Sam Wallace: Arsenal have made incredible progress over the last year thanks to the return of Mathieu Flamini and form of Aaron Ramsey

Arsenal are in a much better place than a year ago, in which they were closer to QPR at the bottom than United at the top, and can spend the summer building on solid foundations

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.

Suggested Topics
New Articles
tvDownton Abbey Christmas special
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
News
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
News
news
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: Stanley Tucci, Sophie Grabol and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvSo Sky Atlantic arrived in Iceland to film their new and supposedly snow-bound series 'Fortitude'...
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman as Clara Oswald in the Doctor Who Christmas special
tvForget the rumours that Clara Oswald would be quitting the Tardis
Arts and Entertainment
Japanese artist Megumi Igarashi showing a small mascot shaped like a vagina
art
News
The Queen delivers her Christmas message
newsTwitter reacts to Her Majesty's Christmas Message
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Life and Style
fashion
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all