Arsenal FC: Positives from the Gunners' 2013-14 Premier League Campaign
It would be an understatement to say that Arsenal have had a roller-coaster 2013-14 season.
It all started on a low note, when Arsene Wenger failed to justify his lack of summer activity as his side slumped to a 3-1 defeat at home to Aston Villa on the opening day of the season.
What followed was a nine-game unbeaten run which included wins over Spurs and Liverpool—oh, and the £42 million deadline day signing of Mesut Ozil from Real Madrid. From the opening-day loss to early December, Arsenal picked up 34 out of 39 possible points, playing some stunning football along the way.
Few people expected the Gunners to mount any type of serious title challenge, but they managed to stay at the top of the table for 128 days—longer than any other team.
Some might view that statistic as a negative, and question how the once-league-leaders could let the title slip out of their grasp so catastrophically.
But really, the fact that Arsenal topped the table for so long should make Gunners fans look back on the 2013-14 season with fondness rather than with regret.
That's not to say there aren't any "what-ifs"—there's no doubt that all Arsenal supporters are wondering what would've been if Aaron Ramsey and Theo Walcott hadn't picked up injuries, or if Arsene Wenger had purchased a striker in the January transfer window.
Putting hypotheticals aside, though, Arsenal's title challenge should be seen as a sign of progress. Arsene Wenger's side hasn't had a real go at the title since the 2010-11 season, where they also ended up finishing in fourth place.
The Gunners' fourth-place finish, however, is more than what meets the eye. While it may be Arsenal's sixth fourth-place finish in the last nine seasons, the gap between the North London outfit and first place is vastly smaller this season than it has been in past campaigns.
Arsenal finished just seven points behind champions Manchester City, and seven points above fifth-placed Everton. That's a huge improvement when you consider that they finished a whopping 16 points and 19 points behind the champions in the 2012-13 and 2011-12 seasons, respectively.
While there have certainly been ups and downs in Arsenal's 2013-14 Premier League campaign, here are some positives to take from the last nine months.
There is a genuine case to be made that Aaron Ramsey's injury is the reason Arsenal didn't win the title—or at least the reason they couldn't maintain their challenge throughout the final weeks.
The Welshman was arguably the best player in the Premier League during the first half of the season, notching up eight goals and six assists before picking up a thigh injury that saw him sidelined from Boxing Day to early April.
During Ramsey's absence, Arsenal looked like a completely different team. Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini lack the Welshman's pace and creativity, while Jack Wilshere lacks his defensive awareness and consistency.
It should also be mentioned that Mesut Ozil's form dipped drastically after Ramsey's injury, which is no coincidence. The pair have similar football brains and seem to play on the same page; without Ramsey, there was often little off-the-ball movement going forward for Ozil to benefit from.
The 22-year-old finished the season with 10 goals and eight assists in the league—a tally made even more impressive by the fact that they came from just 20 starts. His average of 3.3 tackles per game is sixth among Premier League midfielders, ahead of Yaya Toure, Ramires and Steven Gerrard.
While Ramsey's wonder goal on the last day of the season reminded Arsenal supporters what they had been missing, the Gunners can look ahead to the 2014-15 campaign knowing they have one of the league's best players.
This may be a bold statement, but Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny are arguably Arsenal's best centre-back pairing since the Kolo Toure and Sol Campbell partnership of the 2003-04 Invincibles side.
Per Mertesacker has evolved from an awkward, unreliable defender into consistency personified. The German has truly turned into an elite centre-back, making up for his lack of pace with his superb reading of the game and organization skills.
Laurent Koscielny, meanwhile, continues to improve with every passing season of his Arsenal career. His reading of the game is nearly as acute as Mertesacker's, but his pace is his best asset. The Frenchman is capable of catching up with any striker in the league, and when Mertesacker's lack of pace is exploited Koscielny is almost always there to clean things up.
The full-backs, while not receiving as much praise as their central counterparts, have done admirable jobs this season, too.
When fit, Kieran Gibbs was one of Arsenal's most impressive players. Due to Santi Cazorla's tendency to stray centrally from his left-wing position, Gibbs often had to provide Arsenal's width on the left side—a job that he succeeded in. While the 24-year-old is defensively solid, he has a burst of pace that helps him get forward efficiently and put in dangerous crosses.
On the other side of the back four, Bacary Sagna had one of his best seasons in an Arsenal shirt, improving his crossing while staying as consistent as ever in defense. Sadly, it looks like this will also be his last season in an Arsenal shirt, as he recently admitted that he's unlikely to sign a new contract.
Behind the back four, Wojciech Szczesny had by far his best season for Arsenal to date. The Pole's 16 clean sheets are tied for most in the league with Petr Cech, and he was robbed of a 17th when Lukasz Fabianski was given the start for Arsenal's last game of the season.
For the most part, Szczesny erased unnecessary errors and complacency from his game, and at 24 years old he looks set to be Arsenal's No. 1 for a long time.
If you ignore the 17 goals shipped in away games against top-four teams, Arsenal conceded just 32 goals this season. That being said, 17 goals in just three games is unacceptable—there's clearly room for improvement despite the progress Arsenal have made in defense this season.
Ability to Crush Smaller Teams
Arsenal's downfall in recent seasons has often stemmed from dropping points against teams they shouldn't be dropping points against.
This season, however, Wenger's side demonstrated a ruthless ability to kill off the league's "smaller" sides. Arsenal dropped just seven points and conceded 13 goals in their 20 matches against bottom-half teams, a remarkable record compared to the other three clubs in the top four.
Chelsea's title challenge was derailed by defeats to teams like Crystal Palace, Aston Villa and Sunderland; Liverpool, on the other hand, leaked goals against the likes of Crystal Palace, Cardiff and Swansea.
Arsenal's spectacular failure against fellow title contenders ultimately saw their title challenge unravel, but if they can continue to show efficiency against small teams, the Gunners will certainly be challenging for the title once again next season.
More to Come from Mesut Ozil
In a way, Mesut Ozil's season is a microcosm of Arsenal's season as a whole.
The club's record signing oozed class against smaller teams, but he failed to show up in big games and got his fair share of criticism for it. He was a victim of his own success, in that he set the bar so high with the blistering start to his Arsenal career that many forgot how hard it is to adjust to the Premier League once he began to struggle.
By no means did Ozil have a bad season: Five goals and nine assists in the Premier League is a tally most midfielders would be proud of, while his 2.7 key passes per game are second only behind David Silva.
The 25-year-old remains one of the most talented players in world football and has the potential to be the best player in the Premier League. With a year of experience in England under his belt and a full preseason for Arsenal, expect big things from Ozil in 2014-15.