As referee Howard Webb blew the full time whistle at St. James’ Park on the final day of the season, Arsenal fans breathed a huge sigh of relief that they’d again trumped bitter north London rivals Tottenham Hotspur to a higher league finish.
The ‘St. Totteringham’s Day’ celebrations began upon the culmination of the Gunners 1-0 win over Newcastle United, meaning Spurs’ 1-0 victory over Sunderland meant little more than a records points total garnered in their Premier League history.
It was just reward for an Arsenal side who, since the 2-1 North London Derby defeat to Andre Villas-Boas’ side back in March, secured eight wins from a possible 10, drawing a further two, and conceded just five goals in the process.
A vast improvement on the 28 games up to, and including the aforementioned loss to Spurs at White Hart Lane, where 32 goals had been put into the Arsenal net, and having seen their average goal per game conceded figure drop from 1.14 to 0.5, securing that final Champions League berth was fully deserved for Arsene Wenger’s side.
In comparison, Spurs conceded an average of 1.3 goals per game over the last 10 games, up from 1.17 in the 28 prior to the encounter with Arsenal on March 3rd.
Arsenal’s exceptional defensive solidity was widely praised over the final weeks of the campaign and justifiably so. For a side to have bounced back from such a confidence sapping defeat is a testament to not only their ability to limit the opposition’s attacking capabilities, but also the mental strength of a side that have secured a top four finish for 17 consecutive years.
This is evident in that only Wigan Athletic have committed more errors leading to goals (17) than Arsenal (14) all season, yet since the 2-1 defeat to Spurs, the Gunners have not made a single further such costly error.
When compared to their north London neighbours, Spurs may have made fewer errors lead to goals over the course of the season (8), but three of those have come since that north London derby victory in March, all of which came in the 3-2 defeat to Liverpool at Anfield.
Much of Arsenal's defensive success has been down to Laurent Koscielny, the Frenchman reinstated at the back alongside Per Mertesacker, with Thomas Vermaelen dropped at the expense of his teammate.
However, in the games up to and including the North London Derby defeat, Arsenal were performing better without Koscielny in the starting XI as evidenced in their win percentage dropping to 30% in the 10 games he started compared to the 55% without him.
Yet, with him starting alongside Mertesacker, Arsenal picked up their win percentage to a staggering 80% as the Gunners secured their top four finish. While the figure may have risen significantly, the defence was marginally tighter without Koscielny in the starting XI over the course of the season, conceding 0.94 goals per game compared to 1 with him.
Nevertheless, his importance in the run-in is highlighted in his exploits in winning possession in defence. Before the loss to Spurs, he robbed the opposition of the ball 29 times in 15 games - 1.9 times per game - compared to 34 times in 10 games after that defeat - an average of 3.4 times per game.
It isn’t just his ability to win possession in defence that has improved, with Koscielny making more tackles per game after the North London Derby (2.1) than before (1.4). His aerial dominance improved in the same period too, with the French international winning 29 headed battles over the last 10 games, compared to 28 in his first 15 appearances, seeing his average figure for aerial duels won per game rise from 1.9 to 2.9, an impressive mark up by any player’s standards. As a result, Koscielny's WhoScored.com rating rose from 6.5 in those first 15 games to 7.4 in the final 10.
Either way, the praise being sent Koscielny’s way by Arsenal fans and pundits alike is certainly vindicated. When factoring in his goal and assist in his final 10 appearances, the former the only strike in Sunday’s crucial 1-0 win over Newcastle and the latter for Mertesacker’s header in the 1-0 win over Fulham, it’s no surprise to see the 27-year-old lauded as a primary factor in the north London side securing fourth spot.
He has certainly won over his doubters that had arisen following a number of mixed performances earlier in the season, but after an extended spell on the sidelines, the defender has taken his opportunity to seize a starting spot and his performances have been one of the main factors as to why Arsenal will be plying their trade amongst Europe’s elite next season.