The 2012-13 season is over for Arsenal, and now comes the time to take stock.
Was it a successful season for the Gunners? Was it a failure? Somewhere in between?
Today I'm recapping Arsenal's season and handing out end-of-season awards to players, staff, moments and whatever else strikes my fancy. Keep reading to find out how I rated the season.
Arsenal finished fourth in the Premier League, clinching a place in the final round of qualifying for next season's UEFA Champions League group stage. The Gunners overtook rivals Tottenham, closing a seven-point deficit with eight wins and two draws in their final 10 matches.
In the Champions League, Arsenal finished second in Group B behind Schalke. Finalists Bayern Munich knocked out Arsene Wenger's squad in the Round of 16 on away goals.
Both of the domestic cups ended in disappointment against lower-league opposition.
Championship side Blackburn eliminated Arsenal with a 1-0 victory at the Emirates Stadium in the fifth round of the FA Cup. League Two's Bradford City eliminated Arsenal from the quarterfinals of the Capital One Cup on penalties.
Other departures included midfielder Alex Song to Barcelona and goalkeeper Manuel Almunia to Watford. Nicklas Bendtner spent the season on loan with Juventus.
Before the season, Arsenal signed forwards Lukas Podolski from Koln for £10.9 million per the Daily Mail and Olivier Giroud from Montpellier for £12.8 million per the Daily Mail in an effort to replace van Persie. Midfielder Santi Cazorla joined from Malaga for less than £15 million, according to BBC Sport.
Defender Nacho Monreal joined from Malaga for £8.5 million in January, per the Guardian.
Arsenal produced several scintillating performances this season, but the best moment of the season was also its last.
When the final whistle blew on the Gunners' 1-0 victory at Newcastle on the last day of the season, everyone felt a surge of cathartic release, from players, manager and staff to fans everywhere.
Critics will point out that this illustrates Arsenal's decline from regular title challengers to a club content to finish in the top four. That is a debate for later, but what's above debate is the joy and satisfaction Sunday's victory brought everyone associated with Arsenal.
On the pitch, Arsenal either thrilled or exasperated fans (or both) in wins over Southampton, Reading, Newcastle, Tottenham, West Ham and Bayern Munich. But victory on the final day—though it was stressful and aesthetically unattractive—brought a happy ending to the club's all-important quest for Champions League qualification.
Losing Robin van Persie to Manchester United in August presaged a season that bore its share of disappointment. The worst of this was probably the loss to League Two side Bradford City on penalties in the Capital One Cup in December.
The Capital One Cup was not a priority for Arsenal, nor is it likely to be so next season. Losing to such a modest opponent, however, was humbling. Worse, Gervinho blew an easy chance in the first half; had he converted, the result might have been different.
Other contenders for the season's lowest point were the loss at home to Blackburn in the FA Cup and the loss at home to Bayern in the Champions League. Van Persie's departure itself was also a low point.
Even the most optimistic of Gooners must have feared the worst at that point, but Arsenal closed the gap and beat Spurs to fourth place by winning eight and drawing two—losing none—of their final 10 matches.
Along the way, Arsenal weren't exactly Arsenal. Instead of the beautiful game, the Gunners played something closer to the effective game, often scoring early and shutting down opponents defensively.
As Arseblog writes:
You have to give credit to the players for the way they ground out results and to the manager and his assistant for realising that this team needed to change in order to get where we needed to. There was, I believe, a realisation that we couldn’t play the expansive, attacking football Arsene Wenger likes. I think it came down to lack of quality in the squad and the manager cut his cloth accordingly.
Instead of going out to win games, we set out first and foremost not to lose them. The away win at Bayern Munich provided an instant boost after a miserable couple of weeks, and from then on we saw an Arsenal team that defended well and ground out results in a way that I don’t think I’ve ever seen from a Wenger team.
It wasn't necessarily pretty, but it worked. The latter is the only consideration that matters.
Defender Laurent Koscielny scored the lone goal in Arsenal's crucial 1-0 victory over Newcastle on the final day of the season. That was appropriate: Koscielny was perhaps Arsenal's most important player in the run-in.
Or, as B/R's Sam Tighe writes, Koscielny was the catalyst during the final 10 matches.
His contribution in the final two games underline his style, commitment and clutch ability to come up big when needed.
Against Wigan Athletic, when tensions were running high at 1-1, the Frenchman made an acrobatic hooked clearance to stop the Latics taking the lead. His side, growing in confidence, went on to win 4-1.
That left them one victory away from assuring Champions League qualification, and that victory came courtesy of Koscielny's solitary strike in a 1-0 victory at St. James' Park.
Mertesacker and Kieran Gibbs had been caught out of position early on only for Laurent to bail them out with some superb defensive covering. After Mikel Arteta came off injured, the Frenchman took on leadership responsibilities without the armband: vocal, commanding, dominant.
