.

For a season which started with possibilities (or be it quite minimal) of a relegation dogfight, to end it with an absolutely engrossing, but also at times farcical, struggle for the 3rd place, was a pleasant surprise. Chelseaai??i??s epic triumph at Munich has meant that securing the 3rd place at the expense of Tottenham has proved to be even more vital than usual. Since 2006-07, Arsenal have been out of the top 2 but never out of the Top 4, meaning that finishing 3rd was about par for the course. There is sameness to the closing points tally and position with some of Arsenal’s previous seasons, and yet, if you look at how the season went, it was and it felt totally different.

So, let us look at what was same and what was different this season?

Ai??Squad Changes And Style Of Play

For a start, the squad, much of it built on the last few hours of a rather agonizing and heart wrenching August, 2011, looked and felt very different, in terms of quality and age. Over the last few seasons, Arsenal were all about the midfield ai??i?? passing, possession and all that goes with it. Wenger built the team around creative, ball playing midfielders, and looked to retain possession as far as possible ai??i?? with the likes of Fabregas, Hleb, Nasri, Rosciky (when fit) and later Ramsey and Wilshere, playing in this style. However, all that went out of the window, the transfer window, as Fabregas moved to Barcelona, Nasri to City and Wilshere to injury and Arsenal were left to the likes of Alex Song, Coquelin, and Frimpong et al at the start of the season. One is not sure as to whether it was purely tactical, last minute buying, or more of a strategic shift, that Arsenal managed to get in 5 experienced internationals at the end of the transfer window, including one Mikel Arteta, who would go on to keep the team moving with his two small feet. And so, having lost most of its young, dynamic, exciting midfield talent, Arsenal reverted to a much more pragmatic approach, which including playing players who were older and experienced. The profile of the team did change somewhat as Arteta, Benayoun, and the fitter Rosciky became more regular adding some much needed experience. Together, with the improving Alex Song, Arsenalai??i??s midfield became a very functional one, without really running rings around the opposition.

At the same time, Wenger brought in forwards with pace, Gervinho and the kid ai??i?? Alex Oxlade Chamberlain brought in loads of pace to augment Theo Walcott, as Arsenal looked to attack a lot more through the wings than in the past. There was less of passing around and more of attacking down the wings and crosses this season.

Summary: Arsene Wenger had his hands full with big name departures, and he brought in more experienced players and moved to a more direct approach of play.

Robin van Persie Stayed Fit

Ripleyai??i??s stuff isnai??i??t it ? The Dutchman kept fit for the entire season as he finally fulfilled his long standing promise. Robin van Persie scored when he wanted as he single handedly lifted the team from mid table mediocrity to Champions League football for next season. It would not be an exaggeration to say that RvP in 2011-12 had more impact this season than any other player has had before. Even Thierry Henry, (who returned for a wonderful, heartwarming cameo) never had this much impact on a team for a single season. In the end, it was his goals, which were enough to cover for the weaknesses in the rest of the squad and got us through into 3rd, just in front of the Spurs.

The Key to Arsenal's Top Three Finish

.

Summary: RvP made 38 league appearances this season and scored a season high 30 goals. His previous highest number of appearances was 28 in 2008-09. His previous highest number of goals was 18. His improvement in fitness was dramatic and contribution to the cause was massive.

Hereai??i??s what did not change unfortunately –

Leaky Defense

Individually, the defenders are better. There is no doubt that Vermaelen, Koscielny, Mertesacker are better than the likes of Squillaci or Silvestre who have turned out for us in the past seasons. And yet, defensively, Arsenal were quite often in shambles. Arsenal conceded 49 goals this season, their worst ever in a 38 game BPL season. Many of the goals conceded were down to individual mistakes, but there was a pattern to some of it as well. Folks like Thomas Vermaelen, and DM Alex Song, were often caught upfield as opposing teams broke down the middle and scored with relative ease with a very little cover for the keeper. Fullbacks were another problem area, as Arsenal lost all 4 of their regular FBs to injury at the same time, leading to a winless sequence in January.

There was some silver linings though: Arsenal conceded far fewer goals from set pieces as Arsenal did demonstrably improve on one of their failings from the past. In terms of individuals, Laurent Koscielny was the one shining light ai??i?? possibly the most improved CB in Europe as he put in one brilliant display after another. We have also found ourselves a Goalkeeper in Wojciech Sczezney, who one believes, will serve the team for a long time to come.

Summary: Better personnel in now, but too many individual mistakes and lack of organization plagued the team. The team must defend better with more pressing from all parts of the field.

Injuries

Just as last year, Arsenal suffered terribly from injuries. This is not an excuse, but as this table shows, for the 2nd year ai??i?? they were the 2nd most injured team this year. On a cumulative basis, over the past two seasons ai??i?? Arsenal are the most injured team in the league. Injuries to Wilshere, Diaby, and all the fullbacks and Arteta at the end of the season cost us dearly.

Summary: Gooners need to pray more for Gunners to stay injury free.

As mentioned at the start of the article, while the final points tally was quite similar to the past few seasons, the path was not. This was much more of an emotional roller-coaster than ever before. The table below shows how the fortunes of the club have fluctuated and how the last seasons were different. The start of the season was absolutely shambolic, but by Game 15 the team had caught up to previous season levels; then came January, as Arsenal struggled with injuries and with all regular FBs out, failed to win a game for quite some time. Ai??Finally, the turnaround against Spurs kick started a run of 7 victories. The team did implode towards the end, but none of the competitors played that much better and in the end, the 3rd place was clinched like an out of breath sprinter who collapses at the finish line.

Arsenal Points Tally

Ai??.

Road Ahead

The next season will be even tougher. We can expect Chelsea and Liverpool to be much better, Newcastle and Spurs to be just as competitive and the Manchester clubs to dominate. Arsenal will do well to sort out the RvP contract issue one way or the other soon and build on the squad with quality additions. At the same time, the inflated wage bill, which is the biggest issue dogging the club today, needs to be sorted out. Dead weight has to be moved out now to fund for new signings and their salaries. That will be Wengerai??i??s biggest challenge this summer.

Article written by Guest Author Abhishek Paul. Read previous article by the same author on our site. Follow the author on Twitter @abhility.

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