As St James’ Park erupted in celebration, Arsenal’s players sank to the turf. Their Champions League hopes are not mathematically over yet but the despondent reaction which greeted the final whistle on Monday night said it all.
Arsenal know the chances of Tottenham slipping to defeat against relegated Norwich on the final day are slim in the extreme. And even if they do, their own performance against Newcastle does not exactly augur well for their hopes of overcoming Everton.
“We had nothing in the game,” Mikel Arteta told Sky Sports afterwards. Granit Xhaka went further. “We didn’t deserve to be on the pitch,” he said. “What happened was a disaster performance.”
It is a disappointing end to a once-promising season. Arteta’s side looked on course to achieve a top-four finish after securing a fourth consecutive win against Leeds earlier in the month, but the north London derby was always likely to be pivotal and so it has proved. The back-to-back defeats to Spurs and Newcastle have left supporters to digest what has gone wrong.
Lack of experience – and quality
Xhaka’s outspoken interview prompted an angry reaction from some but his comments were largely accurate. Arsenal did not show up at St James’ Park. The pressure of the situation told.
It could be seen as early as the first few minutes of the game, when Aaron Ramsdale lost his footing repeatedly, setting the tone for Arsenal’s nervous performance in and out of possession.
The manner of the defeat provided more ammunition for those eager to put Arsenal’s costly slump down to mental fragility but more likely is that it is a symptom of their youthfulness.
Arsenal are the youngest team in the Premier League this season and their form is streaky as a result. They are able to build up momentum when confidence is flowing after a victory, but find it difficult to recover swiftly from setbacks.
It can be seen in games such as the last two. Arsenal have only won four points from losing positions over the course of the season – the fewest in the Premier League along with bottom side Norwich. And it can be seen in the pattern of how their season has unfolded. Games are rarely won or lost in isolation.
That’s why Thursday’s defeat to Tottenham, with only two games of the campaign remaining, was always likely to prove costly.
But it is not just a question of experience.
Arsenal have fallen short because of a lack of quality too.
It is painful given the position they had got themselves into, but should it really come as a surprise that an Arsenal team which last night featured players such as Cedric Soares, Nuno Tavares, Mohamed Elneny, Eddie Nketiah, Alexandre Lacaztte and Nicolas Pepe should fail to secure a Champions League finish?
Since February, Heung-Min Son and Harry Kane have plundered 24 Premier League goals between them for Tottenham. In the same timeframe, Bukayo Saka is Arsenal’s top scorer with only five.
It is little comfort to Arsenal supporters now, but the reality is this young side had been punching above its weight in fourth place.
The question is whether more could have been done to address their shortcomings before reaching that point.
January gamble backfires
The irony of Bruno Guimareas’ goal in the Gunners’ defeat at Newcastle will not be lost on Arsenal supporters.
The Brazilian midfielder was heavily linked with a move to north London in the January transfer window, but Arsenal opted against signing him, or anyone else for that matter.
With Champions League football there for the taking, Arsenal’s lack of investment was seen as a huge gamble at the time, and it is a gamble that has not paid off for Arteta and his side.
It’s not just incomings, though.
Arsenal let six first-team squad players leave in the January transfer window either on loan, on loan with a view to a permanent deal, or by contract termination.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Calum Chambers, Pablo Mari and Ainsley Maitland-Niles were among those to depart the Emirates Stadium. On first look, they were all players struggling for form or game-time, but the departures left Arteta’s squad threadbare.
In contrast, Tottenham signed Juventus pair Rodrigo Bentacur and Dejan Kulusevski on loan and they have been a huge part of the turnaround in Antonio Conte’s side’s fortunes. You can also look at Newcastle – who added significantly to their squad with five new arrivals, including Guimareas – as they pulled well clear of relegation.
Following the defeat at Newcastle, Arteta was forced to defend his side’s January business: “We have done what we can, and with what we were allowed to do, what we could do and the resources we had from the start of the season. The team that we were able to build is what we were able to build and it’s the team that has taken us all the way here.”
Of course, Arteta is going to defend the decisions Arsenal took in January, but the reality is the failure to strengthen has come back to haunt them. Arteta’s depleted squad ran out of steam.
Injuries expose lack of depth
Injuries did not help.
Arteta’s side struggled all over the pitch against Newcastle but the issues were particularly pronounced in midfield, where Elneny, Xhaka and Martin Odegaard were dominated by Joelinton, Guimaraes and Sean Longstaff.
Xhaka and Elneny were physically overrun by the Newcastle trio and, when they did manage to get hold of the ball, they were unable to work it forward. By the end, they had made 81 passes between them but only six to Odegaard and only five to Nketiah.
How different it might have been with Thomas Partey in the side.
The Ghanaian rated his performances at 4 out of 10 in an interview with Sky Sports in December but he was instrumental in their upturn in form between February and April and Arsenal’s record with and without him underlines his importance to the side.
Partey is excellent both in and out of possession when anchoring Arsenal’s midfield but injuries have been a problem ever since his arrival from Atletico Madrid. His latest setback, during last month’s 3-0 loss to Crystal Palace, has proved particularly costly.
Arsenal were able to get back on track without him initially, reviving their top-four hopes with an unlikely run of four consecutive wins which started against Chelsea, but there is nobody in the squad like Partey and the drop in quality eventually showed.
The same can be said of Arsenal’s full-backs. The Gunners lost Kieran Tierney days before Partey’s injury and his absence has proved similarly damaging, with the lack of an able deputy forcing Arteta to recalibrate his entire backline.
The long-awaited return of Takehiro Tomiyasu provided a boost but only a temporary one.
His lack of fitness was clear to see before he was forced off against Newcastle on Monday night and, like Nuno Tavares on the opposite side, his replacement, Cedric Soares, was once again found wanting at key moments.
Tomiyasu and Tierney’s injury problems have been such that Arsenal have only been able to start their first-choice full-backs together in 10 out of 37 Premier League games all season.
It is hardly surprising they have struggled as a result – just look at how Chelsea’s title challenge fell away when they lost Reece James and Ben Chilwell to injury – but it still shines a light on the lack of depth in Arteta’s squad, further highlighting the need for significant strengthening this summer.
Smith: Arsenal heading in right direction
Former striker Alan Smith, who was on co-commentary duty for Sky Sports at St James’ Park, believes a fifth-placed finish would still represent progress for Arsenal.
“If you had offered them fifth place at the start of the season, I’m sure they would have taken it having finished eighth in each of the last two years,” he told Sky Sports News.
“Europa League qualification is by no means a failure. I still think it’s a step forward.
“Of course, it’s not in the tournament they want to be in. But as West Ham have shown us, it can be a great competition.
“It is a drain on your resources and that’s why they need to add to their squad. But I don’t think there’s any reason to be getting too down.
“I think they will make signings this summer. Not having Champions League football of course sometimes affects the quality of those signings, but they can and will bring in players who will deepen the quality because that came home to roost last night.
“The squad is certainly not big enough and when you’re calling on fringe players, they can get found out.
“That’s the next step for Arteta, I think, to give himself more choices and better quality choices.
“But I think the future is bright. It’s a young team and it’s only going to get better.
“With the right additions, that can help them on their way.”