As a thrilling 2013 draws to a close, Arsenal are sitting pretty near the summit of the Premier League and have genuine grounds for optimism for the year ahead. While we are all looking forward to a fantastic 2014, we reflect on some of the defining moments of an eventful 12 months for the Club.
January 18: Theo Walcott signs a new contract
Having seen the likes of Robin van Persie and Samir Nasri leave the Club in previous seasons, there were fears that Theo Walcott could be next big-name player to depart as 2013 opened. With the England international in eye-catching form, rival clubs rumoured to be circling and even a grime song (“Sign da Ting”) dedicated to the negotiations, this was no ordinary contract renewal. But finally, on January 18, Walcott put pen to paper on a new long-term deal to the delight of the supporters, his manager and the player himself. “I made it clear from the start that I wanted to stay at Arsenal so I am pleased we have agreed a deal that everyone is happy with,” he said. “What's important now is for the team to realise its potential and win trophies.” This was so much more than your average contract announcement; it sent out a clear message and changed the narrative surrounding the Club, proving its commitment to the pursuit of excellence.
March 13: Arsenal win in Munich
Having been knocked out of the FA Cup by Blackburn Rovers, beaten by Bayern Munich 3-1 at Emirates Stadium and then defeated in the north London derby, things looked bleak for the Gunners. Then Tottenham manager Andre Villas-Boas talked of them being in a “negative spiral”, and there was little in the way of encouragement ahead of their Champions League last-16 second leg in Munich against the runaway Bundesliga leaders. But a fine, fighting performance and goals from Olivier Giroud and Laurent Koscielny earned a victory that provided a huge confidence boost. “How close the Gunners came, on a night when the ultimate failure was steeped in honour and even glory,” The Guardian reported. “There was an array of positives that will sustain them on the quest to return to this competition via a top-four Premier League finish.” It may not have been enough for Arsenal to progress, but the stirring nature of their performance was the fillip needed to turn their season around.
May 19: A top-four place is secured
For much of a season in which the Gunners had been questioned and castigated in equal measure, a top-four place seemed an almost impossible dream. But following that victory in Munich, they embarked on a sensational run of form that read WWWWDWDWW heading into the final day at Newcastle United. They were in possession of that all-important fourth place, but could they hold their nerve when it mattered most? They answered all questions in the affirmative at St James’ Park with a gritty, albeit tense, victory courtesy of Laurent Koscielny’s second-half winner. Afterwards, a relieved Arsène Wenger heaped praise on his side for their mental fortitude. “I'm happy because the exceptional attitude and determination of this group of players has been rewarded,” he said. “They continued to believe when we were seven points behind Tottenham in mid-March. They knew we had no room for error anymore and you could never see any sign of giving in.” The groundwork had been laid for the new season.
June 14: Peter Hill-Wood stands down as chairman
It was the end of an era at the Club in June when it was announced that Peter Hill-Wood had stood down as chairman for health reasons after 31 years in the role. Mr Hill-Wood's grandfather, Sir Samuel, and father, Denis, were the Club's previous chairmen in a period stretching back to 1927. “This has been a difficult decision as Arsenal Football Club has been a huge part of my life. Although I am feeling better I feel this is the right time for me to stand down,” he said. Sir Chips Keswick took over the position, and the new chairman paid tribute to his predecessor. “I am sad to see Peter standing down due to his health and we all hope he continues well in his recovery,” he said. “The Hill-Wood family has made an extraordinary contribution to Arsenal over many decades. They have been central to the Club’s many achievements during this time. I am greatly honoured to have been appointed chairman. I am looking forward to leading the Club to future success.”
September 1: North London derby success
The 2013/14 campaign had got off to a shaky start with a shock opening-day defeat to Aston Villa, leaving many observers to question Arsenal’s credentials. Successive victories over Fenerbahce (twice) and Fulham had gone some way to answering the critics, but many felt a true gauge would be in the north London derby against Tottenham. Once again, Wenger’s side rose to the challenge and sealed a memorable, hard-fought victory when Olivier Giroud poked home the only goal of the game in the first half. “You heard some things from the stands during the Villa game that we should spend money," Per Mertesacker said afterwards. "But [against Tottenham] everybody was calm and just encouraged the team to fight. We played well and that's always the best answer to the rumours and the criticism. The manager said at the start that we should believe in ourselves and in our passing game. In the first half we did that fantastically and showed we are ready for the fight for the rest of the season.”
