Arsenal fans are a spoiled lot in many ways. Every year the team is in the top four in the league and in European play. But it is also true that being agonizingly close to winning the league and falling short can pluck your nerves and make you forget how good things are.
Barring a rash of injuries when Arsenal seemed to be in a sweet groove, I think Arsenal would have been competing with Leicester City for the title, and might have won it outright by now. This year Ramsey, Cech, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Rosicky, Sanchez, Arteta, Carzola, Flamini, Coquelin, Walcott, Wilshire, Rosicky, Koscielny and Welbeck missed more than 30 days each. That is hard to overcome.
Late October through November was the first bucket of cold water in the face, when the team lost Oxlade-Chamberlain, Walcott, Bellerin, Koscielny, Debuchy, Coquelin, Arteta, Sanchez, Carzola and Flamini to injuries. The team endured a short month of EPL games without a win. The loss of Carzola and Coquelin was particularly tough, as the two had developed a rhythm in the 1-3-2-4 formation. The two anchored the midfield as defensive midfielders, but Coquelin's more defensive posture let Carzola slash forward to support the offense, while his speed allowed him to hustle back as needed. It took a while for Ramsey and Elneny to settle in as replacements.
In the new year the changing mix of midfielders and forwards didn't quite gel the way they had in the first half of the season, when tight, one-touch passes at the edge of the box created goal after goal. The post-injury performance of Alexis Sanchez is emblematic of the problem. Once he returned to the squad from injury he seemed to dribble too much as he fought to recover his form. The quick one touch passes and dynamic cuts he made in the fall were largely gone. With all the injuries the team's chemistry in front of the goal was hard to sustain, and it should be no surprise that Mesut Ozil had 17 EPL assists by mid-February and is still stuck on 18 in early May.
Olivier Giroud's lack of second half production has more to do with the ever changing cast around him that it really does with his own form. Giroud is an under appreciated post-player, to sneak in a basketball analogy. Many of Arsenal's jaw-dropping goals from the first half of the season involved Giroud, usually with his back to the goal and a defender pinned against him, playing a one-touch pass back to a slashing teammate in a classic give-and-go. Giroud is still holding the ball up at the edge of the box pretty well, but sees far fewer players cutting to lay the ball off to. Too much of the offense at this point involves Ozil lofting a soft cross into the box. Those passes are more effective when they are part of a mix. With fewer slashing runs defenses can sit back and wait to pick off those crosses.
Yet Arsenal still manages to eke out goals. In February and March it was really injuries to Koscielny that I think hurt the team the most. He is remarkably reliable on defense and will effectively dribble into a seam to advance the ball when the opposing team sits back and takes away forward passing lanes. Gabriel Paulista was too inconsistent as a replacement and the defense suffered. Losing Pers Mertesacker for a spell did not help, as Paulista lacked Mertesacker's ability to head away inbound crosses.
So how to improve the team for the next campaign? It may not be a popular course of action with fans who always want more strikers, but I would focus on improving and adding depth to the back four.
Add a rock solid center back -- While I have gained a grudging respect for Mertesacker, his lack of pace is a liability against fast counter-attacking teams. At 31 he is not getting any faster, so he really should sit out when the match-ups do not favor him. At 25 years of age one would expect that Paulista will only improve and can be the other half of the rotation at right center back. He did improve as he got more playing time. But is Arsenal the kind of team that knows how to train and mentor a center back? I have my doubts. I'd be more comfortable for the next two to three years having another really solid center back the team could rely on, especially with all the injuries Arsenal seems to endure.
Add a left back -- Yes Nacho Monreal is very much an Arsene Wenger kind of player. He lacks the pace of Bellerin, but he works incredibly hard and is constantly touching the ball. Ozil seems to have no problem laying the ball off to him or finding him on an overlap, which is an important vote of confidence. But he has trouble defending crosses from the weak side, in part because he is only 5' 10". His back-up Kieran Gibbs -- who is the same height and only weighs 142 pounds -- is hardly a defensive presence. At 6'0" Calum Chambers has more size, but he has primarily been a right back and he seems to have lost Wenger's favor. He has only started twice in the Premier League and has only 21 appearances in all competitions this campaign after appearing in 36 matches the prior season. He is only 21, so he has plenty of time to develop. A loan might be a good idea to get him some consistent playing time. Adding a well-balanced left back would give the team some needed depth and allow them to field a stronger defensive line when needed.
If the team can keep the midfielders and forwards relatively healthy they can win the league with the offense that is already in place. And the team has much more depth at midfield anyway. It is the defense that needs some improvement and depth. The expiring contracts of Flamini, Rosicky, and Arteta create room on the roster and free up £230,000 a week in salary. I'd be inclined to move along Gibbs and Debuchy and free up another £125,000 a week. That leaves plenty of money to shore up the defense and still add a winger or midfielder. Over the past three seasons Arsenal have been net sellers as well, bringing in 37 players and selling 56, suggesting that there may be some transfer money laying around.