LONDON –In the end Arsenal just left themselves too much to do too late in the season. Five straight wins, their longest winning streak since October 2018, was not enough to overhaul those ahead of them and to close the gap. A 2-0 win over Brighton and Hove Albion was too little too late. After 24 straight years in European competition, the streak has been broken.
That it came with returning fans being robbed the chance to celebrate St Totteringham’s Day — the date where Spurs cannot finish above Arsenal in the Premier League — was all the crueler. Ultimately the second straight season in eighth for Mikel Arteta’s side was decided in the early months of the campaign and the woeful run of form into Christmas that had the Gunners teetering over the relegation zone. A run of five straight Premier League wins to the end of the season reflects a team that improved significantly but too late to achieve the lofty goals that fans expect.
As they nervously awaited news from the King Power Stadium where Gareth Bale’s goal earned Spurs a 4-2 win and with it seventh place chants of “we want Kroenke out” echoed around the ground. The 10,000 supporters had brought no little atmosphere to a ground often derided for being so quiet but either side of this game there was a clear message to ownership ahead of a summer in which so much seems in doubt for a club facing up to a season out of Europe for the first time since 1995-96.
There is cause for hope at least in the new season. Nicolas Pepe certainly approaches it in excellent form after scoring both goals in a convincing win over a Brighton side with little to play for. If Real Madrid can be convinced to part ways with Martin Odegaard then there is quality aplenty alongside the young guns Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe, both of whom were given standing ovations when they changed places midway through the second half. And yet if the future does offer some reason for optimism that does not change the fact that this is Arsenal’s worst season in a quarter of a century. There will be no European football to offer to players and fans. What was once taken for granted in these parts has slipped out of their grasp.
Pepe ends the season in style
On occasion it has felt like Pepe’s Arsenal career would be a case of one step forward, one back. We have seen this before and that should be remembered before supporters begin to dream that next season will see the emergence of a forward who truly lives up to his $100 million price tag. Pepe ended last season with perhaps his best performance in English football in the FA Cup Final.
However the signs of progress that Arteta was seeing with his brace in the midweek win over Crystal Palace were no less apparent at the Emirates Stadium. “He wants to look at every action, he wants to look at every post-match reflection we do with him individually,” Arteta said at the time. “He wants to work and he wants to be the best. And when that happens and he has the talent that he has, I think it’s a really good mixture.”
That talent and determination were defining traits of this performance.
No-one attacked the Brighton defense more frequently as he attempted four take-ons. Whilst most weren’t successful that did not prompt Pepe’s shoulders to drop as difficulties did last season. Dan Burn might be able to dominate him in the air but he would give him all sorts of difficulties on the deck. The left-back was not the only visiting player who would have been relieved to see the back of the Ivorian after Lewis Dunk found himself nutmegged for the decisive second goal.
Pepe seemed to relish playing with the excellent Odegaard, who would drift wide to the right and offer numbers with which the Gunners could double up on the Brighton defense. His first was cooly taken as he responded to what looked like a heavy first touch with an excellent low drive off his right foot. It was his 20th involvement in a goal this season. The next took him clear of Alexandre Lacazette as the player with the most direct contributions to Arsenal’s scoring this season. That augurs well for next term, when Pepe will still be 25. There is plenty of reason for optimism.
Josh Kroenke’s cold reception
For the first time since February 2020 a member of the ruling house of Arsenal visited his fiefdom. It should of course be noted that Josh Kroenke, club director and son of owner Stan, was unable to visit the Emirates Stadium before now where he joined 10,000 fans to watch a rather impressive display from Mikel Arteta’s side. After the events of the past weeks he would have known he was unlikely to get a warm welcome.
Instead further Arsenal fans congregated outside the ground, ready to voice their displeasure at the current regime as they push back on attempts from Spotify owner Daniel Ek to buy the club. The Swede has offered a vision of an alternative to frustrated supporters, many of whom are far from convinced by Arteta despite his side’s late scrabble up the table. This was a unified protest that encompasses major fan groups including the Arsenal Supporters Trust, who secured billboards outside the Emirates Stadium bearing the slogan Kroenke Out Fans In, reflecting their desire to see the club return to the days when supporters held small but personally meaningful stakes in their team.
Whilst some of those outside the ground did not have the precious golden tickets that permitted them access the protest did not stop as fans made their way inside. Instead as he, fellow director Tim Lewis and chief executive Vinai Venkatesham stared out over the returning thousands they were greeted by that same slogan repeated on hundreds of paper signs. Such banners are certainly not an unfamiliar presence around these parts — they were frequently spotted in the final months of Arsene Wenger’s tenure — and they were joined by biodegradable balloons bearing the Kroenke Out slogan that were released in the 49th minute, signifying the unbeaten streak that propelled Arsenal to the 2003-04 title.
The fact that the Gunners cruised to a relatively comfortable win on the pitch perhaps quelled some of the frustration off the pitch but equally it was clear that whilst these fans might offer their full-throated support for the team there would be no such backing for the regime.