For the second consecutive year, Arsenal are in the FA Cup final. After their 2-1 win over Reading the North London club will look to win their second FA Cup in as many years after not winning anything for nine years. Put that on top of the fact that they are currently second in the league and it looks like it could be a very good finish to the season for Arsenal. Especially considering where they were a mere four and a half months ago after their loss to Stoke.
Arsenal have evolved into a significantly better team over the second half of the season. Arsenal have not just evolved over the course of this season. Over the last three seasons they’ve evolved as a club. In a way, this semi-final tie with Reading was a good example of how Arsenal have evolved.
You could go back as far as the 2006/2007 season, when the Gunners moved to the Emirates, as the starting point for this evolution, but I’m going to look at this as a shorter transformation. This process started August 15th 2012, the day Arsenal announced Robin Van Persie would leave for Manchester United. The exit of the Dutchman meant that the three stars Arsene Wenger had built his squad around, Van Persie, Cesc Fabregas, and Samir Nasri, had all left the club. With Fabregas leaving exactly one year to the day before the Dutchman, Wenger had the backbone of his squad ripped out rather quickly. The target summer to loosen the purse strings for Wenger a year away, the Frenchman had to rebuild his squad while spending limited money. He brought in Santi Cazorla, Olivier Giroud, and Lukas Podolski as reinforcements for the 2012/2013 season. While it may not have been pretty, Arsenal snuck into fourth place and stayed in the Champions League. That season was far from ideal and had plenty of disappointments, cup exits to Blackburn and Bradford come to mind, but they did get over that line for the Champions League.
The world saw Arsenal loosen those purse strings in the summer of 2013. They spent nearly three times more than they’d ever spent on a player with the acquisition of Mesut Ozil for £42.4. They finally bought a bona fide world class player and started the 2013/2014 season fantastically and were top of the table on New Year’s Day. But the squad didn’t yet have the depth and the Gunners’ title challenge collapsed after multiple key injuries. While they couldn’t get the title they wanted, they did break the nine year trophy drought with their triumph in the FA Cup. Off the back of that, they splashed the cash again and brought in another world class talent in Alexis Sanchez. On top of that they brought in players to beef the squad up in the shapes of Mathieu Debuchy, Calum Chambers, Danny Welbeck, and David Ospina. Alas, off the back of the World Cup, many players in the squad struggled with injuries (Laurent Koscielny, Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere, Olivier Giroud, Debuchy, Mikel Arteta), the inevitable emotional low after winning the World Cup (Per Mertesacker and, to a lesser extent, Lukas Podolski), or both (Mesut Ozil). Arsene Wenger saw his side fall out of title contention and get off to a horrific start to the season. As mentioned above, Arsenal have turned their season around with good form, players returning to fitness, and even a little luck with the development/discovery of Francis Coquelin.
Now, how does the Reading match show Arsenal’s evolution? Well first off, Arsenal’s two world class acquisitions were the ones that made the difference in that match. Both goals were Mesut Ozil to Alexis Sanchez. While the first one had more than a stroke of fortune to it, the first goal was pure class. The German playmaker picked out the Chilean with a world class ball. Alexis haD the control to take the ball down and the composure to slot it in the back of the net. Arsene Wenger’s men didn’t necessarily put in a gold star performance, but his two top class players made the difference. Secondly, the Gunners made four changes to what has been their first choice XI over the course of their nine game winning run. The match may not have gone perfectly, but at least on paper, none of the four changes (Szczesny for Ospina, Welbeck for Giroud, Gibbs for Monreal, and Debuchy for Bellerin) represent a drop in quality. Finally, they’re back competing for trophies. The FA Cup isn’t the Champions League or the Premier League, but it is a trophy and to reach back-to-back FA Cup finals is a huge achievement.
Over the course of the last few years Arsenal have changed as a club. They’ve gone from a club that has to sell their best players to a club that can buy the best players. They’ve gone from a team in a nine year trophy drought to a team that, with one more win, could win back-to-back FA Cup’s, and, hopefully, challenge for more over the coming seasons.