So, there was no final day miracle. There was a win, but one that came at some cost, and in the end Liverpool did what they needed to at Anfield. We finish the season with 75 points, the highest ever points total not to achieve a Champions League place, four more than we had last year when we ended up in second.
And while the prospect of the Europa League isn’t ideal and the world keeps on turning, it really felt like the ground moved beneath us during and, in particular, after the game. So, let’s deal with it in that way.
An early goal is just what you need on a day like that, and we got it, Hector Bellerin firing us ahead in the 8th minute. The goal came from a low cross on the left from Ozil, and it looked for all the world like Danny Welbeck would tap it in but somehow he missed the ball completely. Thankfully for him the full-back was there to zip in and tuck it away to make it 1-0.
Exactly what we needed to calm the nerves, but what happened just a few minutes later almost defies explanation. Enner Valencia was bursting down the right, but he had Monreal in pursuit and was barely halfway into our half when Laurent Koscielny came steaming in, missed the ball by a country mile, and cleaned him out of it.
What he was thinking I just don’t know. My best explanation is that he got his timing all wrong, but even so it was a crazy challenge to make in that area of the pitch, and while Michael Oliver had a terrible game in general, I don’t think there can be any complaints about the red card. Reverse the situation and you’d be looking for the opponent to be sent off, no question, and the consequences of it went beyond yesterday.
Koscielny will now be suspended for the cup final, a huge miss for us and a personal blow for him, but he has nobody to blame but himself. His sending off was compounded later on by an injury to Gabriel, who was playing very well, and seemed to twist his knee very badly early in the second half. Losing two central defenders is not the best preparation for a final. It meant a first appearance of the season for Per Mertesacker, who may now be pressed into action at Wembley next weekend.
By that time we were 2-0 up, Alexis having scored from a Welbeck pass around the half hour mark, but as the stretcher came on for the Brazilian news filtered through from Anfield that Liverpool had doubled their lead over Boro, then scored again relatively quickly, and that was that with regards our Champions League hopes.
Lukaku scored a penalty after a Holding handball, the referee bottled a couple of Everton red cards – for all the difference it would have made beyond the satisfaction of seeing the numbers evened up – and the 10 men soaked up the pressure, such as it was, pretty well.
Great work from Ozil down the left saw him feed Ramsey as the game entered injury time, and the Welshman’s beautiful curling effort sealed the win for us. However, with City thrashing Watford and the Mugsmashers winning against Boro, it wasn’t enough. The points dropped on the opening day, or the next game against Leicester, or the ones against Palace, Watford, West Brom, Bournemouth away, whichever you want to choose, were our undoing in the end.
It’s nice to finish with a win, especially ahead of an FA Cup final, but it was too little too late for the top four, and for the first time since the 1998-99 season we won’t have Champions League football.
The lap of appreciation
Arsene Wenger did not accompany the players as they made their way around the stadium for the ‘lap of appreciation’. He was there, at pitchside, but didn’t go with them for the first time. It’s easy to understand why. He’s not a stupid man, he knows how toxic it has been and he knows he’s been the focus of it for much of the season. Also, would many of parade around in front of people who want you to lose your job, and are holding banners up to that effect? Regardless of how polite that message is delivered, it’s not one you’d necessarily choose to inflict on yourself.
To me it wasn’t a lack of respect to fans, far from it. It was simply a man taking himself out of the spotlight because he understood the bigger picture – and anyway, had he gone around there’d be criticism of him for being shameless enough to do it. He knew he was going to meet the press anyway, where he would be under the spotlight, and his press conference really was something.
The press conference
If you haven’t watched it, check it out here, it’s really quite an interesting watch. Beyond the stuff about the game itself, the manager admitted that his personal situation had had an impact on the players during the season. This is quite the turnaround because he has insisted over the last few weeks that this was not a factor.
In February, he said:
The real problems are the way we play football and not my future. The priority is how we respond to a defeat and how we will play together. That’s what it is to be professional.
On March 30th, he was asked in a press conference if speculation over his future was causing instability, and he said:
No. I think the priority in life is to always focus on what is important and not to look for excuses. At the moment our results are not going the way that we want but as well we have to make sure that the priority for us is what happens on the pitch.
There are other examples of him completely downplaying any instability caused by the uncertainty over his position, and I think we all understood why to a certain extent, even if it was frustrating as hell. It’s been clear that it has had an effect, but he felt like a public admission would only add to that. He wanted to keep his players focused – not something he achieved during that difficult period, it has to be said – and he remained consistent in that outlook until yesterday.
Perhaps it was the sting of finishing outside the top four, his safety-net of consistency now gone. Perhaps it was the end of the Premier League season, but even so there’s an FA Cup final to consider. Maybe he views the final as something different, the kind game for which any player would be fully focused on regardless of anything else, but even so it was remarkable to hear him change tack that way.
