In the end, perhaps it was only right that Arsenal could not seal late qualification for Europe. The new Conference League was within their grasp for much of the afternoon before Tottenham Hotspur’s late dramatics ripped it from the hands of Mikel Arteta and his players.
Over the course of this campaign, had Arsenal done enough to finish in the top seven? In the last few months, they had. Before that, though, they had not. And those dreadful few weeks before Christmas ultimately proved fatal for Arteta’s side, who did all they could on this final day but were too reliant on other results to go their way.
At least Arsenal ended their strange and often painful campaign with a victory, as Nicolas Pepe continued his recent resurgence. His two goals against Brighton here took him to five in his last three appearances for his club, and his late-season performances should bode well for the next campaign.
Arsenal’s record signing has never found consistency like this before in England. In these final few weeks, when it looked as if his side’s season was over, it has been the Ivorian who has largely led the way for his team.
Only time will tell whether the new Europa Conference League is a prize or a punishment yet, for now at least, Arsenal’s inability to leapfrog Tottenham would have felt like another blow. At the final whistle, many of the returning fans sang their songs of protest against the club’s Kroenke owners. Hundreds had also protested before the game.
Josh Kroenke, who is far more involved in Arsenal than his father Stan, was at the Emirates for this match. He had been at the training ground on Saturday, speaking to the coaching staff and the players.
The presence of the big boss, and indeed the supporters, provided plenty of motivation for Arteta’s players. They started with energy and conviction as on-loan playmaker Martin Odegaard pulled the strings in the final third. Odegaard is due to return to Real Madrid at the end of this season but there is no doubt that Arsenal would like to keep him here.
Thomas Partey and Granit Xhaka both had efforts from range, and defender Gabriel struck the bar with a looping header, as Arsenal dominated the first half. Brighton threatened on the break, though, with Jakub Moder denied only by an excellent sliding block by Arsenal defender Rob Holding.
The breakthrough for the home side came a few minutes into the second half, when Calum Chambers overlapped down the right. His pass found Pepe, who took one touch to steady himself before crashing a low finish into the net.
Pepe’s recent form has been sensational, especially given the months of inconsistency that had preceded it, and he was flying now. Played in by Odegaard’s delicate pass, Pepe charged towards goal before finishing calmly into Robert Sanchez’s far corner.
In between Pepe’s goals there was a clear chance for Aaron Connolly, on off the bench, but he shanked his effort horribly wide after darting in behind the Arsenal defence. It summed up so many of Brighton’s problems this season: plenty of promise, undermined by such wasteful finishing.
From there Arsenal were strolling, and they almost added a third when Partey crashed an effort off the crossbar. But the results elsewhere had suddenly become more pressing, and Tottenham’s result did not go their way. After all that, it was a fittingly galling end to a galling campaign.