A year ago today Arsenal lost at home to Manchester City amid the kind of calamity that gripped much of their season before March: a sending-off for Laurent Koscielny in the fifth minute that meant they were doomed before they even got going.
Afterwards, Arsène Wenger complained about his team being “timid”, of “lacking confidence or authority” and he even suggested they were incapable of imposing their personality on a game. To his credit, he did not blame the referee Mike Dean for the sending-off, although he acknowledged, as politely as possible, that the anxiety in the stands from the home support was not helping.
That same day, Manchester United won at home to Liverpool to maintain their lead at the top over City. The gap from the leaders to Arsenal in sixth place, after 22 games played, was a colossal 21 points. Arsenal’s defeat was part of a run of three league games after the turn of the year in which they won only one point. You get the picture.
The renaissance has been remarkable since their defeat at White Hart Lane in early March when the slide to mediocrity looked assured. Against Aston Villa tonight, a victory will take them back to the top of the Premier League. While Arsenal may well not win the league, it is, for now, enough that they could.
When Wenger signs his next contract, possibly his last at the club, over the next few months it will be a relief to the board that he will do so with the approval of many supporters who wanted him to go a year earlier.
That it is Villa on Monday night conjures memories of the first day of the season, when Arsenal were beaten at home by Paul Lambert’s side to the anger of the home support – some of whom had taken the trouble to print out constructive criticism on A4 sheets of paper which they waved at their manager.
Since that first week it has been someone else’s turn to be the Premier League’s crisis club du jour – mostly that has been Manchester United but occasionally Tottenham Hotspur too. While Arsenal, who in previous years stumbled around like a man in a darkened cellar, stubbing his toes and clunking his head, have progressed mostly with serenity.
Yes, their league run-in, with Liverpool, Tottenham, Chelsea and Everton all to play away from home, is more challenging in comparison to their relatively benign start to the season. Yet, the absence of drama off the pitch, for once, has been a crucial factor and there are no more contract refuseniks now that the likes of Robin van Persie, Samir Nasri and Alex Song are gone.
How did it all get so much better? Details, details. The improvement in the likes of Aaron Ramsey, Per Mertesacker, Olivier Giroud and Wojciech Szczesny have been happy developments for the club, although not all of which would you have put your mortgage on last season.
The return of Mathieu Flamini, at one point during the summer a byword for Arsenal’s failure in the transfer window, is another. A willingness to be more direct at times has helped. So too, the Mesut Özil effect, even if he has not been quite the hit on the pitch.
Yet, in terms of a strategy, the signing of Theo Walcott, Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Carl Jenkinson and Kieran Gibbs last season was the first move in a long time that looked like, well, a plan. Even down to the presentation of it by the club – that picture of the five of them all “signing” in a row (excluding Walcott who signed later) like little Victorian urchins delighted at being served their first warm meal of the week with Wenger smiling paternally in the background.
That core of players – not all of them necessarily first choice – suggested that this was a club who had an idea of what they wanted to do. Contract discipline and the tendency to let big names drift to the end of their deals had been Arsenal’s biggest flaw until then. They almost let Walcott go the same way and then rescued the situation, chiefly by paying him what he wanted.
It meant that the club had a basis on which to build, along with a policy of buying more experience, in the likes of Mikel Arteta, Mertesacker, Santi Cazorla, Nacho Monreal and Lukas Podolski.
In this season of flux in the Premier League, the question that presents itself to Arsenal now is: what next? They have always been a far-sighted club, swapping the relative ease of life as one of the two dominant clubs in the Premier League at the turn of the millennium for a new stadium build that took so much out of them financially.
The club will have watched the Sir Alex Ferguson succession at United with interest, and all the attendant problems that has brought. They will have noted the state of United’s squad that David Moyes inherited, the unwatered garden which could take years to bloom again, potentially without Champions League participation for a period. They will surely recognise the chance for Arsenal to take their place in any new order.
For all the careful financial projections that clubs make, for the delicate judgements on when best to renegotiate contracts, there has been so much that has taken place inside and outside the club to influence Arsenal’s fortunes, that no one could have predicted 12 months ago.
But now is not the time to worry about that. If Ferguson’s dominance of English football taught his rivals anything it was that they were best served by strengthening from a position of strength. It is a lesson that United have ignored at their peril in recent seasons and now contemplate the prospect of Wayne Rooney reaching the end of his contract and the club being a difficult sell to the most sought-after targets on the transfer market.
Arsenal can reconsider what are their strengths and present them in new ways. For instance, Alvaro Morata will look upon Wenger’s bold predictions about Serge Gnabry making a late run for the Germany World Cup squad and wonder if he too might be better served playing for a club that offers such opportunities for a young player.
It is possible that for all the talk of the tectonic plates of football shifting that, in two years’ time, they will settle down once again in their original places and we will chastise ourselves for ever thinking it might be different. Yet consider this: 12 months ago today, Arsenal found themselves closer in terms of points to Queen’s Park Rangers at the very bottom of the Premier League, than they did United at the top.
Come May, it might be too much for Arsenal to have held off these formidable City or Chelsea sides for the league title. Yet they will go into the summer for the first time in a long time without the pressure to react, be that to a key player agitating to leave, or supporters demanding that they spend money. Instead, they can build on a season that is already outstripping expectations.
These are the days in which Arsenal can seek to exert themselves over United, and compete with City and Chelsea. That kind of opportunity does not present itself often, but grasped the right way, can confer an advantage that lasts for years.
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