Arsenal had an emotionally tumultuous 2014/15 campaign, avoiding end-of-season blushes with a sensational resurgence from the turn of the New Year and showing encouraging signs that they are still heading in the right direction under long-time manager Arsene Wenger.
Wenger, the longest-serving and most successful manager for the Gunners, will be relishing his team’s late-season revival as he steered a revitalised Arsenal to back-to-back FA Cup victories, and toughed it out for a third place finish in the domestic standings – securing Champions League qualification for a record 18th consecutive time.
The 2014/15 season began with a sense of optimism around the Emirates, after claiming the FA Cup in dramatic fashion to ending a nine year silverware drought, and Wenger uncharacteristically spending big in the summer transfer market to sign five talented players – Alexis Sanchez, Mathieu Debuchy, Danny Welbeck, David Ospina, and Calum Chambers – surpassing £80 million in transfer fees. Supporters were vivaciously awaiting the promising season, however, their feeling soon turned to despair when Arsenal managed just two wins from the opening eight league fixtures, demonstrating a lack of potency and wavering form. Per Mertesacker, Lukas Podolski, and Mesut Ozil all returned to North London worn out following Germany’s triumph at the 2014 FIFA World Cup, and their lethargic performances at the start of the season hampered the Gunners’ morale.
The 65-year-old manager’s job became more difficult when Olivier Giroud, Debuchy, and Laurent Koscielny all succumbed to long-term injuries, and the lack of depth in Arsenal’s list became more evident by the week – especially in defence. Failure to recruit a center-back in the summer, following the sale of Thomas Vermaelen to Barcelona, forced Wenger to pair Mertesacker with Nacho Monreal in the heart of defence. The natural left-back performed admirably in his unconventional role, however, his partnership with the German never thrived.
An improvised line-up landed the Gunners in eighth position after 12 games. Yet accumulating just a lowly 17 points. Arsenal mirrored its unconvincing play in the Champions League, in particular when they collapsed from a three goal lead to draw 3-3 at home to Belgian-outfit RSC Anderlecht.
The tipping point for Wenger’s team was arguably the 3-2 away defeat to Stoke in early December, where the Frenchman was the victim of passionate revolt from travelling supporters who voiced their dismay at Arsenal’s futile effort and lack of conviction. While many of the faithful were signalling for managerial change, Wenger took action to strengthen his depleted first-team. His decision to look internally for replacements, as opposed to the transfer market, was a significant factor in his ability to rectify his team. Energetic defender Hector Bellerin grabbed his opportunity after shaky displays at right-back, following a long-term injury to Debuchy and a red card to Chambers. The 20-year old impressed with a string of confident displays and will be pressing to add to his first-team appearances in the coming season.
Wenger surprised everyone when he recalled Francis Coquelin from his brief loan spell with Championship-side Charlton Athletic in December, as the result of a horrid run of injury and form hit central-defensive-midfielders Mikel Arteta and Mattieu Flamini respectively. The 24-year old delivered beyond expectation, and his strong defensive approach provided balance and allowed the attacking-minded to push afield. Such attackers include Sanchez, who proved to be the team’s barometer, and rarely failed to deliver in his standout debut season. His goal sense, fighting spirit, and feverish work-rate were well received by the Gunners’ supporters, and the nicknamed ‘Duracell battery’ was instrumental in Arsenal’s climb up the Premier League ladder.
From Christmas onwards, the Northern Londoners were arguably the best team in the Premier League. Wenger instigated a more familiar 4-2-3-1 formation, opting for Coquelin and clever Spaniard Santi Cazorla to play as the deep-lying midfielders. They formed an effective partnership, and their contribution was pivotal in Arsenal’s eight consecutive league wins between February and April. There is no surprise that Wenger decidedly named the same starting XI for six games in a row between April and May, for the first time in his managerial career with the Gunners.
Toward the season’s end, Wenger had selection dilemmas with high-profile players returning to full fitness, and the current XI starting to jell nicely. He rewarded Theo Walcott for his persistence with a start in center-forward against West Bromwich Albion in the closing league fixture, and following his hat-trick effort he was selected over Giroud to start in the FA Cup final the following week. The English Speedster continued his good form, to the delight of Wenger, and scored the opening goal in a dominant 4-0 victory at Wembley. The veteran manager demonstrated a more adaptive mindset this season, showing the nous to recognise the components of his team that worked well and stick with them, while generally making tactical changes to his formation and style of play to suit the occasion required rather than the tactical naivety that he has troubled his sides in recent history.
After what initially was a sluggish start, Wenger finished the season on a high note – winning his sixth FA Cup as manager and finishing one position better in the Premier League than last campaign. A successful summer transfer window saw most of the high-profile acquisitions make significant contributions, namely Sanchez for his relentless pressure and tenacity, and unfortunate circumstances allowed emerging youngsters, such as Bellerin and Coquelin, to stake their claims with career-defining seasons. The team is mentally stronger and more cohesive than they were at the same point last season, and Wenger enters the next campaign with his most settled list since the ‘Invincibles’ in 2003/04. If key players remain fit and firing, and their youth avoid second-year blues, Arsenal could mount a serious challenge for their first Premier League title in 11 years, and also improve on their early exit from the Champions League.