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Sunday, June 16, 2024

Arsenal fall just short of Premier League glory – and it’s clear what they need to finally beat Man City

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Football

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As the Arsenal fans sang joyously, you wouldn’t necessarily have thought they had just finished second. That could instead be seen on the dejected faces of the players, who didn’t even celebrate the Kai Havertz goal that gave them a 2-1 victory over Everton.

Arsenal had done what they needed, but it wasn’t enough. For their part, the one reason the fans were responding as they did was because of the long acceptance that this had been the case, and pride in the team.

Any true hope really vanished after just 76 seconds, when news of that Phil Foden goal at Manchester City began to come true.

Martin Odegaard led Arsenal’s comeback but they fell two points short (Getty Images)

It symbolised how there was only ever the illusion of tension to this, and most of the title race. City have been too strong, winning too many matches of this run-in with ease. Arsenal must keep trying to inch closer, as arduous as that is. They are gradually getting there.

The wonder is whether City, under Pep Guardiola in this idealised environment, will always have that bit more.

It says so much that Arsenal actually got to the 89 points that would have been required last season, only for City to go two further.

This is the challenge that is framed by so many bigger issues in modern football. That is why Arsenal fans expressed themselves in the way they did.

Arsenal fans celebrated incorrectly at the rumour of a second West Ham goal (Getty Images)

There had actually been a carnival atmosphere around the stadium for hours before the game, complete with a brass brand and the sense of people just enjoying themselves. There was clearly a will to defiantly show pride in the team regardless of anything else, if also the tinge of hope.

That was all building and building… until that abrupt silence in the second minute. Then, only the Everton fans could be heard, as they goaded Arsenal supporters after news of Foden’s goal quickly spread.

By the 18th minute, the visitors were singing “you nearly won the league” as Foden claimed a second.

An Everton fan points out the final score at the Etihad (Getty Images)

The reality was that Arsenal weren’t even doing their part. Although they’d started strongly, with some rampant attacks, Everton defended with real resilience. It was almost too much to imagine what it would have been like if this was a shoot-out for goal difference, as it looked like that might be the case before City’s win at Tottenham Hotspur. A Sean Dyche side were never going to make this easy. There were even echoes of previous title run-ins past, as some full-bodied blocks just yards from goal recalled West Ham United’s heroics in 1995.

One problem for Arsenal was that the current West Ham side weren’t doing similar at City, but another was how this game was going. On 40 minutes, Idrissa Gueye powered a free-kick towards goal that cannoned off Declan Rice and into the far corner.

It was just the way these games can go.

Gueye’s free-kick silenced the Emirates (Getty Images)

Arsenal did respond within just three minutes through a precise finish from Takehiro Tomiyasu, and that then raised the most optimistic if cruellest period of the day for the home fans. Around the same moment as the Tomiyasu goal, Mohammed Kudus scored a sensational bicycle kick for West Ham.

There was suddenly that tension again, even if it remained illusory. That then reached absurd levels as news rippled around just before half-time that West Ham had actually made it 2-2. Fans expectantly turned towards the media area with fingers up to ask the score. They were to be disappointed.

It is almost remarkable that can still happen in 2024, long after the era of transistor radios, although it serves to display the humanity of the game in its own way. This is why people come, to feel all this.

It’s better than not being involved.

Despondent Arsenal players after the final whistle (Reuters)

Everton, for their part, were fully immersed. When Arsenal weren’t hitting the frame of the goal, as happened twice, they were hitting Everton bodies. It was that congested around Jordan Pickford’s box. Dyche’s players were getting any possible contact onto every move.

There was eventually one bounce too many, as the ball came through for Havertz to finish.

As to what Arsenal can do next, it is obvious they are on the right path. They should persist with the process. They may just need to go even bigger with some signings. As has been a constant question throughout this season, Arsenal probably need a prime forward. That is perhaps what takes you from 89 points to the 90-plus points you need to accumulate to match Manchester City.

They should still be proud of what they have done, though. It has become that difficult to keep pace with the perpetual champions.

It says much that Jurgen Klopp, the only person who has actually beaten Guardiola’s City to a title, once they started winning in 2017-18, is now leaving.
Arsenal at least look best set to match that. They need to see this final day as the continuance of a journey, rather than an end in itself.

The sense from the atmosphere is that is exactly how everyone at Arsenal views it.

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