It was utterly insane. With 3 minutes to go in Arsenal's season, protecting a 1 goal lead against West Bromwich Albion, Arsenal's defence falters as Jonas Olsson, a centre back, makes a barnstorming run, nutmegs Francis Coquelin and plays a brilliant pass for the Baggies' right back, Billy Jones. Jones is in; he's going to score, Arsenal are going to finish 4th. But Kieran Gibbs comes across, and gets the ball away. He then wins 3 headers in a row, and Arsenal finish 3rd, a point ahead of Tottenham, 6 ahead of Chelsea in 6th. This sort of haphazard play shouldn't be a surprise to Arsenal fans, but this season, it was even more apparent. This is a team that lost it's two best midfielders in Cesc Fabregas and Jack Wilshere, and also some whiny fathead who had a 3 month purple patch (that needs to be replaced too!). This is a team that lost 8-2 against Manchester United, and 4-0 against a fairly unimpressive AC Milan. They conceded nearly half a century of goals in the Premier League, 2 less than promoted Swansea City. They went on runs of 4 points from 15 and 1 point from 12; yet they still finished 3rd. This season has been an emotional roller coaster, nerve wracking and extremely frustrating. It's also been completely brilliant, which is it's been utterly insane.
The one thing that has been clear since Arsenal went down 1-0 in Udine is that this team does have the most intangible of intangibles, mental strength. Arsene Wenger's been going on about it for years, but this year, it does seem as Arsenal's players, while not as technically strong as previous groups have, to use the vernacular phrase, lots of balls. Arsenal did go 1-0 down in Udine. They went on to win 2-1, and go through to the group stage of the Champions League. This is a team that responded to conceding twelve goals in four defeats against Liverpool, Manchester United, Blackburn and Tottenham to go on a run of seven wins in eight Premier League matches. They were often tight and tense matches, with Arsenal winning a majority by two goals or less. That seemed a result of Arsenal not having an attacking identity, as Arsene Wenger tried integrating three strikers, Gervinho, Robin van Persie and Theo Walcott, into Arsenal's attack, and Arsenal kept less possession. What it did highlight, though, was the defensive stability Per Mertesacker and Mikel Arteta brought to the club, showing that experience isn't a bad virtue. Robin van Persie continued his evolution from a brittle number 10 to a teutonically effective 9 and a half, scoring 30 goals in the Premier League, 37 overall. Some said one man team, some said over reliant, but all said a strategy that worked because of van Persie's excellence.
Arteta, especially, made a major difference to Arsenal's midfield. He allowed Alex Song to become more creative, leaving Arteta to control the tempo of the midfield. Arteta also brought added game intelligence, which was vital as Arsenal saw out one and two goal games. His absence in January was sorely missed as Arsenal, stretched thin on the flanks because of the full back crisis, became even more stretched because of not having Arteta in the midfield and losing their shape. Arsenal were outplayed at their own game by Swansea, while the defeat against Manchester United was notable for the widespread booing Arsene Wenger received when he replaced Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain with Andrey Arshavin. It would, however, get better. Against Aston Villa in the Cup, Arsenal came back from 2-0 down to win 3-2, and Arteta and Bacary Sagna made their return. Another player who played a major role in the previous round was Thierry Henry; he would score against Sunderland in a match that effectively kick-started Arsenal's revival. Blackburn were crushed 7-1, making Arsenal's goal difference much better, and a tough Sunderland were satisfactorily beaten by Thierry Henry's 229th (later 228 after the Premier League goals panel reversed his goal against Blackburn) Arsenal goal. They went with confidence into the Champions League against Milan; after all, even in their worst moments, Arsenal had done well in the Champions League, beating German champions Borussia Dortmund 2-1 and topping a tough group. It'd all go horribly wrong, though, and Arsenal were played off the park as they lost 4-0. They had one glorious chance, created by Henry, but Abiatti pushed van Persie's shot around the post. Sunderland were lost to 2-0 in the Cup, and then Arsenal went 2-0 down in the first 34 minutes at home to Tottenham, who were about to go 13 points clear of Arsenal.
Or were day? The 5-2 victory over Tottenham is an excellent microcosm of the season; Arsenal were horrendous on the defensive side for the first 30 minutes, looking nervy and disorganised. Their spirit, though, epitomised by Bacary Sagna heading home to get Arsenal a goal back despite having no reason for being in the Spurs penalty box, and their quality showed through, and goals from van Persie, Rosicky (!) and Walcott sent Arsenal into a confidence inspired run and Tottenham into a severe loss of form. A superb van Persie volley saw Arsenal steal the points against Liverpool, and Arsenal very nearly came back against Milan, but fell a goal short. No matter; they'd be back in the Champions League, winning ten out of twelve, and showing how good they can be when they press as a unit, and play with a high tempo. Laurent Koscielny, so often Arsenal's saviour at the back, was excellent, Vermaelen less so. But when Arteta went down against Wigan, and missed the rest of the season, the insecurities of the opening weeks returned. A draw against Norwich showcased these insecurities and problems, problems that mean that without serious investment, Arsenal will not challenge for the title next season and could lose Robin van Persie. On the final day, Arsenal didn't play West Bromwich Albion off the park; but, they did the dirty things, they defended strongly in the second half and they relied on two goalkeeping errors and a long shot (!) from Andre Santos to settle third place. It was, as the rest of the season was, utterly insane.