Arsene Wenger and Arsenal fall short in Premier League once more
With the season over, it's time to assess Arsenal's 2015-16. Here's a look back at an underwhelming campaign by Arsene Wenger's men.
Season in a sentence
It was not good enough to sustain a title challenge but not bad enough to drop out of the top four -- stop me if you've heard this one before.
The home wins over Bayern Munich in the Champions League and Manchester United in the Premier League in the span of an October fortnight were hugely impressive, while Danny Welbeck's late, late winner against Leicester City in February provoked an explosion of joy that will live long in the memory, even if it ultimately failed to inspire the title challenge it briefly threatened.
However, in a season that saw Tottenham threaten to tear down Arsenal's supremacy in north London, the final day of the season's dramatic rebalancing act took some beating. Football is almost as much about your rivals' pain as it is about your team's joy, and the potent combination of Arsenal's putting four past Aston Villa and Tottenham's succumbing 5-1 to Newcastle made for the highlight of the season. Moreover, that pair of events guaranteed Arsenal's best league finish in 11 years, as they secured second place, behind Leicester but ahead of Spurs.
The league table never lies, we are told, but seeing this Arsenal team finish runners-up might prompt a polygraph test. It's been a bad season, and it doesn't feel like Arsenal really deserved such a high finish. Still, as denouements go, Sunday's could barely have been scripted any better. It was complete when departing captain Mikel Arteta saw an effort come off the bar and in off the keeper in his final match.
There was something particularly galling about the FA Cup quarterfinal defeat to Watford, just when it seemed that a third Wembley win in three years was all that could be salvaged from the season. Equally, the rather botched protest against Wenger and Stan Kroenke in the home game against Norwich didn't make for a particularly happy day for the club. In isolation, possibly the worst result of all was the embarrassing 4-0 capitulation to Southampton on Boxing Day.
Even so, the lowest moment had to be the 2-1 home loss to Swansea at the start of March, which effectively ended Arsenal's title challenge. That it followed a strangely muted performance in a defeat to Manchester United at Old Trafford hardly helped, but this was the evening when the realization that the title would elude Arsenal once again hit and the crowd turned febrile, booing substitutions and jeering at the final whistle. It wasn't pleasant.
Arsenal were still mathematically in the title conversation, but the Emirates crowd knew the jig was up. Another season of disappointment was assured.
Mesut Ozil seemed to have this honor wrapped up in February, when he moved on to a magnificent 18 assists in 25 Premier League games. Arsenal were only five points behind Leicester City at that point. But Ozil managed just one assist after that, and his slump in form mirrored Arsenal's descent. As such, the most extravagantly talented of Arsenal's players is disqualified on the basis that though he has reached higher aesthetic levels than any of his teammates, he hasn't done so consistently.
Equally, while Alexis Sanchez ended the season in tremendous form, his failure to contribute when Arsenal most needed him means he does not deserve recognition either. As a result, by process of elimination, the honor falls to Hector Bellerin.
It is no empty gesture: Bellerin had a splendid season and was named in the Professional Footballers' Association Team of the Year at right-back. So formidable has his form been that Wenger was happy to send Mathieu Debuchy out on loan in January. Those lung-busting runs from full-back are an important feature of Arsenal's play, and his sprint, interception and cross for Ozil to score the second against Bayern Munich was one of the highlights of the season.
Potentially more of the same. Kroenke and Wenger are unlikely to be moved by those rather underwhelming protests, and Wenger has one more year on his contract, so he will be going nowhere. With the new domestic TV deal coming into effect, it is not unreasonable to expect that the greatest summer of Premier League largesse will soon be upon us, with Arsenal's likely title rivals for 2016-17 spending big. The extent to which Arsenal join in will show how ambitious they really are as a club and whether there is any prospect of a title challenge next season.
The case for a new, world-class striker is compelling, and with Tomas Rosicky, Arteta and Mathieu Flamini departing, there is a huge chance to revitalise the midfield too. Switzerland international Granit Xhaka is the rumoured first choice. If Arsenal do embark on the investment program that is so badly needed, then optimism could be renewed ahead of 2016-17, but with the same power structure in place and no change in the club culture, it's hard to see how anything will be different in any meaningful way.
Tom is one of ESPN FC's Arsenal bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @tomEurosport