The only problem with Arsenal's roller-coaster season was the dip at the end. It was one hell of a nerve-shredding ride, reaching and maintaining unexpected heights as the Gunners spent a total of 248 days at the top of the Premier League only for Manchester City to surpass them in the final weeks to clinch the title with two games left.
It is the longest time any team has spent in that position without going on to win the trophy. Nobody expected Arsenal to be there in the first place, and the supporters will be delighted they could dream for so long when a top-four push was the original limit of their ambition. But with City celebrating their fifth league win in six years, there is an accompanying sense of regret for Mikel Arteta and his players. They have to accept the uncomfortable truth that their rivals navigated the latter stages of the title race with more authority and control.
This was encapsulated perfectly by Arsenal losing 1-0 at Nottingham Forest to hand City the title without kicking a ball last weekend -- the final act of surrender coming at the venue where City last dropped points ... on Feb. 18. Two wins from Arsenal's last eight games saw them stutter, with City setting such ferocious standards, it was enough of a wobble to veer off course.
ESPN breaks down Arsenal's season, reflecting on the huge progress they made after finishing fifth in 2021-22, and where they fell short in trying to win their first title since 2004.
The emergence, and eventual reliance, on key players
Seven players started Arsenal's first 21 Premier League games of the season: Aaron Ramsdale, Ben White, William Saliba, Gabriel Magalhaes, Granit Xhaka, Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli. Martin Odegaard missed just one match in that run -- a 3-0 win at Brentford on Sept. 18 -- as the Gunners benefitted hugely from a settled side and the absence of Champions League football to start the Premier League season in record-breaking fashion.
They became the first Arsenal team in Premier League history to reach 50 points at the halfway point of the season (19 games.) It is the joint-fifth highest tally since the division's inception in 1992, with only Manchester City (2017-18) and Liverpool (2019-20) reaching 58 points, Chelsea (2005-06) posting 55 and Liverpool (2018-19) amassing 54.
Chelsea are a notable outlier in that list given the other three totals have come in the past six years, when arguably City and (to a lesser extent) Liverpool have taken the level of consistency required to win the Premier League to new heights. A 90-point season is essentially the minimum target now and Arsenal did not need much of a blip to fall short of that figure. If they beat Wolves at home on the final day, Arteta's side will reach 84 points. But that would be their highest tally since the "Invincibles" season of 2003-04.
How they achieved that figure -- and ultimately struggled to stay the course -- is through an excessive reliance on that core group. Left-back, central midfield and centre-forward were the only areas with any sort of rotation during the first half of the season, although Gabriel Jesus started all 14 league matches prior to the 2022 World Cup, where he suffered a knee injury which ruled him out for three months.
Xhaka's impressive form dipped a little later in the season, as did Thomas Partey's, while Jesus did not provide the clinical goal threat Arsenal needed in the run-in. January signings Leandro Trossard and Jorginho gave the team something of a lift, but more was required.
Janusz Michallik reacts to Manchester City being crowned Premier League champions after Arsenal's defeat to Forest.
Saka and Odegaard have become two of the Premier League's most influential players. But while Odegaard had a personally productive April and May, scoring five goals in five matches, Saka faded in recent weeks. Odegaard benefitted from rest as a result of Norway's failure to qualify for the World Cup -- as, it should be noted, did Man City striker Erling Haaland -- while Saka was a key player in England's run to the quarterfinals, continuing the physical and mental demands that may have taken their toll.
Sources have told ESPN that the issue of Saka's rough treatment by opposing teams was discussed in conversations between Arsenal and the referees' body Professional Game Match Officials Limited. During an interview with ESPN at March's London Football Awards -- where Arsenal's fine campaign to date was rewarded by becoming the first club ever to take home four major prizes in one evening as Ramsdale, Saka, Odegaard and Arteta were all recognised - the 21-year-old winger hinted at tiredness.
Asked how fresh he was feeling at the time, Saka replied: "I'd say mentally, I'm just happy to be on the pitch. If I put it this way: would I rather be injured or on the pitch, I want to be on the pitch. If I ask myself when I was younger where I would want to be, and it was on the pitch playing for Arsenal every week competing at the highest level, I'd take it. So, I'm happy. I just want to continue to push to the end of the season and then I can lock myself in my room and sleep for the rest of the summer."
