Arsenal boss Arteta wasn’t ready to win title but his project is on schedule

Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta reviews the Brighton game

Arsenal’s late-season capitulation looks set to hand Manchester City their third consecutive Premier League crown. Naturally, Mikel Arteta may find it tricky to take positives from a blown opportunity to one-up his City counterpart and former partner in crime, Pep Guardiola, but the stars are aligning for a special period in the Gunners’ history, providing they stick to the plan.

On paper, Arsenal were nowhere near ready to challenge a dominant City side buoyed by the big-money arrival of Erling Haaland last summer. Returning to the top-four would have been considered a job well done for Arteta this term after agonisingly falling away to fifth in 2021/22.

Even 10 games into this season, when Arsenal were top of the Premier League table, Guardiola cited Liverpool as his side’s main title contenders for the months following. The City boss evidently underestimated his former assistant and the talented players at his disposal.

Arsenal fans dared to dream long before their lead was finally toppled by the Sky Blues in April. With Haaland on 36 league goals and Guardiola’s side thriving in a newly-formed system, a power shift at the top had been coming, but the Gunners’ dramatic downturn in form made sure it happened in double-quick time.

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Although there is no shame in finishing second, particularly relative to expectations at the start of the season, there is also no doubt that Arsenal have bottled the title. It’s an unfortunate habit that Arteta and co have fallen into, reminiscent of their ill-fated top-four push last season, and the mental torment that comes with it will only make the cycle more difficult to break.

The fact that Arsenal fell away in such whimpering fashion, compounded by their 3-0 defeat to Brighton on Sunday, is even more concerning in context. The circumstances could hardly have been more favourable for Arteta. His side crashed out of the FA Cup in the fourth round and the Carabao Cup in the third round, while their Europa League push didn’t last long either.

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The Gunners’ sole focus down the final stretch has been on winning the title. City, by contrast, have contended with a deep FA Cup run and an all-important Champions League campaign, which may be even more important for Guardiola than the Premier League itself. Although Arteta has constructed something fantastic at the Emirates Stadium, he is not without fault for the way the season has unfolded.

His handling of William Saliba’s devastating injury setback has left many to wonder what might have been. Put simply, Arteta selected the wrong deputy to step into the back-line. Arsenal’s momentum deteriorated with Rob Holding in defence, and January signing Jakub Kiwior has proven in recent weeks that he was good enough to be trusted.

Much has also been made of Arteta’s fiery touchline antics, which started months before the title run-in. A burning desire to win is difficult to criticise, but those on the pitch will inevitably have noticed their manager losing all composure at regular intervals, which hardly painted a picture of Arsenal controlling the title race and City playing catch-up.

The panicked performances followed, culminating in a run of two wins from their last seven games. With the door left ajar, Guardiola’s side have swooped in ruthlessly, but unlike Arsenal, they had the tools to do so.

For all their exciting youngsters, the Gunners simply don’t have a Haaland or a Kevin De Bruyne to drag the passengers to three points when they need it most. Arsenal have excelled as a collective this season, and that’s just as well, with Arteta’s usual suspects still young and learning their trade.

Martin Odegaard, Bukayo Saka, Gabriel Martinelli and William Saliba are all phenomenal – imagine how good they can be in another five years. It’s only a matter of time before one or all of that quartet break free of the collective and find that extra gear to carry Arsenal through testing periods, like the one they’ve experienced over the past few weeks.

After finishing fifth last season, beating Man City to the title was never likely to be the next stage in Arteta’s long-term project, but it certainly will be now. Another year of top-class experience and a summer of high-quality additions should make the Gunners title challengers for years to come, even with the rigours of Champions League football on the horizon.

That’s exactly why supporters have reasons to feel positive for what lies ahead, even if admitting that Arteta and his side were not ready to win this year’s Premier League crown remains a bitter pill to swallow.

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