LONDON — You could almost sense the Emirates Stadium girding itself to burst out a blast of “it’s happened again.” With 87 minutes played St Totteringham was ready to rise from his slumber and Arsenal were set to celebrate supremacy in north London.
In truth it might have been a pyrrhic victory for them if they were to finish in seventh ahead of Tottenham but such meagre returns are perhaps the best either of the capital’s football powers can expect right now. Both on and off the pitch these two must accomplish a great deal over the summer if they are to keep hold of their place in the top echelons of English football.
For all that their supporters would hate to admit it there is much these two share in common. The two clubs whose involvement in the breakaway Super League drew the most mirth, their respective returns to the stadia that were to be the embodiments of their progress on the pitch were dominated by the dissatisfaction of fans who feel ignored at every turn.
Even those without a ticket made their way to the Emirates Stadium to protest against ownership with director Josh Kroenke at the ground to see hundreds of paper signs bearing the slogan “Kroenke Out Fans In.” It was a fine line for supporters to tread, particularly in a winning cause. There was a natural desire to revel in the excellence of Nicolas Pepe’s two goals, to offer the likes of Thomas Partey and Martin Odegaard to warmest of N5 welcomes and simply to have a grand day out after over a year away for most of these supporters.
And yet there was a gnawing sense before and after that events on the pitch that it was rather a distraction to the bigger issues at Arsenal, questions of who owns the club and to what extent they are committed to restoring them to their former glory the hard way rather than through the easy out of a closed shop breakaway league. On occasion footballing matters rather felt like a sideshow, as if there was always someone on hand to point out the awkward truths of the matter at hand. Even when the swapping out of one outstanding academy graduate for another — the elegant Emile Smith Rowe making way for Bukayo Saka — drew a standing ovation from the ground there were those who felt compelled to raise their “Kroenke Out” banners. It is a message that they feel needs hammering home.
The same was no less true at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. There were grumbles of discontent on Wednesday as Ryan Mason’s team fell to defeat against Aston Villa but the issues were rarely with the players so much as with chairman Daniel Levy and those tasked with steering the club. the distance between Spurs and their supporters was proven in a very visceral sense. The $85 (£60) fee Tottenham charged for a ticket earned fans the right to sit high in the gods of a stadium which still bore the banners and advertisements designed to improve the quality of the broadcast experience. Perhaps the only solace that distance offered was that they did not have to see such a poor performance up close and personal.
Similarly that ticket price, the most charged by any club for the final week of fixtures, did not earn supporters a lap of appreciation until only a few hundred were left, refusing to leave until the players had returned to the pitch. You sensed that was never really about singing some songs for Serge Aurier and Joe Hart but about fans getting some sense of accountability, an acknowledgement from the players they support from afar that this season simply has not been good enough.
That same divide was apparent at the Emirates where players congregated in the center circle to offer their waves from afar to supporters and a tribute to the outgoing David Luiz of such intensity that it ended with fellow Brazilian Gabriel losing a tooth in the melee. He and the coaching staff combing the pitch for any ray of canine hope well after the fans had departed felt like a particularly cruel metaphor for Arsenal’s season.
It is hard to believe the next one will be so much better even if it should be noted that since Arteta’s Damascene moment against Chelsea on December 26 only the two Manchester clubs have picked up more points than Arsenal, United doing so whilst playing one more game. Equally this is a squad with holes to plug across the pitch: a convincing defensive pairing post Luiz, a Partey partner, a right-back and a host of depth options for a squad that often looks alarmingly light on quality once injuries strike.
“We have to be very critical of ourselves, of myself, and then prepare the best possible way for next season to take advantage of that,” said Arteta after the 2-0 win over Brighton. “Hopefully we can have the pre-season that I haven’t had, and have time to work with those players and try to be a better team.
“They’re going to get better and they’re going to strengthen, so we need to get better. First of all, we have to get our players better, more consistent and help them to improve. All our way of playing, our philosophy, I think is in place.
“They buy into that and now is the moment to take it to the next level, to improve that and improve our consistency because since December to now, we’ve shown that we’re the second or third-best team in the league. It’s not enough. Six months, the level is high, so we need to do that for 10 months.”
The philosophy may be there at Arsenal but the players are not. At Spurs the reverse may be true although for how long that will be the case is anyone’s bet with Harry Kane wanting out. Their dalliance with Jose Mourinho left them precious few core principles to fall back on under rookie head coach Ryan Mason. Ajax’s Erik ten Hag or even Graham Potter of Brighton could do that but both would need time on the training ground to engineer change.
That may not be easy to find over a brief pre-season that will follow a summer of international tournaments. Certainly there will be little opportunity in season with midweek European football to return to White Hart Lane in mid-August. Tottenham fans would be well within their rights to revel in finishing above Arsenal, particularly as it came through a late brace from club great Gareth Bale to earn them a 4-2 win at Leicester City. Yet even that comes with the poison chalice of the Europa Conference League, which brings with it the promise of another long slog of Thursday-Sunday fixtures. Neither north London side had the sort of quality depth that allowed them to enjoy consistent success on both fronts.
Meanwhile the other four members of the ‘Big Six’ will have Champions League money to swell the coffers and tempt the best signings to them. It is the first time since the 2008-09 season that the top four has been unchanged and none of the quartet — Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea — look likely to go backward next season.
In such circumstances merely closing the gap might be progress but it would not be enough for Tottenham and Arsenal fans who expect far more from their current leaders. Still at least one of them will finish above the other next season. It might be all they have to celebrate.