LONDON — As the crowd bellowed along to one last chant of North London Forever, you had to take a moment to remind yourself that this had been a season in which Arsenal had not achieved anything that might not have been expected of them.
Indeed, given how the Premier League table looked 10 days ago, it is not unreasonable to cast a fifth placed finish as failure. Mikel Arteta’s side had one firm hand on the prize of Champions League football. They let it slip away, and all the goals they rained down on the Everton reserves could not change that fact.
And yet, their season did not end with a whimper. There was no sign of the toxicity that spewed forth on social media, admittedly something of a sluice that lets forth the worst possible takes on any subject, after Monday’s loss at Newcastle. That was the game where the top four really slipped away. Instead, there was a collective belief that this ending to the season might be the start of something better.
For the first time since Arsene Wenger’s departure, Arsenal are not ending a season with great existential questions looming large. Their squad is not bloated with players whose contributions do not reflect their salaries. Though they would like to get Bukayo Saka tied down to longer, better terms, there is not quite the sense of a loudly ticking clock over his future that there was with previous talismanic figures. As for the manager, he has just signed a new contract, one which the club knew might not end up being a reward for a top four finish.
Instead, it is crystal clear what cost them Champions League football, a point that was hammered home when Eddie Nketiah flicked home at close range for the second of five goals the Gunners ran in. With that goal he leapfrogged Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, on whom over £100million in transfer fees and years of six figure weekly wages have been spent, to become his side’s top scoring striker in the Premier League this season. Though center-back Gabriel has as many goals as any of them, five to be precise.
Tottenham, the team who pipped them to fourth by a point, have two of the four highest scorers in the league in Harry Kane (17) and golden boot co-winner Heung-min Son (23). They need players who score goals. They plan to get them.
Not for nothing did Arteta, still downhearted after the disastrous defeat with which he started this week, insist he had “tried to squeeze the lemon to every single drop.” Failing to strengthen the starting XI in January while hampering their squad depth may ultimately have left this rookie head coach with a task that was beyond those with far more experience.
“I know, I think we all know — and you can see the reaction of the fans towards the team — that you can see what we have on the pitch, and what this club had on the pitch ten years ago or twenty years ago,” said Arteta. “We know where we have to go.
“I’m extremely disappointed today because we generated expectations that I wanted for this football club, because it’s what it deserves, and we came up short. The feeling of guilt and not reaching that level is painful.”
Their fans would not let them wallow in that guilt. Led by the vibrant Ashburton Army, a group of young fans in the Clock End whose commitment to building an atmosphere has brought life to the ground, the Emirates Stadium bade farewell to 2021/22 in style. “We’ve got super Mik Arteta” was the cry before kick off, a burst of “Allez, Allez, Allez” resonating around the ground when it had long since become apparent that Tottenham had got the job done at Norwich.
There is more to the bond that has built between the Arsenal faithful and their players than mere results. In Saka, Emile Smith Rowe, Aaron Ramsdale and a dozen or more others, supporters see young men they can identify with. Long after the final whistle had gone they stayed on to roar Saka into a well earned summer break.
“We tried to give the fans, when we knew the [Tottenham] result as well, everything they deserve for everything they’ve done for us and how much they have helped us to come much further as a club and as a team,” said the manager.
“They have given me many reasons throughout the season, and they have shown [their support] with the way they turn up, the atmosphere they’ve built home and away for these players. They can see what we’re doing, what the players want to do, how they represent the club, the values on and off the pitch, who we are as a group.
“Then we have the level that we have and it’s not been enough. We have to make a clear assessment on that and how we take the club to the next level. If we want to do that, we know what we have to do.”
They actually have to do it, of course. The right striker, a top quality midfielder to partner a fully fit Thomas Partey might be something like silver bullets to give them an XI capable of staying the course in the top-four race. Last summer’s extensive and largely successful overhaul of Arteta’s squad suggests that the manager, technical director Edu, and their scouting division can be trusted to make the right calls. But you have to actually do it.
Still Arsenal do at least know what they need to do to improve a team that ended the season with 69 points, enough for fourth in the two previous campaigns, only one fewer than Spurs. That is no little progress on years gone by.