Arsenal had another roller coaster year in 2017, with plenty of heroes and villains contributing to such drama on and off the pitch.
Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil’s futures drew a lot of media attention in 2017, but only one player responded in the ideal manner to silence such critics.
After Arsene Wenger announced he was staying for at least two more years at Arsenal, questions were asked if he could steer the Gunners to domestic success.
All three appear on this 12-strong list, but were they heroes or villains?
1Aaron Ramsey – Hero
Ramsey hasn’t always had an easy time with the Arsenal fans. Since his leg break, the Welshman has had as many bad periods as good, which supporters haven’t always forgiven him for. In 2017, however, the 27-year-old made himself a bit of a hero.
Firstly, he scored another winner in an FA Cup final. With the scores level, and less than 10 minutes to play, Ramsey stepped up to make it 2-1 to Arsenal against Chelsea. Scoring two FA Cup winning goals in four seasons is a pretty good record.
Then, as the 2017/18 season got underway, the former Cardiff City man found a new level. He scored three goals and provided six assists in just 15 matches, as well as winning two penalties, before the hamstring problems returned to close out the year.
Arsenal were significantly less dangerous without Ramsey, which just emphasised how much he’d helped the team before the injury. Hopefully that good individual form remains on the Welsh international’s return in 2018.
2Alexis Sanchez – Both
Alexis Sanchez couldn’t make his mind up whether he was the hero or the villain in 2017. He scored plenty of goals in the first half of the year, including a couple at Wembley to help Arsenal win the FA Cup again. Most fans spent the summer worrying that he might leave, such was his apparent importance to the team.
However, the Chilean refused to sign a new contract with the club, tried to leave for Manchester City, and put in just as many bad performances in the new campaign as good ones in the old. What’s more, his attitude was often terrible, having on-pitch tantrums when players didn’t do exactly what he wanted them to do, and breaking formation when he wasn’t getting enough time on the ball.
But then, the 29-year-old was one of the heroes of the day when Arsenal beat Spurs, and when the Gunners needed a last-minute penalty to beat Burnley. The Chilean seemed to move from hero to zero and back on a weekly basis. Hopefully he can find more consistency in 2018, as long as he’s still with the Gunners.
3Troy Deeney – Villain
Deeney made himself into a villain in October by gleefully wallowing in Arsenal’s misery after the Gunners lost to Watford. The Hornets’ striker scored the equalising goal, and then went on BT Sport to tell the world that Wenger’s side lost because they lacked “cojones”.
Fans were less than pleased, and made a point of highlighting all of Watford’s late collapses over the next two months, particularly enjoying Deeney’s subsequent suspensions.
4Olivier Giroud – Hero
Not everyone will agree with me on this one, but hear me out.
To kick off the year, Giroud scored a Puskás award-winning scorpion kick. Two days later, he rescued a point against Bournemouth after Arsenal had been 3-0 down. Four days after that, the Frenchman scored a late goal to send the Gunners through to the FA Cup fourth round. To wrap up a whirlwind 12 days, the 31-year-old signed a new long-term contract.
All this despite largely being dropped to the bench for Alexis Sanchez. Over the summer, Arsenal signed Alexandre Lacazette, and Giroud had the option to leave the club. But he decided to follow his heart and stick around.
In 2017 overall, the striker scored 10 goals in the final 15 minutes of matches, consistently proving himself the game changer. He even scored his 100th goal for the club in September.
Considering the former Montpellier man was never the first-choice striker throughout the year, his influence on the team was undeniably impressive, and his loyalty over the summer won many fans’ hearts.
Lacazette is deservedly a starter for the club, but I don’t think we should ignore Giroud’s positive Arsenal year.
5Arsène Wenger – Both
For much of the year, portions of the Arsenal fanbase lauded Wenger as a villain. They claimed the manager had outstayed his welcome, and started protests against a new contract. Those protests intensified as Arsenal crashed out of the Champions League 10-2 on aggregate to Bayern Munich, and missed out on top four.
Wenger then lifted the FA Cup for a record seventh time, after shock wins over Manchester City and Chelsea. The board decided to give the manager a new contract, and he made a couple of good signings early on in the transfer window, before leading Arsenal to a Community Shield victory in early August.
