Even before his winning volley at St James’ Park, Arsenal owed the saving of their season to Laurent Koscielny.
It was Arsène Wenger’s brave decisions in early spring, with his team stuck in sixth place in the Premier League, which brought the stability required to drag them into fourth.
January defeats to Manchester City and Chelsea showed the team needed more control, and so Aaron Ramsey, misused earlier in the year, came in alongside Mikel Arteta in midfield. Results improved, with some hard-won away victories, but the 2-1 derby defeat to Spurs in early March emphasised that the defence was not good enough.
So Wenger dropped his captain, Thomas Vermaelen, and his goalkeeper, Wojciech Szczesny, for their Champions League tie at Bayern Munich, which they won 2-0. Per Mertesacker and Koscielny, Arsenal’s two best centre-backs, formed a far better partnership than any including the ill-disciplined and boyishly overenthusiastic Vermaelen.
It had been apparent for some time that the Belgian was part of the problem, while Koscielny is a far more astute reader of the game. Given a run in the team, he started to replicate his excellent form of last season, while Lukasz Fabianski was more assured than Szczesny.
That victory over Bayern marked a real turning point. From then on, Arsenal won eight and drew two of their last 10 league games, conceding just five goals. The Mertesacker-Koscielny partnership was key and Arsenal were, for the first time in years, winning ugly. The mistake of making Vermaelen captain last year had finally been corrected.
Wenger will surely try to move Vermaelen on. The issue, though, is in front them. This newly solid, efficient Arsenal lack the pace and spark title challengers need. This is a rare position for them – having the cake in place and needing to add the icing – the situation is usually the reverse.
A striker has to be the priority, though. Lukas Podolski has never quite looked quick enough for the Premier League. Olivier Giroud is admirable and consistent but he will probably never have the quality to lead the attack.
Gonzalo Higuain, Real Madrid’s disgruntled goal machine, would take Arsenal to another level as would Stevan Jovetic, the younger, more imaginative Fiorentina forward. With managerial changes at the three teams who finished above them, this summer is a rare chance for Arsenal to make up some ground. But they need investment to build on this useful basis.