Over the course of the season, Koscielny also displaced captain Thomas Vermaelen as Arsenal's top defender. Next season, the Frenchman should serve as a cornerstone for Arsene Wenger's squad.
Speaking of Koscielny, he and German international Per Mertesacker eventually formed—after much trial and error by Arsene Wenger—Arsenal's best central defensive pairing this season.
Over the last 10 league matches, Arsenal conceded only five goals. Koscielny and Mertesacker formed the central partnership in nine of those matches, keeping five clean sheets.
That late-season defensive excellence resulted in an unexpected distinction: Arsenal conceded 37 goals this season, second-fewest behind Manchester City (34).
Arsenal's final defensive record gave cause to celebrate, but at times this season, the defense served as a source of concern.
Full-back Andre Santos was a convenient scapegoat, but captain and central defender Thomas Vermaelen was more disappointing—mostly because more was expected from the Belgian.
Vermaelen joined Arsenal from Ajax in 2009 and turned in a strong debut season, earning a spot in the 2009-10 PFA Team of the Season (via Daily Mail). His continued strong performances earned him the captain's armband following the departure of Robin van Persie last summer.
But this season, Vermaelen regressed considerably.
After a poor performance in the loss to Spurs, he started just once in the final two months of the season—against Norwich, while Per Mertesacker served a suspension—and his future as captain is now unclear.
Midfielder Abou Diaby returned from a long-term injury early in the 2012-13 season and managed 11 league appearances (10 starts) before suffering another long-term injury that ended his campaign.
The France international faces a nine-month layoff after cruciate ligament damage in his left knee, according to the Guardian, and by now even the stubborn Arsene Wenger must realize he must sign another midfielder to compensate for the injury-prone Diaby.
This was a surprisingly difficult decision. Which player is most useless: Sebastien Squillaci, Marouane Chamakh or Andrey Arshavin?
Squillaci made only a single appearance with the first team this season. Chamakh mostly took up space but did score twice against Reading in that wild League Cup match.
Arshavin, meanwhile, put his considerable talents to use in seven league appearances (all as a substitute) this season without scoring or assisting a goal. He did, however, receive one yellow card.
Well done, Andrey.
Midfielder Aaron Ramsey has been a divisive figure among Arsenal fans, but his performance during the latter part of the 2012-13 season suggests he is becoming a quality player who is integral to Arsene Wenger's plans.
A tireless worker, Ramsey's contributions don't always show up in the statistics. But he did complete more than 88 percent of his passes in the league this season while committing only 0.6 turnovers per match, per WhoScored. According to Squawka, he created 44 chances and won 90 percent of his tackles.
Ramsey's progress has been slow since returning from a harrowing broken leg, but he is becoming an important part of the team. And he's still only 22 years old.
Midfielder Jack Wilshere showed flashes of brilliance this season after returning from a long-term ankle injury in October. He is scheduled for another surgery in the offseason according to BBC Sport, but fans shouldn't worry.
Jack is back. And what's more, he looks like the key player in Arsenal's future.
Still only 21, Wilshere at times this season wielded an influence in Arsenal's midfield beyond his years. At other times, though, he struggled to cope with the demands of the season. Manager Arsene Wenger admitted to the Telegraph that he rushed Wilshere back from injury, and considering Wilshere's potential, it's not hard to understand the reasoning.
Once he is back to full fitness, Wilshere can—perhaps should—become one of the league's top players.
Attacking midfielder Santi Cazorla signed with Arsenal from Malaga late last summer, and it took the pint-sized Spaniard little time to prove his class.
Almost from the first minute of the first match, Cazorla was Arsenal's most creative player this season. He finished with 11 assists and 12 goals while completing nearly 87 percent of his passes (WhoScored) and created 95 total chances (Squawka).
Deployed in the middle or on the wing, Cazorla devastated defenses with both his passing and his finishing. And he did it all with an infectious smile and enthusiasm.
As Arsenal push for greater accomplishments next season, he will surely play a critical role.
Arsenal's fourth-place finish was one place worse than last season, but the Gunners bettered their points total by three, scored just two fewer goals without Robin van Persie and conceded 12 fewer. Finishing fourth—and taking pride in it—compares poorly to Arsene Wenger's glory days, but signs of progress are emerging.
In 2012 Arsenal earned £103.2 million in matchday revenue, according to Deloitte. The club recently signed a highly lucrative shirt-sponsorship deal with Puma. The deal has been described as the "biggest kit contract in Britain" by Yahoo! Eurosport.
Despite outstanding debt from construction of the Emirates, the club is in good financial position. The squad will likely stay together this summer, and funds are reportedly available to strengthen in key areas (via Sky Sports).
Arsenal have consistently qualified for Europe and maintained sound financial health without overspending. Now is the time to build.
With Champions League football once again assured, the club can keep luring top players to North London. But that will cost money.
After a long trophy drought, Arsenal could be poised for success in 2013-14.