Arsenal 2016/17 season review: A troublesome campaign ends with FA Cup glory

Arsenal 2016/17 season review: A troublesome campaign ends with FA Cup glory

Arsenal finished the 2016/17 season with an FA Cup trophy, but missed out on the top four.

Matt Dawson

With the 2016/17 season now drawn to a close, Arsenal fans must be breathing a huge sigh of relief that it's all over. It ended at Wembley Stadium, as the club won a record 13th FA Cup, something which offered a salvage point from a season that brought stress, frustration and anger to even the most loyal supporters. 

The Gunners have come close to missing out on the top four in years gone by, but have always found a way to scrape over the line. This year however, was the season where they finally failed to do it. 

This season divided opinion hugely. Wenger in, or Wenger out? That was the question on everyone's lips at the club. The Frenchman missed out on Champions League football for the first time since he arrived over 20 years ago, but he did win his seventh FA Cup. 

It is important that Arsenal's FA Cup victory does not paper over the cracks though. Beating Chelsea in the final was a magnificent achievement, but their league performance was hugely disappointing.

There is a lot to be determined over the summer, but the club have to ensure they get things right. They simply cannot afford another season like the one that's just finished. 

Last summer's signings

Strangely enough, this season's squad of players was probably the best Arsenal have had in a while, on paper anyway. However as they so often have in recent year's they failed to live up to their full billing. The signings of Granit Xhaka, and Shkodran Mustafi looked to fit what the Gunners needed perfectly. They required a robust player in the middle of the park, and they needed a centre-half, both of which they got in the summer. 

Xhaka's first season in English football was a strange one. For a large part of the season he struggled to suit the style of the Premier League. His ill-discipline and aggressive nature didn't earn him many plaudits, but his range of passing certainly did.

His mid-season form wasn't great, but that was partly down to the absence of Santi Cazorla, whose injury played a massive role in the team's struggles in 2016/17. The Swiss international did finish the season in fine form however, and could have a big season ahead of him next term now he's finally adjusted to the league. 

As for Mustafi, he appeared to be an immediate success. Arsenal had needed a centre-back to partner Laurent Koscielny for a while, and in the German he appeared to be that. The Gunners had a brilliant spell where they went unbeaten when Mustafi was in the side, but an injury mid way through the campaign took its toll and he never really discovered the same form. There is plenty for him to build upon going into the 2017/18 season though.

Over the course of last summer there was also the transfer saga of Jamie Vardy to Arsenal. The Gunners activated his release clause, but Vardy chose to stay with Leicester City. Instead, Arsene Wenger made a move for Spanish forward Lucas Perez.

He turned out to be one of the club's most bizarre signings in recent years, with Lucas never really getting a run in the team. When he did however, he looked to be a very good fit. In all, he scored seven goals in 21 games, which included a Champions League hat-trick against Basel. 

The signing of Rob Holding was one that didn't cause much excitement, as would be the case with a £2m signing of a defender from Bolton Wanderers. However his rise has been one of the bright points from Arsenal's season, with his performances in the Gunners' new system at the end of the campaign being excellent. 

First half of the season

Arsenal started the season with a poor display against Liverpool, losing 4-3 at the Emirates in a game which saw Calum Chambers play and score. If there was ever an indication of how a season was going to go, then the opening day was that. It took the Gunners until their third game to register their first three points. After a 0-0 draw with Leicester, came a 3-1 win over Watford at the end of August. 

Wenger's side actually started the season extremely well, with their next defeat in the league not coming until December. The Gunners went through their Champions League group unbeaten, securing two draws in the process against PSG. In the league, they were meanwhile showing a different fight and determination than in previous years. 

Late wins over Southampton and Burnley in September and October showed that whilst there was also a fantastic 3-0 win over Chelsea early in the season. There were meanwhile draws against both Spurs and Manchester United in a tough November period.

Arsenal's form for the most part was excellent, and that was largely down to the threat of Alexis Sanchez who started the season playing in a central position. One of the Chilean's finest performances of the season came in December, as he scored a quite brilliant hat-trick in 5-1 win over West Ham.

However the results that followed that over the Christmas period were in complete contrast with how their season had been going, and led to Arsenal's season falling apart. 

