Where did it all go wrong for Arsenal in their Champions League hunt?
Arsenal’s top 4 hopes have been left hanging by the thinnest thread after a 2-0 defeat against a brilliant Newcastle United at St James’ Park. The loss, their 5th in their last 9 games, means that heading into the final day of the season they trail Tottenham by two points, and need the Lilywhites to lose to already relegated Norwich to stand any chance of clawing their way back into 4th place.
It is a massive longshot, and despite not aiming for Champions League football this season, to have come so close to achieving it with such a young squad is sure to sting for years to come, especially with the place instead set to go to their bitter north London rivals. But where did it all go wrong?
The January gamble
For many, the problems began in January and the action that the Gunners took in the transfer window. Or, when it came to incomings, lack of a striker. The holes in the squad were as clear then as they remain now: a lack of quality in the centre of midfield and the lack of an attacking threat at the top of the pitch.
The Gunners went hard for Dušan Vlahović, only for the Serbian to secure his dream move to Juventus instead, and pursued a loan move for Arthur, only to balk at the idea of being tied to an obligation to buy the Brazilian 18 months later.
Other reported targets moved as well. Dejan Kulusevski joined Tottenham, while Bruno Guimarães joined Newcastle and, in true ironic fashion, hammered home the final nail in Arsenal’s Europa League coffin at St James’ Park. For one reason or another, no one came through the door at the Emirates Stadium.
Whether or not they would have made a difference if they had (think Denis Suárez) remains unclear. Of the striker options the Gunners were linked with, Alexander Isak seemed the most likely, with a release clause in his contract that speculation swirled around.
But, the 22-year-old Swede has managed just 2 goals and 1 assist in his 13 appearances since the window shut, and just 6 goals this season. Would he, at that fee, be a guaranteed immediate improvement?
This question and many similar will linger like a bad smell around the Emirates Stadium, but there is no certainty that January signings have the impact of Luis Díaz, Bruno Fernandes or Kulusevski. Doing something was in some ways as much of a gamble as doing nothing.
Meanwhile, Mikel Arteta and Edu pruned the squad to the barebones (a point of contention for many when they then called off the initial north London Derby), with Pablo Marí, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Calum Chambers, Sead Kolašinac, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang all leaving the club.
Clearly, the Arsenal hierarchy had decided on a streamlined squad for the one competition they remained in and had decided that none of those that departed were good enough to make a telling contribution in the hunt for the Champions League. Whether seen as bold or naive, it is hard to argue with that outlook; all save Aubameyang had flattered to deceive in an Arsenal shirt and the Gabon striker had been frozen out of the team since November with no clear way back.
The major problem, however, was how badly it backfired.
A lack of quality
So, Arteta had his XI. Not much beyond that, bar a couple of veteran backup options (Cédric and Elneny), but the gamble the club took in January relied upon that XI being fit to play one game a week for the remainder of the season.
The gamble backfired horrifically, however. Thomas Partey and Kieran Tierney picked up season-ending injuries, while Takehiro Tomiyasu missed most of the final half of the season through various issues. It left the Gunners once more relying on the players that they had desperately wanted not to have to rely on, and the drop-off in quality was evident.
The absence of Partey, in particular, was immense. While Elneny impressed relative to expectations, he still fell a long way short of arguably Arsenal’s only Champions League quality midfielder. Where things needed to happen quickly, the Egyptian dithered.
The first goal scored by Newcastle yesterday was evidence of the chasmic drop-off. A foul throw committed by Tierney’s stand-in Nuno Tavares gifted possession to the Magpies, before Joelinton outpaced Elneny, the replacement for Thomas Partey, on his way to the Arsenal goal. It was a fitting description of the situation the Gunners found themselves in.
The pain of overachieving
In many ways, this young squad defied expectations this season, to the extent where missing out on Champions League football comes as a bitter blow to fans who had come to expect a top 4 finish.
Ultimately, however, fatigue began to show and the season began to unravel, leaving Arsenal (in all likelihood) 5th come the end of the season, barring a major upset at Carrow Road on the final day.
Ask the Arsenal faithful whether they would have taken 5th at the beginning of the season, plenty would have bitten your hand off, and for many, this was a side simply not ready for top 4 either in age or quality.
But they, amid the chaos at Manchester United and Tottenham, got so close, and that will be what hurts the most.
Clear what needs to be done
Amid the heartbreak for Arsenal fans, there is at least clarity. Whereas previous summers had seen muddled transfer policy (see: signing Nicolas Pépé for £72m), what the Gunners need has been made clear as day by the end of season run-in.
Additions in midfield, another right-back to compete with Tomiyasu, a striker and a left-back (should Tavares ultimately be moved on) top the shopping list, while another centre-back may also be on the agenda depending on the future of William Saliba.
UNFP Ligue 1 Young Player of the Year 🏆
William Saliba 💫
Congratulations, Wilo 👏 pic.twitter.com/sh6h61GQ6k
— Arsenal (@Arsenal) May 15, 2022
The issues in the squad seem set to be addressed in a ruthless and surgical manner, with links to Aaron Hickey, Youri Tielemans, and Gabriel Jesus all suggesting that the club can see just as clearly what needs to change.
Ultimately, a lack of quality beyond a starting XI that played together just 9 times cost Arsenal a Champions League spot, but the strides that the side has made in the past 12 months must not be lost amid the disappointment.