In true Arsenal style, after the busy festive period and back-to-back defeats to Everton and Manchester City in December, January went rapidly downhill.
We started the year in third place in the Premier League table, dropped to fifth, rose to second after beating Burnley and fell back down to third again after Watford visited the Emirates.
The Gunners hosted Crystal Palace on New Year’s Day, which ended 2-0 with Olivier Giroud’s famous scorpion kick. The stunner later won the FIFA Puskas away for 2017. Alex Iwobi also found the back of the net against the Eagles.
“I go first post and Alexis give me the ball a bit behind me and I tried to take it from back heel and I have maximum luck,” Giroud said post-match.
“It’s just about luck, I was not good balance. It was a great feeling and even more because I wanted to score from the first minute from the natural cross and it was a bit short. That’s why I really wanted to score…”
It was the perfect start to a new year after the disappointing December we’d just endured, but the month had only just begun. Just two days later, Arsenal travelled to Jack Wilshere’s loan side, Bournemouth, for their second Premier League clash of 2017.
The Cherries were organised and confident, and were 3-0 up shortly after half-time thanks to goals from Charlie Daniels, Calum Wilson (pen.) and Ryan Fraser. Arsenal came back with goals from Alexis Sanchez, Lucas Perez and super-sub Giroud in the final minute but it was still just one point against a team the Gunners should really have beaten.
That weekend, a slightly weakened team travelled to Preston North End in the FA Cup, winning 2-1, which was a little bit too close for comfort. Callum Robinson worryingly put the home side 1-0 ahead in the seventh minute, but Aaron Ramsey and Giroud (again) helped turn the tide.
“(Giroud) can’t stop scoring,” Arsene Wenger said post-match. “He had some good service as well today. But everybody contributes in the squad and it’s moments in the season where you have to use the players when it all goes for them.
Giroud has shown that at the moment in the last month he is always very decisive. I must say, the team has great ambition, a great togetherness and they respond always when they are in trouble and that’s a great quality.”
After progressing to the next round of the FA Cup, Arsenal finally got a week-long rest before heading to Swansea. The Gunners looked the most convincing they had been in a long time, and thrashed the Swans 4-0 with goals from Giroud, Jack Cork (own goal.), Kyle Naughton (own goal), and Alexis Sanchez.
On January 22, Arsenal hosted Burnley and it was a sedate affair until the second half. Shkodran Mustafi netted his first goal for the Gunners before the hour-mark, putting us 1-0 ahead until the 90th minute when Burnley were given a penalty.
Andre Gray converted, and we were sure Burnley had just managed to scrape a point at the Emirates. At the other end, however, Arsenal were awarded a spot-kick following a high boot from Ben Mee. Alexis made no mistake and put the Gunners 2-1 ahead with seconds to spare.
Six days later, Arsenal travelled to St. Mary’s to face Southampton in the FA Cup. We’d had a lot of trouble against the Saints in recent years. In fact, in November, they’d knocked the Gunners out of the League Cup at the Emirates. Therefore, we had everything to fear going into the clash.
However, everything turned out far better than expected, and we thumped Southampton 5-0. It was the first time we’d beaten them by such a margin since September 2012, when we won 6-1 in the Premier League.
Danny Welbeck netted a brace and Theo Walcott scored a hat-trick against his former club, allowing Arsenal to edge closer towards the final. Watford were Arsenal’s final January clash and we figured this would be a simple three points.
We had Chelsea to worry about on February 4, so we just had to swat the Hornets away and then we could concentrate on the real football. That’s what most of us naively thought pre-match but it didn’t turn out that way.
Younes Kaboul and Troy Deeney put Watford 2-0 up in 13 minutes at the Emirates, and despite the Gunners getting a goal back via Iwobi, we couldn’t bring the score level.
It was embarrassing, especially in front of a home crowd, and a real reminder that Arsenal were incredibly vulnerable, and would not be challenging for the title that season. We usually have a downturn after Christmas, which is annoying and frustrating but we normally muddle through.
This felt very different. There were rumours surrounding more than one first-team player as well as Wenger’s future in North London. Despite this, we were in third place in the Premier League table, which was poor considering our strong start to the 2016/17 season, but pretty good when you consider how the campaign finished.
Chelsea were already running away with the title despite only 23 games being played at this stage. We had gone from third to fifth to second to third again within the space of a month. However, the way we were playing was disheartening and February was looking scary.
As predicted, February got off to a pretty horrific start against Chelsea. However, we weren’t that surprised considering how poorly we were playing by this point in the season. Plus, they’ve beaten us 6-0 at Stamford Bridge before, so we figured as long as we concede less than that, we’re golden. Sort of.
The Gunners lost 3-1 in the end, with Marcos Alonso putting the home side ahead within the first quarter of an hour, Eden Hazard making it 2-0 just after half-time and former Arsenal fan favourite Cesc Fabregas putting the cherry on top in the 85th minute.
Giroud banged in a consolation goal in stoppage time, but it was far too little too late. Wenger, who was serving a touchline ban for allegedly pushing fourth official Anthony Taylor in the tunnel during the Burnley clash, admitted the defeat against Chelsea was hard to watch.
“We didn’t create enough,” the boss said. “We lacked a little bit of what makes our game efficient in the final third. We didn’t look really dangerous enough and that was difficult to watch from upstairs.
“They did not create a lot when they had the ball, they created all their chances on the counter-attack. If you analyse the game well, we were never in that position because they never needed to come out.
“We had to finish the game with five strikers on the pitch basically. Of course then you favour the counter-attack of the team, but they do that [sitting deep and frustrating us] well. I am disappointed and angry because we lost a very big game.”
