Last May — specifically, May 17 at precisely 5:10 PM in London — many in attendance at Wembley Stadium wondered if this would be the last time we would see Arsene Wenger prowling the touchline for Arsenal.
The Gunners were down 2-0 to Hull City in the FA Cup final after only eight minutes, and it seemed as if another classic and comedic Arsenal collapse was on the cards. Had Kieran Gibbs not headed Alex Bruce’s shot away off the line, the game might have been done right there — and we might have had a different man in charge of the Arsenal this season.
While Arsenal’s board never lost faith with their manager — he is currently the Premier League’s longest serving steward by a very long shot — one did get the sense that the fans had. Nine years without a piece of silverware and some very embarrassing debacles inbetween had created the sense that Arsenal had become a group of “nearly” men, a selling club that were unable to win the big games or keep the big talents. Emirates Stadium, once derided as a “library,” had become hostile — and who can blame the fans?
After all, out the door had gone the likes of Gael Clichy, Samir Nasri, Robin van Persie and Cesc Fabregas, all of whom would go on and win medals with their new clubs. The strain and the criticism was also clearly wearing on Wenger. It was striking. Wenger had been for years subjected to some of the most vile chants from opposition fans imaginable, but had always stayed upright and dignified. But as the months dragged on in the 2013-14 season — and Arsenal’s title chase collapsed in humiliating fashion — he looked a wan and tired figure indeed. It was widely thought that if he lost the FA Cup final, that he would step down.
Bruce, of course, did not score, and soon enough Santi Cazorla did. In the end, Arsenal needed extra-time but won out 3-2. Wenger and the team were visibly relieved as they climbed the steps at Wembley, and there was even a twinkle in the manager’s eye afterwards. The fact that the win came against, well, Hull — a side which finished on the edge of the drop zone in 16th — was forgotten by most. Arsenal finally had a piece of silverware again.
Now, we’re on the eve of a new season, and surprise, surprise, Arsenal have already picked up their first trophy of the year after they cantered past Manchester City in the Community Shield. Yes, the Community Shield is a glorified friendly, but this is the club’s second piece of hardware in just three months’ time, so you can forgive the club’s faithful for feeling like this may finally be the start of something greater. They have good reason this year as well.
For one, the club has actually started to spend again, building on last year’s capture of Mesut Ozil with the signing of Alexis Sanchez. The backline has been freshened up with Callum Chambers and Mathieu Debuchy replacing Thomas Vermaelen and Bacary Sagna — though whether Debuchy is an upgrade on Sagna is very debatable. The impressive David Ospina will provide cover for and pressure on keeper Wojciech Szczesny, and the deals may not yet be done. Arsenal still could dearly use a proper holding midfielder, and the lack of a pure striker may come back to haunt them (few think Olivier Giroud, for all his arrogance, is truly top-class) but they already look a sharper, deeper team than last season. Even Yaya Sanogo, an awkward striker learning on the job, showed poise in setting up Aaron Ramsey’s second goal last Sunday.
And in what may prove to be the biggest move, Wenger has finally moved to address a massive concern at the club with the hiring of Shad Forsythe as their new fitness coach. Forsythe, an American who worked with the German World Cup winning team, is expected to freshen up a training regimen that many have blamed for Arsenal’s chronic injury woes, and if he can keep players like Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere and Theo Walcott healthy, he will be worth every penny.
Whether or not Arsenal can still compete at the very top is an open question. For one, they first must get past Turks Besiktas next Tuesday to get into the UEFA Champions League proper. Both the Manchester giants look as if they will cause problems, and Chelsea have to be considered the favorites. Liverpool, while overachievers last season, cannot be discounted; nor can the Gunners’ arch-rivals across town, Tottenham, who are again under new management.
But for the first time in quite a while, no one is saying that Arsenal will have to be satisfied with finishing fourth. They have as many weapons as anyone in what promises to be a wide-open race for the title.
“The league is very, very important," said Arsenal captain Mikel Arteta. “It shows the consistency of the team, the club and the good performance of the players. It is a title I would love to win and considering how tough this year is going to be, it would be even more special."
Arteta added: "Obviously the Champions League is a very special one and the cups are important, but the domestic league shows where you are on a weekly basis.”
And they do have Wenger to thank if the Gunners accomplish that goal this season. So, why not Arsenal?