September 2: Mesut Ozil signs for the Club
Much had been made of the Club’s perceived lack of transfer activity in the summer, but at 10.30pm on September 2, 2013 they managed to pull off a coup that stunned the football world. The signing of Mesut Ozil for a club record deal sent shockwaves through Europe, and even Real Madrid’s players were amazed the German had been allowed to move to north London. “Ozil would be the very last player I would sell from Real Madrid, if it was up to me. I don't understand this,” Sergio Ramos said. But there was only delight for the defender’s Spanish compatriot, Santi Cazorla, who admitted he could not wait to line up alongside Ozil. “Mesut is a player of a different kind,” he said. “He is a joy to watch and has a lot of talent. Like Zidane or Ronaldinho, he can be one of those players who marks an era. He is not the kind of player you are used to watching and he can win many games on his own. That’s why he is a top player.”
October 19: Wilshere’s wonder goal
"I've got to praise the three players involved for the first goal. It was real 'tiki taka' - almost like they were playing PlayStation! It was an unbelievable goal!” When a player as sublime as Mesut Ozil stands back and applauds a strike as beautiful as Jack Wilshere’s against Norwich, you know it is pretty special. The 2013/14 campaign had already witnessed some of the best football seen at Emirates Stadium in many years, but the opening goal in a 4-1 victory against Norwich was Arsène Wenger’s vision for the game distilled into one stunning strike. Santi Cazorla started it, driving in from the left and finding Wilshere, who popped it back to his team-mate. The Spaniard’s pass was touched back from Olivier Giroud to Wilshere, who flicked it first time with the back of his foot to the Frenchman and continued his run. Giroud’s stabbed through ball was perfect and Wilshere was there to cushion the ball, right-footed, into the bottom corner. Simply sensational.
November 2: Proving their credentials
After successive home defeats to Borussia Dortmund and Chelsea, questions were being asked of the Gunners’ ability to win the biggest games. Facing a free-scoring Liverpool side that had risen to second in the table, the match was seen as an acid test of their credentials - and how they passed it. From the off it was clear that Wenger’s side were keen to prove a point and they took a deserved lead in the 19th minute through Santi Cazorla. Keeping the dangerous Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge in check, the Gunners were hugely impressive and they sealed the points when Ramsey (who else?) struck a stunning long-range half volley to spark joyous celebrations. “This was the kind of win that persuades pretenders they can, indeed, be challengers,” The Guardian reported. “Arsenal were already top of the league before undermining Liverpool's credentials but Arsène Wenger's side ended the day in splendid isolation at the summit, their advantage from a division that is supposed to contain up to six other contenders an eye-catching five points.” Any remaining doubts as to Arsenal’s quality had been emphatically answered.
November 6: Dortmund defeated
In a desperately tough Champions League group, inevitably tagged the Group of Death, the Gunners had made relatively serene progress until an untimely home defeat to Borussia Dortmund. Robert Lewandowski’s late breakaway goal condemned them to a loss that left their future progress in real jeopardy and as such they needed a positive result in Germany. The problem was that last season’s finalists were in unforgiving mood at Signal Iduna Park, and had never lost to English opponents there in the Champions League. No matter for this increasingly confident Arsenal side, who soaked up the home pressure in the first half before sealing a famous away victory courtesy of yet another Ramsey goal. “It is massive - especially after the first game - because we wanted to come here and prove something and we have done that,” Kieran Gibbs said. “We didn’t do it in style, but the way we won the game shows we have a certain character in the team.”
November 30: Ramsey’s homecoming
Arguably Arsenal’s player of 2013, and the winner of five successive Player of the Month awards, Ramsey has transformed himself into one of Europe’s premier midfielders. His exceptional work-rate, energy, passing range and creativity have been complemented by the sort of clinical goalscoring form usually found in the very best strikers. But how would he handle a return to his boyhood club, Cardiff City? As Wenger pointed out prior to the game, he had struggled the first time he returned to south Wales with the Club in 2009. But there was no repetition this time around, as the midfielder scored twice and left the field to a standing ovation from the home fans. It was quite some homecoming. “He's happy that he won the game, that he came back and played well,” Wenger said afterwards. “But as well he has shown respect for Wales and I have a big respect for the crowd who appreciated that. You go to a lot of games and you don't see that [reception] a lot. Usually people get booed when they score against their old team.”