Poor form leads to fan unrest

The start of Arsenal's collapse came against Everton, when Wenger's men saw their away form hit a stumbling block. Ashley Williams scored a late winner for the Toffees at Goodison Park and then days later Arsenal found themselves with two defeats in succession, after being beaten 2-1 by Manchester City. Wenger's side were very quickly seeing their season fall away. 

They won their last game of 2016, and then their first match of 2017, but it was a 3-3 draw against Bournemouth where questions really started to be raised. Arsenal were 2-0 down inside 20 minutes thanks to goals from Charlie Daniels and Calum Wilson, before Ryan Fraser made it three before the hour mark. However strikes from Sanchez, Lucas and Olivier Giroud managed to somehow rescue a point. 

Arsenal's FA Cup run got underway with victories over Preston and Southampton, but the real rut come over the next two months. They lost to Watford at the end of January when a shocking first half performance left them two goals down at the break. Their next game was a 3-1 defeat to Chelsea and then a week and a half later they were demolished 5-1 by Bayern Munich in the first leg of their last 16 encounter in the Champions League. 

Fan pressure was starting to build, and the atmosphere at the club quickly became toxic and hostile. Arsenal lost 3-1 to Liverpool at Anfield, and then lost 5-1 again to Bayern after a particularly embarrassing display at home.

A 'Wenger out' banner was then subsequently flown above the Hawthorns as the Gunners suffered another Premier League away defeat in a shocking display against West Brom. Arsenal's season was crumbling, and the only sign of triumph looked to be coming in the FA Cup, after wins over non-league sides, Sutton and Lincoln. 

After the international break Arsenal managed a 2-2 draw with Man City at home, before beating West Ham. However what followed was a disastrous 3-0 defeat to Crystal Palace which left their top four hopes looking distant. 

Change of system and FA Cup triumph

Something had to be done after that Palace match, and that came with a change of formation, one which saw the team lose just one of their final eight Premier League games, which was a defeat to rivals Spurs. 

Wenger chose to go with a back three formation with two wing backs for the first time in a visit to Middlesbrough. With Gabriel, Koscielny and Holding at the back, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Nacho Monreal as wing-backs, Arsenal secured a 2-1 win. They then beat Manchester City 2-1 at Wembley with the same formation, to reach the final of the FA Cup. 

After the loss at White Hart Lane, Arsenal went on to win their final five matches of the league campaign as they hoped to pip either Man City or Liverpool to a Champions League place. They managed to beat Manchester United, and then defeated Stoke on a ground where they usually struggle, before beating Everton on the final day. 

They had to hope that Liverpool dropped points though in order to sneak into the top four, but they ultimately missed out by one point. Arsenal had finished with four more points than they earned the season before, but ended the campaign in fifth place in what was a campaign of huge inconsistency. 

2016/17 was to end on a high though, with an FA Cup win over Chelsea at Wembley. Arsenal went into the game with defensive injuries and a suspension, but managed to defeat the Blues 2-1 in a dominant display. Sanchez grabbed his 30th goal of a remarkable season for him, as he scored the opener, before Aaron Ramsey won the game in the second half. 

What needs to be done this summer? 

The first thing that needs addressing is whether Wenger stays at the club or not. A two year deal is reportedly on the table, but at the time of writing there is no announcement on whether he'll be signing a new contract. The sense is that he will be at the club next season though. 

Sorting out contracts will be a key area for Arsenal to look into this summer. The question of whether key players Mesut Ozil and Sanchez sign new deals still remain, and it will be absolutely massive if the club were able to tie them down. There could also be a new deal on the table for Oxlade-Chamberlain whose contract is soon running out too. 

As for signings, that could well hinder on whether the likes of Alexis and Ozil stay or not. Arsenal could be in the market for an attacking player, and if Sanchez leaves then that will definitely need to happen. The transfer of left-back Sead Kolasinac looks set to be confirmed, and with that Kieran Gibbs could be told he can leave. 

Arsenal's midfield could also be strengthened, with Corentin Tolisso a name that has been linked, but the main priority aside from transfers will surely be just getting the mentality and attitude of the players right.

The FA Cup victory showed that they do have what it takes to perform under pressure on the biggest occasions, but they haven't been able to show that over the period of a whole season for a number of years. 

Next season will present different challenges to the squad, with a Europa League journey having the potential to hinder league performance. The club therefore have to ensure they get this summer right in order to be back where they should be this time next year.