Can Arsenal challenge next season?
Published: 07.06.13 / Written by: David Gold
Arsenalís gritty 1-0 win against Newcastle at the weekend secured the most nervous but precious of victories, giving Arsene Wengerís team Champions League football for the 16th year in a row.
It is a proud record but it was because it is one of the few things that sets Arsenal out from their rivals that it was so important they achieved that particular target this year. For long periods of the season it appeared unlikely. There was a decent start to the season which tailed off quickly with Norwich City bursting their bubble in October with a shock win. After that Arsenal failed to recover momentum, and a 2-0 defeat at home to Swansea was the nadir of the season.
Arsenal soon got back on track, but they were unable to impose themselves on Chelsea, Manchester City or Liverpool in a series of difficult games in January and things looked difficult. After defeat to Tottenham in March which left them seven points off their rivals, it appeared that their hopes of finishing in the top four were over.
Yet they came back. After a 2-0 win away to Bayern Munich, Arsenal regained focus, confidence and stability at the back. Laurent Koscielny came in to replace captain Thomas Vermaelen, whose indifferent form caused a headache for Wenger. Koscielny was the real leader of this team throughout their run to the top four, his speed and intelligence key to stopping Arsenalís rivals and ensuring the Gunners finished the season having conceded five goals in their last 10 games.
It was Koscielny of course who struck that decisive goal at St Jamesí Park last weekend in the 1-0 win that secured Champions League football once again for the Gunners. The Frenchman was tenacious throughout, winning some vital challenges in his own penalty area and driving Arsenal forward with poise and belief.
So having achieved this goal for this year, can Arsenal go on and improve for next season? On the face of it they have the money to, with huge new deals with Puma and Emirates ensuring the transfer kitty is bulkier than it has been for a while. And Wenger at least can point to some positives. For one thing, they picked up more points than the year before, and had a better goal difference, even without van Persie. The reason their goal difference was so much better was because their defence was much improved. Arsenal finished with the best away defensive record in the league, and the second best overall. That unusual solidity offers optimism for Wenger, whose team have floundered in the past on their soft centre and bad defensive mistakes.
The other main cause of optimism is that none of their big players will leave this summer. For one thing there are fewer of them, with Samir Nasri, Emmanuel Adebayor, Alex Song, Gael Clichy, Robin van Persie and Cesc Fabregas all having left in recent seasons. But the clubís best players of this season, Santi Cazorla, Theo Walcott, Lukas Podolski, Jack Wilshere and Mikel Arteta are not going anywhere. The young stars are mostly British and signed up to new long term deals, and the most promising of them, Wilshere, is an Arsenal fan through and through. For once a summer of stability genuinely is on the horizon for Wenger.
Combined with fresh finances, stability and unlike the teams above them, no change of manager over the summer, it could be that Arsenal can finally start to punch at a level above the one they have been fighting at in recent seasons, and compete again for the trophies that have eluded them for so long.