Many fans were ready to give him another chance. All he needed to do was offload a few players, bring in a top centre-back and midfielder, and the Gunners would get back into the top four, at least. But no more signings appeared, despite the team’s deficiencies. Those issues were then exposed by Stoke and Liverpool, and everything started to fall apart again.
By the end of the year, Arsenal made it to the League Cup semi-final and the knockout rounds of the Europa League. But in the Premier League, the team was way off the top of the table. Some argued the likes of Alexis Sanchez were letting the manager down in the league. Others argued it was the same old story, and only one person was to blame. The boss continues to divide opinion.
6Arsenal Twitter admin – Hero
Arsenal fans had to deal with a lot this year – heavy defeats to Bayern, another title challenge which disappears before Christmas and navigating the Europa League. The media started to jump on the pessimism around the fanbase, baiting supporters with incendiary articles about how poor the Gunners were.
One such article, posted by Daily Mail writer Adam Crafton, involved an Arsenal-Spurs combined XI. Normally, you’ll get some players from each team, because every side has their weaknesses. However, Crafton decided to select eleven Spurs players, in a clear attempt to wind up Arsenal fans.
The Arsenal Twitter admin spotted this article, and saved it down for later. When the Gunners then beat Tottenham 2-0, the admin dug it back up, and replied with a GIF of Mesut Özil sipping a cup of tea. This provoked lots of laughs from fans at Crafton’s expense.
— Arsenal FC (@Arsenal) November 18, 2017
However, some journalists weren’t happy with the way the Arsenal admin had allegedly incited abuse at the writer. The debate over whether it was a light-hearted joke or something more sinister raged on for days.
Arsenal fans started up an “#IStandWithTheArsenalTwitterAdmin” campaign, posting pictures drinking coffee, so it was pretty clear where their loyalties lay.
7Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – Villain
Nobody likes to see a player they invested six years in moving to a direct Premier League rival, especially when that player has just turned 24 years old and has all his best years ahead of him. But what made Oxlade-Chamberlain’s move even worse, was the way it all unfolded.
At the start of the summer, the media listed the former Saint alongside Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Özil as players who could leave the club. Their contracts were expiring in a year’s time, and Arsenal aren’t known for throwing money away. But Ox didn’t seem to want to leave initially.
The Gunners continued contract negotiations throughout the summer, only for the player to tell them in late August that he wouldn’t sign a new deal. He then performed terribly against Liverpool, forcing Arsenal to rush a deal through to get him off the books.
They accepted the highest bid, from Chelsea, but the England international turned them down for the second-highest bidder, Liverpool. Arsenal didn’t have time to replace him, considering the move went through on deadline day, and fans were left wondering why the midfielder didn’t just force a move in June.
8Eddie Nketiah – Hero
Academy product Nketiah is yet to play 90 minutes across all of his appearances for Arsenal, but he’s already had one heroic moment.
Eddie got his first taste of the senior side in 2017/18 pre-season, and hit the post twice during the Gunners’ time in Sydney. The 18-year-old then started the season with the youth teams, and scored three goals in his first two games. It was enough to earn him a place on the bench in the club’s first League Cup game. Then, a debut against BATE Borisov, even if it did only last a minute.
After that, an unforgettable home debut against Norwich City in the League Cup. Arsenal were 1-0 down, with only five minutes to play. Nketiah was subbed on, in a last-ditch attempt to save the game. It only took 15 seconds for him to make an impact, scoring with his very first touch. The match went to extra time, and the young striker scored again, with a towering header.
The Gunners won the match, advancing to the next round, and chants of “Eddie, Eddie, Eddie” rang around the Emirates stadium. Fans had a promising youth striker of their own stepping up, for the first time in years. Hopefully the youngster can live up to the expectations he’s set in 2018.
9The Arsenal defence – Villains
It would be unfair to single one defender out as a villain in 2017, because they all had their moments. The Gunners conceded for fun throughout much of the year, and it hurt them badly.
Firstly, the regular goal fests against the big clubs were extremely damaging. Spurs were the only big-six team not to put three goals past Arsenal in a match in 2017. Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United and Liverpool (three times!) all did so. The Gunners dropped 17 points in those matches, and missed out on the Champions League spots by one.
Some of those games could’ve turned out so much differently with a half-decent defensive effort. For example, Arsenal turned round a 2-0 deficit to lead at home against Liverpool. But they couldn’t last half an hour before conceding to bring it back to 3-3.
