Thursday, June 12, 2014

The 2013/14 Season Review (1) - Overview

It's time for our season review again! We look back on the 2013/14 season in the same manner as in the past two years. To start with, here is our overview of the season, followed by close looks at individual games and players in the next two posts.

Arsenal ended their 2013/14 campaign fourth in the league to qualify for the next season's Champions League for the 17th consecutive season, and more importantly with an FA Cup success to end their nine-year wait for a trophy. Having led the league for 128 days, more days than any other club, finishing fourth may feel like a failure to some fans, but we think that the 2013/14 season was a successful one for Arsenal.

In the 2013/14 season, the Gunners entered a new era as the austerity period forced by repayment of stadium debts was finally over, with their finances boosted by a lucrative new shirt deal. For the first time in recent years, they did not sell their star players. On the contrary, Arsene Wenger was given a sizable war chest in the summer. However, the club's failed attempts to sign a world-class striker had been frustrating the fans all the summer. The north London club's only signing so far was 20-year-old Yaya Sanogo from a French second division club on a free transfer. So their shock defeat to Aston Villa on the opening day immediately triggered an uproar among the supporters with quite a few calling for Arsene Wenger's head.

However, things turned around quickly. Arsenal secured their place in the group stages of the Champions League by beating Fenerbahce comfortably in the initially tough-looking two-legged qualifier. Then they embarked on an impressive run of form. In fact, they would go on to end the season unbeaten at home since the opening day. The re-signing of Mathieu Flamini, on another free transfer, did raise a question among fans first, but after his gutsy performance and vocal leadership in a north London derby at the end of August, the French midfielder was hailed as Arsenal's best summer signing. The mood surrounding the Club was further buoyed by the capture of Mesut Özil on the transfer deadline day. The fans and the players alike were lifted by the club record signing of  £42.5 million. At the end of 2013, asked the fans which was the best moment of 2013 on their online poll. 44% of voters chose the signing of Mesut Özil, ahead of the famous win at Allianz Stadium or securing Champions League qualification on the final day of the 2012/13 season. The players were equally excited with the arrival of the ex-Real Madrid player. Kieran Gibbs' words summed up its impact on the squad: "We can't let him down".

It didn't take very long for the German playmaker to show his class. He set up Olivier Giroud's fourth goal in the fourth straight game against Sunderland in the 11th minute after taking a deft touch to bring the ball down in the air. However, what contributed more to Arsenal's fine start to the season was Aaron Ramsey's scintillating form. He had been getting in great positions for the previous two seasons, but goals were added to his game this season. Up until his injury on  Boxing Day, he made second most touches, third most assists, second most successful passes, and second most tackles won in the Premier League, demonstrating his calibre as an all-round midfielder.

Arsenal had been proving the doubters wrong every time they suffered a blip, but they had finally surrendered their reign at the top of the Premier League after a heavy defeat to Liverpool on 8 February and never regained the top spot for the rest of the season. The collapse of the form was attributed to two factors: injury to key players and poor results against title rivals. Aaron Ramsey's 4-month lay-off was arguably most damaging, judging from the fact that his comeback coincided with the resurgence of the Gunners. Without the Wales midfielder, Arsenal lacked penetration and a cutting edge in the final third. Theo Walcott's pace was also sorely missed. In the absence of this season's in-form player and last season's top goal scorer, Arsenal seriously struggled for goals. In addition, Mesut Özil, Jack Wilshere and Laurent Koscielny, joined them in the treatment room in a crucial period for the title challenge. Although any team would struggle if they lost these players for a lengthy spell at the same time, Arsenal's weakness in the depth of the squad was cruelly exposed in the February-March period.

A 5-1 defeat at Anfield, a 6-0 debacle at Stanford Bridge, and a 3-0 loss at Goodison Park in this period were also detrimental for Arsenal's title hopes and credentials. We will go into details about these games in the next installment of our season review.

Just when we started to resign ourselves to the prospect of a usual end-of-season scrap for fourth place, Arsenal's form turned the corner and they went on to win the final five games in a row, while Everton cracked under the pressure of the race for a Champions League place. In the end, Arsenal secured the top-four finish with two games to spare, finishing 7 points above the fifth-placed Merseyside club. Also, St Totteringham's Day arrived this season as early as 28 April, with our north London rivals finishing 10 points behind us.

Overall, the 2013/14 season saw the Arsenal squad take a step forward from the previous season. Despite finishing in the same position in the table as the 2012/13 season, they collected the most points (79) in the past 6 seasons, a highest point tally to finish fourth. The long spell at the top of the table indicated that they were ready to compete for the title. Furthermore, they lifted a first trophy in 9 years. Hopefully, as many, including players, suggested, the FA Cup victory will serve as a springboard for more silverware to come.

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