The season ended on a real high with the 9-year trophy drought broken by one of the most nervy, nail-biting FA Cup final in years. Starting catastrophically by conceding 2 goals in the first ten minutes of the game, Arsenal rallied. A Santi Carzola free kick after 17 minutes brought measured recovery confidence before the end of the first half. At 72 minutes, it was beginning to look like one of those days when Koscielny bundled home a much-deserved equalizer to wipe out Hull’s earlier lead. From then on, it was, effectively, a matter of when the winner would come and in extra time, indeed 19 minutes of the regulation 30 minutes, Aaron Ramsey, undoubtedly the stand out player in Arsenal this season, despite prolonged absence through injury, conjured a winner that sent the Arsenal faithful into the kind of improvised delirium by a following who had forgotten how to win titles. It was a pulsating way to end a long period of emptiness in tournament success and one that Arsenal fans will savour for a very long time. But, truth be told, it could have been so much better if, but only if, certain factors, both unfortunate and sometimes self-inflicted, did not conspire to deny Arsenal a far more successful season. In Post-Mortem mood, here are some of those “if” factors and probably what needs to be done differently to address these.
Every team must be measured by the resources that it possesses. This means assessing the end product over the course of the season. From an on-field performance viewpoint, Arsenal had, for the first time at the start of the season, a squad that could have competed strongly for the title and other honours. For long periods of the season, this belief was evident. After the opening day’s farce against Aston Villa when they ended up with a dismissal and a 1-3 defeat, the tides changed slowly but steadily. Arsenal developed an answer to the “small team slip ups” for which it was characteristically known in seasons before by almost brutally dispatching the so-called lesser teams. In the games against the teams outside the top 4 this season, Arsenal won 24; drew 4; and lost 4, accumulating a points total of 72. That was clearly championship winning form until the results against the current top 4 teams is brought into the mix. Conceding an astonishing 17 goals whilst scoring 7, Arsenal took 5 points out of a possible 18 available. Add to this, slip-ups against Villa, United, Stoke and Everton leading to a total of 7 defeats for the season, it is easy to see where the performances dipped. Arsenal led the league for 128 days; Chelsea 64, Liverpool 59 and Manchester City, ultimately champions, for a measly 11 days. Failing to convert that long lead hurts and is a position that the club will be looking to address critically. The target must be to retain the “ruthlessness” against the “smaller” clubs whilst changing the attitude and approach to the games against the “big” sides to a more, result-oriented one.
With the playing staff, there were two main problems. First, some key players missed huge segments of the season through injury. Whilst this remains completely unpredictable and generally beyond the control of the players and medical staff, questions have, probably unfairly, been raised about the management of the fitness and medical regimes of the players. This is because, of all the major – indeed most of the EPL teams – Arsenal had one of the worst medical histories for the season. Paul Doyle, writing in The Guardian of 14 March 2014, on the eve of the derby game with Spurs, reported that Arsene Wenger had indicated that the club would “…conduct a comprehensive investigation into his club's training methods and medical procedures in an effort to establish whether Arsenal could have avoided the spate of injuries that risks sabotaging their season.” At this point, in the season, Ramsey, Walcott, Wilshere and Ozil were all injured. Monreal and Gibbs were similarly stricken and, later, Sanogo, Bendtner, Ox-Chamberlain and Vermaleen. Add to that the Kim Kallstrom situation that, in fairness, was an inherited situation. In all, many teams will struggle with this kind of high-level absence. That investigation, in all its fullness, must be undertaken because it seems clear that were this position different especially with the absence of Ramsey and Walcott, it is more than likely that Arsenal would have finished higher up the table if not win the league.
The second problem with the playing staff is what experts have alluded to as a “lack of strength in depth” of the squad. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the striker’s role. Arsenal started the season with Oliver Giroud. It was clear to Wenger that this situation needed to be bolstered hence the unsuccessful efforts to acquire the services of Gonzalo Higuain and later, Liverpool’s talisman, the mercurial Colombian, Luis Suarez. Indeed it has been suggested that the latter’s acquisition would have secured the league title and the fact that he has won all the awards for best player this season with his 31 goals for Liverpool and overall play lends credence to that belief. Having realized this, it was incomprehensible that Wenger did even less to address this situation in the January transfer window when it was plainly evident that this was necessary. This seems to be an inevitable gap that must be addressed in this close season and the smart money is that that this will happen.
At the end of the season, Arsenal finished fourth, continuing a record of not having finished outside the top 4 in the entire period of Arsene Wenger’s 18 years as manager. This confirms continuing qualification for the lucrative champions league and retention of its place in Europe’s elites. Add the FA Cup that it last won in 2005 and there is no question that the season was a success. That it could have yielded more is not in dispute. What is important is that the unfortunate lessons have been learnt and improvements will be made to eliminate them.