Plus, every goal against Manchester United in the 3-1 defeat came from some kind of individual mistake. Arsenal were dominant for most of the 90 minutes, but that doesn’t matter when the defence allows the opposition to waltz through and score regularly.
Then, there were the two games against Bayern Munich, where the defence may as well have stayed home. 10 goals conceded, and possibly the final games Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Özil play in the Champions League for the Gunners.
But more than that, the Gunners defence didn’t look particularly solid in the smaller matches either. Bournemouth, West Bromwich Albion, Crystal Palace and Leicester City all managed three-goal games against Arsenal this year.
That’s never going to be good enough if you want to win the title, and right now the Gunners are struggling for top four. Hopefully they’re a bit less villainous in 2018.
10Darren Burgess – Hero
Burgess is one of the unsung heroes of the year. He joined from AFL side Port Adelaide in July, as Arsenal’s new Head of High Performance. The idea was that he’d take over the club’s medical and fitness operations, and hopefully cut down on the massive number of injuries Wenger’s sides pick up every season.
Generally, whatever he’s doing seems to have worked wonders. The Gunners actually managed to get the injury list down to one player (Santi Cazorla) at one point. That’s not to say things have been perfect, with Ramsey and Giroud’s injuries came at key times, but everyone out at the end of the year should be back in a matter of weeks – Cazorla aside.
Players like Jack Wilshere have made full returns to fitness after extended periods out, so the credit has to go to the man in charge of aiding those recoveries. Now he needs to push on and make things run even more smoothly in the second half of the season.
11Bayern Munich – Villains
In 2016/17, Arsenal finished top of their Champions League group, for the first time since 2011/12. They managed the feat despite being drawn with Paris Saint-Germain.
Finally, the Gunners could end their run of last-16 exits, and avoid a draw against Barcelona and Bayern Munich.
Except, Bayern had conveniently finished second in their group. They lost their crucial fifth match against Russian Premier League side FC Rostov, and went into the lower side of the draw.
Of course, UEFA ended up drawing them against Arsenal. PSG drew Barcelona, so it didn’t matter where the Gunners finished, the European governing body had every option covered.
The team had to head to Munich with everyone keen to remind them they lost 5-1 on their last visit. Surely Wenger’s side would do better this time?
The first 45 minutes seemed much more promising, and the two teams went in 1-1 at the break. But Laurent Koscielny fell injured, Arsenal fell apart, and it ended 5-1 again. The Gunners would need a miracle in the second leg.
For a brief spell at the Emirates, it seemed like they’d at least restore some dignity. Theo Walcott opened the scoring, and the home side were three goals from qualification. Then, once again, it all fell apart thanks to an incident involving Koscielny. This time, he fouled Robert Lewandowski in the area and was sent off.
Wenger had nothing to lose, so he sent Xhaka to the back instead of bringing on another defender. Bayern ran riot against the makeshift back line, and won 5-1 for a third time in two years. Arsenal weren’t just knocked out, they were a laughing stock. The only solace to the Gunners’ failure to qualify for the Champions League in 2017/18 was they wouldn’t have to play the Germans again.
12Per Mertesacker – Hero
Mertesacker spent the first few months of 2017 on the sidelines with injury, but he returned in the most heroic way possible. First, Michael Oliver sent off Laurent Koscielny in the 14th minute of Arsenal’s final game of the league season. The German, who hadn’t played for a year, helped the Gunners to a 3-1 win on the day.
Then came an even bigger test. Arsenal had to face Chelsea in the FA Cup final, and Koscielny was suspended. It was one thing to grind out a win on the final day with nothing to play for, but another to win a cup final.
Mertesacker started at Wembley, and his fantastic performance earned him man-of-the-match. The Gunners won 2-1, picking up their record 13th FA Cup trophy. The club captain further cemented his legacy at Arsenal just over a month later.
He announced he’d retire from playing at the end of the season, and take over the Gunners’ academy. It made a change from players like Mikel Arteta and Patrick Vieira moving onto Manchester City after their retirement.
Young players like Charlie Gilmour have specifically highlighted how helpful Mertesacker is in training already. Hopefully that will only improve when he starts his new role. The 33-year-old is still appearing irregularly for the first-team, so overall he’s given a lot to the club this year.
The main aim now is to give him a trophy at the end of the season.