What the Emirates Stadium means to Arsenal fans has been something of a enigma since the move from Highbury in 2006. Before the club left the famous old ground the fans were told that the new ground was a necessity, that to compete with the very best teams in Europe the club needed a more lucrative source of revenue than their 36,000 seater stadium could provide. The move was certainly needed. In this new age of football, awash with riches untold and unimaginable even in the early 2000s, when Arsenal, along with Manchester United, stood unmatched as a giant of the English game, the Gunners had no choice but to seek to cement their place amongst the game’s elite with a new stadium that matched their stature. But the dream of standing toe to toe with Europe’s giants never materialised. Talk of new riches, new opportunities and new growth was replaced with talk of debt repayments, sustainable finances and austerity. Caviar, in the words of Arsene Wenger, had been replaced with sausage. In an age where the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City were spending £100 million in a single window in the pursuit of glory, Arsenal began selling their crown jewels at an alarming rate. Out went Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri and Robin Van Persie. In came the likes of Andre Santos, Gervinho and Sebastian Squillaci. The team that had, a few short years ago, gone a whole season unbeaten and lost a Champions League final to Barcelona in the cruellest of circumstances had sunk to scrapping grimly for fourth place with eternal rivals Spurs, relying on luck on more than one occasion to pip them to the post. Arsenal’s critics pointed ad nauseum to their 9 year trophy drought between the FA Cup wins in 2005 and 2014 as a sign of the Gunners’ decline but the real symbol was the contrast between the majestic side of Robert Pires, Patrick Viera, Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp which swept all before them in the final Highbury years and the pale imitation that marked the early years at the Emirates.
The signing of Mesut Ozil last summer, a £40 million deal carried out in the dying minutes of the transfer window was seen by many to be a turning point. The financial shackles finally coming off after 8 long lean years of austerity. But expensive signings do not a winning team make, and so it proved last season. Despite a flying start that saw them spend 15 of the first 23 weeks of the season at the top of the league ,the same fragilities exposed themselves. The question remained whether Arsenal were capable of beating the biggest sides in the league. It was a test they failed emphatically, with a 5-1 defeat to Liverpool, a 6-0 defeat to Chelsea and even a 3-0 defeat at Goodison Park against 5th placed Everton punctuating their collapse from title hopefuls to the familiar scrap for 4th place. Of the 41 goals Arsenal conceded last season, 27 came in just 8 games against the rest of the top 5. New financial muscle, same old Arsenal.
Yet there were signs something was changing. The much maligned Aaron Ramsey, who had shown only glimpses of his true talent in a few barren years following his horrific leg break after a violent Ryan Shawcross tackle in 2010 started the season in sensational form as Arsenal racked up 8 wins in their first 10 games. Theo Walcott was finally starting to show why Arsenal decided to pay £12 million for him aged 17 in 2006. Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker, the victim of so much lazy criticism based on his perceived lack of physical pace, began to solidify their central defensive partnership which would end up securing 17 clean sheets by the end of the season, the joint best in the league. However the clearest indication of Arsenal’s new found intent was in a majestic performance in a 2-0 win over Napoli in the Champions League in October. After a first half where Arsenal enjoyed 70% possession and scored two exquisite goals, including Ozil’s first in Arsenal colours, the Napoli fans, the most vocal, aggressive and on occasion the most mindlessly violent in Europe were stunned into silence. This was the kind of European night Arsenal fans had not seen since the run to the Champions League final in 2006. Change was afoot. Arsenal were, perhaps, beginning to rise from their slumber.
The Champions League dream was eventually snuffed out in the last 16, as per usual, by Bayern Munich – but not without a blistering first half of the home leg where Ozil missed a penalty and Arsenal could have been 3-0 up before Szczeny’s sending off for a reckless challenge on Thomas Muller. However another cup dream was just beginning. After an unexpectedly easy win over Tottenham in the 3rd round and a victory over a brave Coventry team in the 4th, Arsenal came up against Liverpool in the 5th round just 8 days after their 5-1 annihilation at Anfield. This was a shattered Arsenal side, shorn of three of their best players in Ramsey, Ozil and Walcott and shorn of self belief following their dismantling the week before, facing a Liverpool side just starting to dream that maybe, just maybe, they might be able to claim their first title in 24 years. However in perhaps their most gutsy performance of the season the Gunners dug deep, took their chances when they got them and saw off a late Liverpool fightback to win the game 2-1. The atmosphere throughout the game was intense, the response at the final whistle was electric. As the fans walked back across the Ken Friar bridge towards Arsenal tube station, and home, the traditional Arsenal FA Cup chant ‘she wore a yellow ribbon’, penned during Arsenal’s legendary 1971 double winning season struck up. ‘She wore, she wore, she wore a yellow ribbon’ sung the 1000 or so fans crossing the bridge; ‘and when, I asked, her why she wore that ribbon, she said it’s for the Arsenal and we’re going to Wembley’ and for the first time that season, for a number of seasons, they truly believed it.