Sources have told ESPN that Saka has been managing a problem affecting his ankle/Achilles area for several weeks. Nevertheless, he has played 3,131 minutes, Odegaard 3,068, White 2,977, Xhaka 2,929 and Martinelli 2,805. Ramsdale is one of only four goalkeepers to play all 37 league games so far this season. And no outfield player anywhere in the Premier League has played more than defender Gabriel's 3,321 minutes.
The comparison of these physical demands with City is stark. City's most used outfield player is Rodri (with 2,830 minutes) but in attacking areas, Pep Guardiola has been able to rotate to far greater effect with Bernardo Silva amassing 2,119 on the pitch, Jack Grealish 2,063, Riyad Mahrez 2,063, Phil Foden 1,702. Even the headline act of Kevin De Bruyne (2,368) and Haaland (2,686) have been used less than Arsenal's finest.
City have had more games in other competitions, with Champions League and FA Cup finals to come next month, but they have been able to peak at the end of the season, winning 12 consecutive league matches, due to a depth of quality that Arsenal do not possess.
The Gunners should not be judged too harshly over this because nobody framed any judgement of their squad in August on whether they could challenge for the title. But it is clear where they need to add players this summer.
Saliba's injury and Arsenal's defending
When Saliba limped off with a back injury 21 minutes into Arsenal's home game against Sporting CP on March 16, the Gunners were on course to reach the Europa League quarterfinals and held a five-point lead at the top of the Premier League. Sporting fought back on the night to win in a penalty shootout and Arsenal's league results since Saliba was sidelined read: WWDDDLWWLL. They kept just one clean sheet in that time, conceding 18 goals in 10 games in a stuttering run which allowed City to overtake them.
With right-back Takehiro Tomiyasu injured -- coincidentally suffering a knee injury in the same game against Sporting -- and Cedric Soares out on loan, Arteta opted against moving Ben White from right-back to centre-back and initially turned instead to Rob Holding. However, Holding was found wanting, most obviously against Haaland as City ran out 4-1 winners against Arsenal at the end of April, and January signing Jakob Kiwior was thrown in for his full league debut against Chelsea on May 2.
Kiwior kept his place against Newcastle five days later and again vs. Brighton on May 14, but was criticised for going down injured too easily in the build-up to the visitors' opening goal in a 3-0 defeat. Against Nottingham Forest, Arteta tried shifting Kiwior to left-back with midfielder Thomas Partey at right-back and this experiment failed to yield the right balance or control as the Gunners lost 1-0.
Arsenal would surely have been more robust had Saliba stayed fit, especially given the drop-off in quality of the Gunners' centre-back options beyond their first-choice pairing. Arteta certainly hoped he could play a role, repeatedly refusing to rule him out for the season despite few positive signs regarding his recovery.
Sources have told ESPN one of the main issues for Saliba was an inability to take any sustained physical load before suffering back pain. He would rest for several days, then try to step up his involvement only to break down. The possibility of surgery has not been entirely ruled out but equally it was hoped the condition would resolve itself through rest, which explains why Arteta kept updates around Saliba's fitness to a game-by-game basis.
But although the 21-year-old has enjoyed a fine season, exceeding all expectations on a personal level after three years on loan in France, Arsenal were also exhibiting signs of weakness at the back with Saliba in the team. The Gunners kept only three clean sheets in 11 games across all competitions prior to Saliba's injury. He made individual errors against Aston Villa and Bournemouth, which led to goals, while Brentford's Ivan Toney won their individual duel in February's 1-1 draw at Emirates Stadium, as did Haaland in City's 3-1 win a few days later.
This is not to undermine the progress of a hugely promising talent but more to highlight Arsenal's defending across the second half of the season in particular was not collectively good enough. They have conceded 43 goals with one game to play. The last team to concede 43 goals and win the league was Manchester United in 2012-13 -- Sir Alex Ferguson's final season as manager (when they drew 5-5 with West Brom on the last day.)
