Skip to Content

Arsenal Loses The League With Its Head Held High

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 19: Mikel Arteta, manager of Arsenal, acknowledges the home support after the Premier League match between Arsenal FC and Everton FC at Emirates Stadium on May 19, 2024 in London, England. (Photo by James Gill - Danehouse/Getty Images)
James Gill - Danehouse/Getty Images

I loved watching Arsenal finish second in the Premier League this season. The Gunners flailed valiantly in their second consecutive attempt to best the unbestable juggernauts at Manchester City, missing out on the title by two points despite winning all of their last six games. That would be more impressive if City hadn't won nine in a row and hadn't lost a league match in almost six months. With margins that tight against competition that unsparing, Arsenal-likers are supposed to spend the day after the title challenge ended ruing the tiny missed opportunities.

But the thing about Arsenal's five losses (the funny one, the legally dubious one, and the December trio of stupid ones) and five draws (including another extremely funny match) is that 10 is a smaller number than 28. When Arsenal were on their shit, as they were for the vast majority of the season, they hit a level as high as or higher than City's highest level. That does not earn you a title, but it means something, especially given the heartbreak of the 2022-23 campaign and the joy of watching this Arsenal team, who beat City once and drew them once in the league. Soccer is a game of moments; for all the Byzantine patterns of organization, the ideological schisms and cults of personality around managers, and the importance of belief and positive thinking, games and seasons and ultimately careers and legacies boil down to discrete events. A player scores a goal out of nowhere, another fails to convert a precious opportuntity.

However, it would be a misread of scale to boil the ups and downs of a Premier League season to a handful of kicks. It's bigger than that, and it's bigger than a final position in the table. Crystal Palace finished 10th. Does their incendiary run of form to close the year mean nothing? Should we not care that Everton took an eight-point loss and still did boss? The Gunners finished second last year as well, though that felt terrible, as they clearly did not have the juice to convert their big wintertime lead into an actual Premier League title, forcing them to wheeze through the last bit of the season like a wounded animal as City tracked them down and mercilessly gutted them. They did not have the quality to win the league last year, though they did this year.

Rather than feel pain at the near-miss, I feel excitement about the team's present and future. Out of the past 10 runners-up, four teams changed managers within seven months of finishing second, and as many finished sixth as won the title. Fortunes change fast (look who finished 6-7-8 this year) and progress is never linear, though Arsenal admirably took the disappointment of last season and came back stronger for it. Declan Rice was a revelation in midfield, stitching things together, playing with a real nastiness to his game, and sprinting around the field to contest everything. With Granit Xhaka and Thomas Partey getting so much time on the ball last year, there was a certain frantic energy to the team, as if nobody was quite sure what tempo to play at. This produced greatness, but unreliably. Rice is as reliable as I thought he would be, but he surprised me with his gusto.

I also enjoyed the Kai Havertz experience way more than I thought I would. At Chelsea, he was a man constantly in search of form, someone who never quite fit into any of the ways his rotating cast of disastrous managers wanted the team to play, and who squandered a disappointing number of his chances. It also took Mikel Arteta some time to figure out where to play him, but after playing almost exclusively at center forward from February on, the German was totally on fire. Havertz scored 13 goals and dished out seven assists in the league this year, a testament not just to his talent, but also his renewed sense of confidence. Watching him struggle at Chelsea, you could tell he was in some degree of anguish on the pitch basically at all times, constantly second guessing decisions, clearly unable to get out of his head. I was struck by the way Havertz's new Arsenal teammates cleared the way for him to take a penalty in September to seal a 3-0 win against Bournemouth. Ask Chelsea: nobody wants to pass up on cheap goalscoring opportunities, but Bukayo Saka and Martin Odegaard insisted Havertz be given the chance, and he grew into himself and became one of Arsenal's best players through the most important stretch of the season.

Arsenal has increased its point total in each of Arteta's four-and-a-half seasons, a feat the team will be hard-pressed to repeat for a fifth time. Jurrien Timber will actually play next season, and surely the team will spend money on a striker whose knee is not all torn up and full of holes. They will not change their identity, however. That's set by William Saliba, Odegaard, and Saka, and none of those guys are going anywhere anytime soon. I think it's impossible to compare the relative difficulties of leaping from 69 to 84 points to holding steady at 89, though consolidating power takes a clearer vision. Arsenal didn't surprise anyone this season, they just did their thing, at a super-high level, and it worked very well for a long time. They could not kill Manchester City; they will not stop trying to do so.

Also, I was fibbing when I said moments don't matter that much. Nothing can take away Gabriel Martinelli's late winner against City. That's forever.

Already a user?Log in

Welcome to Defector!

Sign up to read another couple free blogs.

Or, click here to subscribe!

If you liked this blog, please share it! Your referrals help Defector reach new readers, and those new readers always get a few free blogs before encountering our paywall.

Stay in touch

Sign up for our free newsletter