Here are a few contenders...
North London derby defeat in March
Arsenal lost 2-1 to Tottenham in the North London derby at White Hart Lane back in early March leading then Spurs boss Andre Villas-Boas to coin the 'negative spiral' phrase (albeit ironically in hindsight). Poor defending gave away goals from counter-attacks in a defeat which many lauded as a power shift in Tottenham's favour, but this also proved the inspiration for Arsenal turning it all around.
Bayern Munich win in March
Just 10 days after the defeat at Spurs, Arsenal went to Bayern and won – they weren’t even given a chance by most after a chastening 3-1 loss at the Emirates.
Arsenal beat Bayern Munich 2-0 on their own turf giving the German side quite a scare, the way they played there without conceding and with a focus on defensive solidity, would become the template for the rest of their 2012/13 season that saw them clinch 4th place in the Premier League ahead of Spurs on the final day of the season after a 10-game unbeaten run.
Aston Villa defeat
I was there for this one and it wasn’t pretty – the mood around the ground was beyond tense, it was beyond frustration and disappointment, it was starting to become aggressive and it was being aimed at the manager and the owner quite vocally.
This was the straw that broke the camels back for Arsenal fans at the time – enough was enough – and who knows what the trigger actually was but what happened in the transfer market after that defeat was most likely in part a reaction to that disastrous game.
In history in school we learned there are trends and there are triggers – the sale of key player over the last eight trophy-less years and the lack of world-class talent (or so it seemed) at the club were trends and that Villa game was the trigger, it epitomized everything wrong with everything by demonstrating that Wenger still hadn’t brought in a single new player and Arsenal were still not good enough to be contenders.
Signing of Mesut Ozil
And, as they say, the rest is history – Wenger and Arsenal broke records to sign the best number 10 in Europe in Mesut Ozil for £42.5 million in September from Real Madrid.
It was like the cure to all Arsenal’s ills and even though he’s just one man, it seems to have had a positive affect on the players around him, helping those like Aaron Ramsey and Olivier Giroud to raise their game this season. It’s almost as if he came in to training and the whole team and the manager thought ‘we better make a good impression’.
The fans got off the manager’s back (and the owner’s too mostly) and the pundits stopped referring to Arsenal as if they were has-beens (sort of) and everyone in Europe sat up and took notice – it’s as if Ozil thinking Arsenal are a top class club made everyone else go ‘oh yeah, I suppose they are then’.
Newcastle win to stay top
Finally, their last game of the year on Sunday may not be the most impressive display we’ve seen this year from the Gunners but I think in an appropriate way it defines how far they’ve come. It was another one of those Bayern Munich displays – they ground out a result with their backs against the wall for spells in the game and were happy to hold what they had certain they could keep a clean sheet. That’s characterized Arsenal since March in a way that you couldn’t have said for the last 8 years and perhaps even further back.
They finish out 2013 with a goal from a set piece and a clean sheet at St James’ Park to take all three points and stay top of the Premier League that sounds like a different team to the one who drew two, lost two and won just one of their games in January 2013, conceding 8 goals in five games to find themselves in 6th place by the end of January.
They’ve come a long way and whilst all of these moments accumulatively define Arsenal’s huge progress through, at times, adversity this year I believe the turning point for Arsene Wenger and his team was their win in Munich – I think that more than Ozil, more than the defeats is what showed the team what they needed to do game in game out to win week in week out and gave them a foundation to build on that we are now seeing coming to fruition this season.
I think the seeds of belief and confidence we’re seeing in the players and everyone associated with the club now were sewn back in March as they exited the Champions League with their heads held high and the bar set for the standards of performance that should go hand in hand with putting on an Arsenal shirt.
image: © Ronnie Macdonald