A week later, Arsenal made up for it by actually managing a win. This time, it was 2-0 against Hull City at the Emirates. Alexis was the man to net a brace and probably solidify the Tigers’ hatred for playing the Gunners that bit more.
“Alexis has a striker’s mentality which means he never gives up and fights until the end,” Wenger said post-match. That’s why I believe he is at that level,” Wenger said of the Chilean. “We started quite well against Hull and created many chances, but once we went one goal up, we became protective. In the second half we played with one worry: security.
“You could see the fans were edgy and anxious as well. On top of that we had the bad luck of playing against a good team, and that explains what happened today. I know that the confidence drops quickly when you have two big disappointing results, and that’s why today the mathematics were more important than the way we played to win the game.
“It was just (about) three points. We did it in a focused, resilient way and that’s what I demanded. Sometimes it’s not about how, but to win your confidence back you have to win the game.”
Alexis would indeed go on to score 30 goals over all competitions that season and dig Arsenal out of numerous holes.
As ever, the good mood in north London wouldn’t last. Arsenal travelled to Bayern Munich four days later to face the Bundesliga giants in the Champions League for what felt like the 100th time.
Wenger’s men have enjoyed success away against German teams in recent years, such as Borussia Dortmund in 2013. However, this time was very, very different. Arsenal started off with purpose, but we were far too fragile at the back and Bayern eventually overwhelmed us.
We weren’t just beaten, we were humiliated. Arjen Robben put the home side ahead first, before Robert Lewandowski, Thiago Alcântara and Thomas Muller saw Bayern 5-1 up after Alexis had equalised.
Arsenal left Germany with their tails firmly between their legs, their cheeks red and egos bruised. Fortunately, we had a good old-fashioned non-league FA Cup clash up next against Sutton United.
We won 2-0 with Lucas and Theo both finding the back of the net. However, the routine victory was overshadowed by Wayne Shaw, Sutton’s reserve goalkeeper, eating a pie on the bench.
At first, this was merely seen as a bit of ‘banter’… until it emerged that the 45-year-old eating a pie on the bench had been at 8/1 odds with a betting company, which saw a five-figure sum being paid out.
As a result, the goalkeeper resigned, received a two-month ban and was fined £375 for having intentionally influenced betting markets.
“It’s difficult to admit (wrongdoing). It was one of those occasions and I got swept away with it all,” Shaw said months later.
“I do have regrets and it was a bit of naivety.” He also revealed that 72 people won a total of just over £2667, including three people linked to his Facebook page, but denied telling anyone of his intentions.
It was an odd situation but at least it took the headlines away from how Sutton had actually put up a good fight against Arsenal and we hadn’t played that well against non-league opposition…
March brought with it a whole new level of despair.
We started on March 4 with a trip up to Anfield, which almost never ends well. Arsenal didn’t get completely thumped but we were definitely outplayed.
Roberto Firmino, who loves scoring against us, Sadio Mane and Georginio Wijnaldum all found the back of the net. Danny Welbeck scored in the 57th minute but it didn’t mean much. It was barely a consolation goal considering how poorly we’d played.
Wenger blamed it on most of the side not playing together for a couple of weeks. He even compared it to Liverpool’s 3-1 loss to Leicester after having a 16-day gap between games.
“It was exactly the same [as Liverpool’s game at Leicester],” he said. “It’s similar, we haven’t played for a long time and then it’s always difficult to get into the rhythm of the game again.
“But still the regret we suffered in the first half is that I feel the first goal was really avoidable.”
Three days later we hosted Bayern again. We were actually in fine spirits ahead of the match since we’d overturned results like this before, such as 4-0 away to Milan. We also knew we had nothing to lose. Well, that’s what we thought anyway. However, while Arsenal teams in the past had a certain gutsiness to them, this one did not.
It was indeed the hope that killed us though, which was only exacerbated in the 20th minute when Walcott put us a goal to the good. We managed to hold onto this slender lead for a whole 45 minutes, but that was as good as it got.
Laurent Koscielny was sent off in the 53th minute for his foul on Lewandowski inside the area. The Poland international converted his penalty and it went rapidly downhill from there. Robben, Douglas Costa and Alexis’ Chile teammate Arturo Vidal made the score line a horrific 5-1 again. 10-2 on aggregate.
It was the worst defeat ever suffered by an English side in the Champions League. That was us. Arsenal had done that. ‘Embarrassing’ didn’t even cut it. This was reportedly the moment Alexis decided to leave Arsenal.
Fortunately, we fought back some ‘dignity’ by thrashing non-league Lincoln City in the FA Cup. Wenger started Alexis up front ‘cause we obviously couldn’t be too careful… seriously. The Chilean scored, as did Walcott, Giroud and Ramsey, as well as Lincoln’s Luke Waterfall with an own goal.
Arsenal had made it to the semi-finals on the way to their 13th FA Cup. Bayern who?
The Gunners’ roller coaster month wasn’t over yet though! We travelled to the Hawthorns to face West Brom just before the international break. I don’t think anyone was actually feeling confident because we’ve had a pretty terrible time away against the Baggies.
They’ve never been easy to beat, and with our inconsistent form we expected the worst. West Brom’s Craig Dawson put Tony Pulis’ side 1-0 ahead in the 12th minute, before Alexis brought the score level moments later.
The comeback was on! Or so we thought… Instead, Hal Robson-Kanu netted a second after the break and Dawson completed a brace. Arsenal had just lost 3-1 to West Brom after getting thrashed 10-2 on aggregate in the Champions League, we were fifth in the Premier League and playing woefully.
We hadn’t learned our lesson – we thought it couldn’t get worse. Boy, were we wrong. April was just around the corner….