale changes that have been mooted over the season by fans and pundits are not necessary – Arsenal now boast one of the most durable and reliable centre-back pairings in the league in Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny who, interestingly, haven’t been on the losing team as a pair in 17 league games now.
They have a fantastic synergy in midfield between Mikel Arteta, Aaron Ramsey and Santi Cazorla along with Tomas Rosicky and Jack Wilshere who they’ll be looking to provide more when fully fit next term and Olivier Giroud, Theo Walcott and Lukas Podolski have scored an incredible 36 league goals and made 26 league assists between them.
Considering how bleak it looked back at the turn of the year, Arsene Wenger’s team have come good in the end and have hinted at what is to come from them next season.
image: © Ronnie Macdonald