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Tuesday, June 25, 2024

‘We’re going to get it’: Mikel Arteta’s defiant message reveals a new Arsenal as title slips away

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Mikel Arteta was unequivocal on the Emirates pitch. “We’re going to get it,” the Arsenal manager declared, voice still strained. “They took it away from us. It’s the second season,” Arteta said, as Manchester City were crowned Premier League champions again. This was a difficult day for the emotions and Arteta and Arsenal went through them all as their hopes rose and fell. In the end, despite Kai Havertz’s late winner, they fell just short. Arsenal finished two points off Pep Guardiola’s side but Arteta was convinced that his challengers would one day become champions. “When, I don’t know, but it will happen,” he insisted.

Arsenal never managed to edge in front on the final day. Arteta looked pained, pulling his face on the touchline while Sean Dyche prowled in his tracksuit, his Everton team determined to disrupt. And yet, when full-time came and City lifted the Premier League for the fourth season in a row, the Emirates projected an image of defiance. It turned the day back to where it had started, when Arsenal dreamed of a first title in 20 years. More than that was the feeling that remained. Under Arteta, a club has been reborn, its energy restored.

“We’ve changed the club and I think you all believe in us now,” Martin Odegaard told the crowd, and despite the result, this was still a day to look back and see how far Arsenal have come.

The mood outside the Emirates before kick-off was more than hopeful, it was celebratory; bright red flares and thick smoke filling the tunnel from Finsbury Park on the march in. The sense of anticipation spilled out and around the streets of north London, building throughout the afternoon at the prospect of the title going down to the final day. This was an occasion for a new generation: amid the throng outside, kids were lifted onto shoulders and craned their necks for a look. Then there was the noise as Odegaard led out the Arsenal players before kick-off, a startlingly new sensation, a sheer ear-splitting eruption, a burst of fireworks, more smoke.

If only Arsenal could have remained in that moment; where the possibilities stretched in front of them. No one was thinking of Manchester City then, or the inevitability of their victory over West Ham. Perhaps it was better not to. Perhaps it was better to just celebrate a season which has seen Arsenal record their most victories in Premier League history, record their most points since the Invincibles, that has grown in stature from last season’s late collapse and pushed this City side to the final day, winning at Tottenham and Old Trafford under the pressure of the title race. The Emirates bounced as Arsenal kicked off.

It lasted all of two minutes, which speaks to what Arsenal are facing. Phil Foden’s excruciatingly early goal at the Etihad sucked the life out of the party, puncturing the wall of noise that rolled around the Emirates in waves as Arsenal began with a display of typical intensity. That was until Foden doubled City’s lead. From there, Arsenal fell flat. Everton had signalled their intention to frustrate when they turned Arsenal around at kick-off, then threatened to do more than that when Dominic Calvert-Lewin rolled a shot against the post. Idrissa Gueye’s free-kick, deflecting in off Declan Rice, was met with a silence that suggested acceptance.

Arsenal instead showed defiance again, as Takehiro Tomiyasu pulled one back and then news of a West Ham goal at the Etihad reverberated around the Emirates. The occasion teetered on the brink of something quite special, but was never quite realised. The two minutes in which Tomiyasu equalised and Mohamed Kudus scored in Manchester briefly brought an intoxicating quality, a manic suggestion that Arsenal were about to summon the spectacular, that increased into a wild frenzy as incorrect whispers of a second West Ham goal spread. But like that second West Ham goal, the faint title dream did not materialise.

Martin Odegaard told the Arsenal crowd that they would be back challenging next season (Getty Images)

But there was only pride at the journey. With a points total of 89, Arsenal did more than enough to win the title in most years before the arrival of Guardiola. It can seem ridiculous to reflect on where the title was lost, that the Premier League could come down to small margins over 38 games, but against City that can be the reality. Whether dropping five points against 13th-placed Fulham, the controversial defeat to Newcastle at St James’ Park, the April defeat to Aston Villa that saw Arteta’s side relinquish control over their destiny, or Son Heung-min’s miss against Manchester City, certain turning points can be identified.

Arteta chose the most recent ones. “Aston Villa at home,” he rued. “In the first half it should have been 4-0. Maybe the story would have been different. What happened last Tuesday, maybe we could have been champions. These are the margins that are so, so, so small. That’s the credit that the club and the team should take. We’re doing this against the best team in the history of the Premier League by far.”

Yet, since the turn of the year, it was Arsenal’s only missed step. That should not detract from what they have achieved, or where they have come from. “All this is happening because you started believing,” Arteta told the fans. “You started to be patient, you started to understand what we were trying to do and all the credit has to go to these amazing players, and the staff that are unbelievable. I think now it’s time to have a break, think, reflect and please, keep pushing, keep inspiring this team. Don’t be satisfied because we want much more than that, and we’re going to get it.”

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