Usually when Mikel Arteta faces the press after a defeat he comes out swinging with the ferocity and zeal of a man who believes his team can still come back to deliver more. After witnessing Newcastle deliver the knockout blow to his side’s Champions League hopes though, he could do little more than lay down and accept defeat on Monday night.
The Spaniard stopped short of accusing his players of betrayal, but could not hide the immense disappointment he clearly felt. Normally I sit here, I can defend what we’ve done. Today it’s not easy,” he said when asked to play coroner on Arsenal’s surely terminal top-four tilt. “Newcastle were 100 times better than us in every department from the beginning to the end and it is very hard to accept it.”
Arteta though must accept some of the blame too. This was a defeat as predictable as it was depressing.
Perhaps the reason the Gunners fandom was so anxious about their Champions League hopes after defeat to Tottenham, was how perilous the trip to Newcastle looked on paper. In cauldron-like atmospheres at Anfield, Old Trafford, Goodison Park and of course the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, Arsenal have melted away this season and tasked with silencing a bouncing Toon Army buoyed by their final home game of a historic season, the pattern repeated itself.
It speaks to a deficit in mental toughness that is present in a side that have claimed just four points from losing positions this season – a record matched only by already-relegated Norwich in the Premier League. While the fact they were even in with a shout of finishing in the top four after losing their opening three games of the season suggests that Arsenal are capable of rebounding from setbacks, when it comes to reacting to in-game adversity, they are still profoundly lacking.
Perhaps this could be put down to the lack of personnel available. In Kieran Tierney the Gunners were without their potential captain for next season, while Thomas Partey ’s Houdini-like ability to beat the press would have been invaluable on a night where they needed a miraculous escape. On top of that, three of the back four fielded were clearly unfit, and you wonder if Ben White may have dealt with Newcastle’s opening goal better had he not been hampered by his hamstring.
This though feels self-inflicted. Arsenal were not forced to gut themselves of all depth in January, but they chose to anyway. This has meant that as Arteta has needed to turn to his bench in times of strife this season, he has largely had a sea of fresh-faced Hale Enders staring back at him.
He and Edu will argue that clearing the decks for a summer rebuild is part of a longer-term strategy that is far bigger than the immediate aim of reaching next season’s Champions League, but you wonder if imperfect, but versatile players like Calum Chambers and Ainsley Maitland-Niles may have had something to offer particularly given the struggles in midfield and defence in the back end of this campaign. The amount of muscle injuries Arsenal have suffered late this season is likely due to the lack of depth they’ve left themselves with, and that was a painfully avoidable predicament.
That is before you even get on to the most controversial January departure of all. Piers Morgan’s tiresome Twitter agenda has made discussion of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s move to Barcelona almost taboo, but it is difficult not to question the wisdom of allowing such a deadly finisher to leave a club that simply does not score enough goals.
Since the 32-year-old’s transfer to Catalonia, he has scored more goals than Gabriel Martinelli, Emile Smith Rowe, Alexandre Lacazette, Eddie Nketiah and Martin Odegaard combined. Without a recognised goalscorer, the Gunners have become dangerously reliant on Bukayo Saka, and the weight of such expectation appears to have taken its toll on the England international who has struggled to see out the 90 minutes of most matches recently.
Attempts were made to sign Dusan Vlahovic in January and the constant links with centre forwards mean that Arsenal will look to address the issue this summer, but as far as their Champions League hopes go for next season that will be too little too late.
Again Arteta will defend his decisions with a focus on the best interests of the club in the long term, but this is only an argument that stands up when it can be backed by results. While clear progress has been made in terms of playing style and culture, the tangible indicators of ascendency remain slightly elusive for this Arsenal side who must now “swallow all the poison” of a bitterly disappointing end to the season.
Not many would have predicted them to finish higher than the fifth place where they will inevitably end up this season, but with the opportunity to make the step up to Europe’s top competition having come so close, it’s impossible not to question the self-inflicted nature of the Gunners spectacular stumble at the final hurdle.