And so, crucially did the team. A highly professional 4-1 quarter final victory over Everton led to a semi final meeting with holders Wigan. A nervous, disjointed performance, led to a 1-1 draw and Arsenal limping to a penalty shootout where they held their nerve. The previously despised and erratic Lukas Fabianski put in the performance of his Arsenal career to twice deny Wigan from the penalty spot and send Arsenal to their first FA Cup final since the start of their trophy drought 9 long years ago. In the final Arsenal started in traditional flaky fashion going 2-0 down inside 8 minutes from 2 set pieces against a Hull City side that could hardly believe their luck. Yet Arsenal came back. If these years in the wilderness have taught Arsenal anything it is tenacity, patience and the art of survival. They came back into the game through a Santi Carzorla free kick before half time before equalising through a scrappy header from Laurent Koscielny (so often Arsenal’s saviour when the chips are down) in the 71st minute before finally breaking Hull City hearts with an Aaron Ramsey goal in the second half of extra time. It was the culmination of a tale of redemption for Ramsey. Left broken on the Britannia Stadium pitch 4 years ago, he has recovered, regained his place in the team, suffered dog’s abuse from sections of the Arsenal support and has now emerged as one of the best midfielders on the planet. It was also a tale of redemption for Arsenal, 9 years of hurt, envy and anguish finally ended by a season that began in tears and was punctuated by tears but that ultimately ended in triumph.
With the monkey of financial restrictions and crucially, of a trophyless run of almost a decade, lifted from their backs Arsenal have acted this summer like a club revitalised. Whereas last summer they had to wait until the last minute to land Ozil, an opportunistic masterstroke rather than a planned pursuit by Wenger, this summer they got on with their business without a hitch. The media and Arsenal fans lambasted Wenger for gallivanting on the beach in Rio during the World Cup, assuming that he was resting on his laurels and preparing for another summer of nervy inaction. In reality he was hard at work, and by the time Columbia’s David Ospina, France’s Matthieu Debuchy and most excitingly Chile’s Alexis Sanchez, signed from Barcelona for £35 million, had signed for the Gunners, his World Cup jaunt seemed like a masterstroke. Added to the signing of Southampton’s exciting young defender, Calum Chambers, for £16 million, Arsenal’s summer business has so far been efficient, exciting and most importantly, as un Arsenal-like as it has been possible to be.
Arsenal have been acting, for the first time since they left Highbury, perhaps for the first time ever, like a truly big club during this window. Liverpool and Brendan Rodgers, being uncharacteristically sour, bemoaned the fact the Sanchez had plumped for Arsenal over them. The truth is they were never in the picture. As soon as the prospect of Suarez’s sale to Barcelona started to become a reality Wenger moved quickly, sweet talking Sanchez, in his native Spanish, into joining Arsenal. It was a similar story with Debuchy. As soon as Sagna made it clear that he was to let his contract run down and join Manchester City on a free transfer, he quickly and calmly identified the Frenchman as Sagna’s heir and replaced the outgoing right back with a man 4 years his junior and ahead of him in the pecking order in the French national team. A farther cry from the infamous ‘supermarket sweep’ of deadline day 2011 it is hard to imagine.
Arsenal took this new found bullishness onto the pitch with them when they faced league champions Manchester City in the Community Shield on Sunday. Lining up in an aggressive 4-1-4-1 formation, with Wilshere and Ramsey acting as dual box to box midfielders in front of Arteta sitting deep as schemer in the Pirlo role they took the game to the Champions, scoring 3 goals of real quality to run out 3-0 winners. It is true that the Community Shield is little more than a glorified friendly, the barely half full City end at Wembley and disappointing attendance of 71,000 confirmed that much but it is always better to win a game than to lose it, and there is no doubt that Arsenal will take huge heart from their performance. What is significant is that even as late as last season it was impossible to imagine a scenario where Arsenal could beat Manchester City 3-0 and do it as comfortably as they did on this occasion.
This is a new Arsenal, newly aggressive and confident in the transfer market and on the evidence of the Community Shield win, newly aggressive and confident on the pitch. Despite a season of anguish it is easy to forget that Arsenal were 7 points off winning the title last season. Whilst their rivals, and Chelsea in particular, have added just as well as they have in the transfer market this season should see a new Arsenal; an Arsenal with the air of winners restored and with a squad (a couple of defensive additions notwithstanding), not just a first XI, fully capable of matching any in the league. After almost a decade of famine, success could be about to return to Arsenal, finally fulfilling the promises that accompanied the move to the Emirates Stadium.
Will this be Arsenal’s year or will they suffer their usual collapse and fail to last the pace? Have your say in the comments: