The title race finally finished on Saturday as the Gunners slumped to a 1-0 defeat at Nottingham Forest, triggering celebrations in Manchester. City players had stayed to watch the game at their base after training and there may well have been a few sore heads for Sunday’s 1-0 victory over Chelsea.
There were similarly wild celebrations at the City Ground, as the win secured Forest’s Premier League survival. Music blared from the dressing room and staff spilled out into the corridor, beers in hands, as Arsenal players sheepishly weaved past them to make their way onto the bus home.
At the start of April, when they were eight points clear at the top of the League, the Gunners may have thought this would be the weekend when they would be celebrating but instead others were doing so.
After taking nine points from their last eight games, Arsenal have dramatically faded in this title race. City, in contrast, have not lost since being charged with more than 100 breaches of the Premier League’s financial rules on February 6.
The Gunners have used painful moments as motivation before, namely missing out to Tottenham on a top-four place last season, and the scars from this run-in should act as fuel, too. Mikel Arteta has said now is the time for healing, but it should also be a moment for reflection.
Arsenal have made great strides this season, going from top-four contenders to title challengers, but further steps are needed to become champions. The first half of this season showed how, when everyone is fit, Arsenal can compete with anyone.
It explains why Arteta has been so reluctant to make changes to his starting XI and no other Premier League manager has made fewer this season. Arteta has made 38 changes. Guardiola has made 97.
The key for Arteta next season will be finding solutions when he has not got his best XI available
Difficulties have come for Arsenal when injuries have hit, while in these final few games they have looked like a side who have run out of steam and ideas. Guardiola’s biggest strength in this title race has been his ability to adapt to situations, in and out of games, and his players have benefited from squad rotation.
City have evolved over this season. Who in August predicted star left-back Joao Cancelo would be loaned out and John Stones would shine in midfield?
Arteta tried to get creative against Forest, picking Jakub Kiwior and Thomas Partey as the full-backs. Partey essentially replicated what the injured Oleksandr Zinchenko would do, except on the other flank, as he rolled into the midfield from right-back.
Kiwior tucked in, meaning Arsenal played a back-three when in possession. Arteta was clearly looking for his side to dominate possession, but his tactical switches merely played into Forest’s hands. The game became narrow and tight, with Arsenal lacking the width to open up their opponents.
The key for Arteta next season will be finding solutions when he has not got his best XI. Guardiola is able to problem solve so well because he has the best squad in the League, and the challenge for Arsenal is to assemble something as close to that as possible. The foundations have been set this season, but more work must be done.