By Alex Baker
Even Piers Morgan, the most high profile Gooner this side of the Atlantic, has changed the timbre of his Arsenal-related Tweets. Morgan, who was one of the loudest voices demanding Wenger be ousted just a few weeks ago, today Tweeted:
“Brilliant win. What a crazy season. Kudos to those Gooners who kept the faith when many, like me, were losing it.”
Mr. Morgan was certainly not alone in questioning his faith in the French manager. Many soccer journalists, pundits and bloggers, myself included, were both mystified and frustrated by Wenger’s seeming inability to change course or tactics.
Wenger’s substitution of a rampaging Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain for a misfiring Andrey Arshavin in the Gunner’s 2-1 loss to Manchester United at the end of January resulted in open mutiny from the crowd at the Emirates—and even from Arsenal captain Robin van Persie.
A draw at Bolton the following week and a humiliating mid-February loss in the Champions League to AC Milan at the San Siro did little to sway opinions away from the view that Wenger had seemingly bolted the cockpit door and was flying the plane full throttle into the side of a mountain.
The Gunners’ eight-game unbeaten streak between October and December began to resemble something of a blip, book-ended on either side by a series of bad results.
When Arsenal went into the North London derby already 10 points below Spurs and rapidly went down two goals, it seemed as if they were surely bound for the Europa League. Robin van Persie was surely on his way to join Cesc Fabregas in Barcelona or Samir Nasri at Manchester City.
But then something quite unexpected happened.
The Gunners fought back from their two-goal deficit and went on to win the derby 5-2. In doing so, they moved back into contention for a shot at Champions League football.
Wins over their closest rivals in the table, Liverpool and Newcastle, soon followed and before long the Gunners had embarked on an eight-match winning streak.
In the Champions League, they came within a hair’s breadth of overturning their humiliating first-leg loss to Milan with a 3-0 win at the Emirates.
Injured players like Bacary Sagna, Andres Santos and Kieron Gibbs came roaring back into the lineup.
Meanwhile, the badly misfiring Arshavin was shipped back to the Russian Premier League on loan and the nerve-wrackingly unsteady Per Mertesacker was sidelined by injury.
Suddenly, Arsenal had their swagger back and Wenger’s steadfast resolve to stick to his guns began to seem vindicated.
Sure, it’s easy to say that the Arsenal manager’s incomprehensible lack of activity in last summer’s transfer market, coupled with his last-minute mad-dash shopping spree went a long way towards digging the hole that Arsenal have spent half their season trying to climb out of.
But at the same time, Wenger’s introduction of the revelatory Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain at the turn of the year had all the effect of the big-money new signings that many Arsenal fans (and players) had been clambering for.
Meanwhile, to the north, Manchester City’s faltering run of results, which included a 1-0 loss to Arsenal, seem further vindication of Wenger’s fiscally prudent—yet highly resourceful—style of management.
With Arsenal having now won 10 out of their last 11 Premier League matches, it now seems more like the early-season and January runs of poor form were the blips.
This season’s EPL title will undoubtedly go to one of the two Manchester teams. However, provided things don’t go catastrophically south again, Arsenal are now looking like favorites to finish third and thus automatically qualify for next year’s Champions League.
This good news is bolstered by rumors that indicate that Robin van Persie is likely to remain at Arsenal next season and that he will be joined up front by prolific goalscoring German international, Lukas Podolski.
So let me take this opportunity to apologize to Arsene Wenger.
Like my fellow Gunner over at CNN, I lost the faith for a time, as many of us seemed to. And while a third place finish is a long way from the trophy many were hoping for this season, in light of this season’s ups and downs and the triumphs of an at-times ragtag band of young footballers, it’s something that Arsenal fans can and should be very proud of.
Were, as reports indicate, Mr. Wenger to make significant reinforcements in this summer’s transfer market, Arsenal may indeed be fielding a side next season that can truly challenge for Premier League and European glory once again.