He said he accepted responsibility for it, but it’s hard not to wonder if he wasn’t directing some of his comments upstairs as well. Talk of boardroom frostiness abounds, and while some would interpret his comment about how he turned down every club in the world to stay at Arsenal with limited financial resources as self-aggrandising, to me it felt very pointed. That was aimed squarely at the board.
If you go back a few months, Wenger was pretty specific about when he was going to make his decision known. In an interview he said March or April, but as time went on and results got in the way of things, the situation dragged on and on. Whether it was his decision not to tell, or if the board vetoed an announcement or withdrew the contract offer, I don’t think we’ll ever know.
What we can say with some clarity is that between them all, manager, board, owner, chief executive, this is a situation that has been mangled so badly, almost beyond repair, and ultimately to the detriment of the football club and what it wants to achieve. Nobody is coming out of this smelling of roses.
This doesn’t feel like a well run, well organised football club. Not for the first time, Wenger dropped an ‘I will tell you one day’ comment, which speaks to issues behind the scenes that perhaps we don’t even know about. When you watch his post-game media interview yesterday, he looks absolutely shattered. You can’t help but think this is a man absolutely weighed down with everything.
Is it healthy for him to stay on, even if he wanted to? And having watched the press conference, that video, and read between the lines, I’m not as convinced as I was a few weeks ago that he will continue. Maybe it was the initial hurt of finishing outside the top four, and the consequences of that, but something feels different. I could be wrong, of course, but the next couple of weeks are going to be massive.
On his future, he said:
My situation tonight is not important. I care about this club. Even if I leave one day, I will love this club until the last day of my life. I want this club to do well – that’s all I care about. My situation will be sorted out soon, so let’s prepare for the cup final.
It seems unthinkable that it will drag out too long beyond next Saturday. Whatever happens at Wembley, and hopefully it’s Arsenal lifting the cup for the third time in four years, a decision has to be made one way or the other. It may be that Arsene Wenger is the one who makes it, it may be Stan Kroenke, but it’s a situation that cannot be allowed to drag on a second longer than it should.
Speaking of the majority shareholder, he was the subject of fan ire, chants for him to get out of our club rang around the stadium:
Stan Kroenke, Get out of our club pic.twitter.com/9OectsKcR2
— gunnerblog (@gunnerblog) May 21, 2017
The manager insisted that Kroenke was not responsible for the team failing to finish in the Champions League places, and while that’s true to a large extent, there is a bigger picture that fans can see. And to have something that unites people at the end of a difficult campaign is a good thing.
One of the ‘qualities’ Kroenke had when he took over was that he would be a hands-off owner. He wouldn’t interfere, and would let those who know the game call the shots. The problem, which has become more obvious over the years, is that we don’t have enough of those people at the club. We have Arsene Wenger, Ken Friar – steeped in Arsenal but now 82 – and that’s about it.
We have a chief executive who hasn’t been seen for months. When the going gets tough, Gazidis gets going to his office at Highbury House and doesn’t come out. Sir Chips, little Josh, and all the rest, are nigh on useless, and as Wenger’s effectiveness as a manager has diminished, his power and importance has grown because he possesses most of the football knowledge at this club.
He is, essentially, the only one who knows how to fly this plane. Whether fan chants will make any difference to Stan as he sits thousands of miles away remains to be seen. He’s due in town this week for the FA Cup final, and a massive boardroom meeting next week, so he’ll be front and centre, and I’m glad there’s more focus on him, because there needs to be.
The consequences of not having Champions League football next season are obvious. They’re financial, they’re sporting, and it remains to be seen how far and wide they reverberate. The futures of key players will be affected, as will summer recruitment, but until we get some some clarity over what the future holds for the manager and all the rest, we just won’t know how much it’s going to impact us.
Again, we finish a Premier League season with a feeling of underachievement. In previous years this was tempered by the top four finish, the very minimum requirement, and this time we’ve even fallen short of that. Whether that prompts big decisions to be made, I don’t know, but I suspect we’re going to have a busy few weeks in which all the stuff we’ve been speculation about moves out of that realm and into reality. At which point we can really make our minds up and how things look.
Normally, I do a post-season round-up of players etc, but that can wait until after the weekend. Regardless of the frustration felt at the Premier League campaign, we have an FA Cup to win on Saturday, and that’s where the focus will be this week.
Right, that’s that. A bit of an epic this morning. Thanks if you stuck all the way through it. I’m not sure it’s anything other than stream of consciousness stuff, there are just so many layers to the Arsenal cake right now, but it is what it is.
James and I will be here with an Arsecast Extra for you later. If you have questions or topics, please send to @gunnerblog and @arseblog with the hashtag #arsecastextra and we’ll get that out for you around lunchtime.