Mikel Arteta has admitted he is in pain after watching his Arsenal side miss out on a return to the Champions League.
The Gunners went into the final day of the 2021/22 Premier League season needing to win and a Tottenham Hotspur defeat to be able to overtake their rivals and finish in the top four. But it could have been so different.
At the start of April, Arsenal were in the top four, three points clear of fifth-placed Tottenham but crucially had a game in hand over their rivals and a second North London Derby still to come. Only Manchester City and Liverpool had won more than the Gunners’ 17 matches in the Premier League, while just the top three boasted better defences.
The Gunners had 10 games left to play and the fixtures looked pretty favourable, particularly for an Arsenal side that had lost just one of their past 12 Premier League matches – and that sole defeat came against Liverpool.
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But Arsenal started to slip. First it was a 3-0 thrashing away to Crystal Palace where Arsenal managed just three shots on target and conceded three from the Eagles’ five. That was followed up by defeats to Brighton at the Emirates and Southampton away from home in the space of a week, again with Arsenal struggling in front of goal. Four shots on target (from 20) were achieved vs Brighton and six from 23 against Southampton.
Arsenal were making the chances, they were just missing a striker with a killer instinct – all while watching Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang scoring for fun at Barcelona. The Gunners had dropped to six but the race for the top four was still in their hands. With seven games left they knew that seven wins would seal the deal.
And they bounced back, in quite impressive fashion.
First they beat Chelsea 4-2 at Stamford Bridge and then took all three points against Manchester United, within a matter of days, effectively taking the Red Devils out of the top four race. Arsenal went from sixth to fourth in just over a week and had Eddie Nketiah firing, perhaps playing for a new contract or to attract interest from elsewhere.
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The Gunners had moved into fourth, two points clear of Tottenham with five games left and further wins over West Ham and Leeds put Arsenal on the brink. Four points clear of Tottenham, Arsenal just needed a win in the North London Derby to secure Champions League football and the return of St Totteringham’s Day. A draw would have been fine too, with just two games left afterwards.
But Arsenal crumbled. And they crumbled hard. First it was the 3-0 thrashing at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, which saw Harry Kane score twice, Son Heung-min finish things off and Rob Holding sent off.
Just a few days later they then travelled to Newcastle and fell again, losing 2-0 at St James’ Park, to fall two points behind Tottenham going into the final day. And it was this defeat that Arteta still hasn’t recovered from.
“We did what we had to do, we knew that it wasn’t in our hands, we knew we needed a miracle and it didn’t occur, that’s it,” he told reporters in his final press conference of the season.
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“The league table at the end of the season doesn’t lie. It’s true that last year with 67 points Chelsea got into the Champions League and we have 69 and we are out of it but that’s the level and the demands has this league has now.
“I cannot assess the season today, I’m sorry, I’m still in a lot of pain after what happened on Monday. I cannot give a fair assessment on what we’ve done.
“What I can guarantee is that we’ve tried to squeeze the lemon as much as we can for every single drop and we reached the point we reached.
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“I know, I think we all know – and you can see the reaction of the fans towards the team – that you can see what we have on the pitch and what this club had on the pitch ten years ago or twenty years ago. We know where we have to go.
“I’m extremely disappointed today because we degenerated expectations that I wanted for this football club because it’s what it deserves and we came up short. The feeling of guilt and not reaching that level is painful.”
The miracle, of course, didn’t come. Despite Arsenal beating Everton 5-1 on the final day of the season, Tottenham also won 5-0 against Norwich, condemning the Gunners to the Europa League.