Only three times in Premier League history have a team conceded more than 40 goals to win the title. The standard of defending has dropped markedly in recent weeks and it's a problem which surely extends beyond Saliba's absence.
"It started with what happened at Anfield in the 90th minute," said Arteta last weekend, referring to losing a 2-0 lead at Liverpool to start their run of two wins in eight games. "Then at West Ham if you put it away to make 3-1 everything changes. We have conceded a lot of goals. We have given 16 goals away in those matches. It's a lot. You cannot sustain that. In this league you have to be exceptional with everything because there are no margins. That team doesn't give you any margins. We have extended those margins too much and that's why we lost the league."
Coping with the pressure
Arsenal did not "bottle" the title race, but they did not handle its psychological demands with the maturity of their rivals. Losing a 2-0 lead at Anfield can happen. Losing a 2-0 lead at West Ham, then threatened with relegation and bereft of confidence, should not. Dropping two points at home to Southampton, who will finish bottom of the Premier League was a calamity.
The opening moment of that game feels instructive in hindsight. Arsenal were so wound up by a desire to make amends for the two previous draws that Ramsdale gave the ball away inside 28 seconds for Carlos Alcaraz to score.
Individual errors then crept into their game as the pressure of the title race magnified scrutiny on their decision-making. City revelled in this rarefied atmosphere while Arsenal struggled to breath. The result was a huge gulf between the sides when City ran out 4-1 winners at Etihad Stadium on April 26.
Arsenal's leadership group comprises captain Odegaard, vice-captains Gabriel Jesus and Xhaka, along with Soares and Holding, who were voted in by the players. All have tried to play their roles in improving team harmony and help new players settle in. Meanwhile Jesus and Oleksandr Zinchenko, both signed from City last summer, have been widely praised for helping maintain high standards during the course of the season, fuelling the club with fresh emotion and passion which has been a unifying force.
However, former Arsenal striker Thierry Henry questioned last month whether that had become an issue. "You've seen recently that we've been too emotional about it," he said, speaking as a fan. "You don't win the title on emotions, I'm sorry."
James Olley details exactly what has gone wrong for Arsenal as their 3-0 defeat to Brighton effectively hands the Premier League title to Manchester City.
VAR and City's charges
Every club has had issues with VAR this season in one way or another. Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL) has admitted wrongdoing in two matches involving Arsenal this season. First they incorrectly ruled out what would have been the opening goal away to Manchester United in September for an alleged foul by Odegaard on Christian Eriksen in the build-up. Arsenal lost the game 3-1, their first defeat of the season. Though it is debatable how that incident would have affected the outcome given it came inside the first 15 minutes.
Arteta was far angrier about an incident in their home game against Brentford on Feb. 11, when Brentford snatched a 1-1 draw at Emirates Stadium. Toney's 74th-minute equaliser contained an offside in the buildup but the VAR, Lee Mason, simply failed to check the positioning of Christian Norgaard as he headed the ball into Toney's path. PGMOL formally apologised to Arsenal for the human error afterwards.
"It wasn't human error, it was not understanding your job," Arteta said later that week. "That's not acceptable, I'm sorry. It cost Arsenal two points that are not going to be restored, so we are going to have to find those two points somewhere else in the league."
The timing of that blow was significant given City beat Aston Villa a day later and then won at Emirates Stadium, knocking Arsenal off top spot. It was not, however, a terminal setback given they re-established an eight-point lead (having played a game more) over City by the start of April.
February also saw the Premier League charge City with 115 offences relating Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules. Although the alleged incidents took place between 2009-2018, a points deduction was mooted as a possible punishment this season (within a range of expulsion from the league to a simple fine) and the legitimacy of City's entire journey to the summit of English football is now in question.
They strongly refute any wrongdoing, and the case will reportedly take two to four years to be resolved, but former Liverpool defender and Sky Sports pundit Jamie Carragher believes any guilty verdict would tarnish City's achievements this season. A formal sanction would make a possible treble this season "all worthless" according to Carragher and he is unlikely to be alone in that view.
Arteta has been reluctant to criticise City given he was in their employ from 2016 to 2019. But it is not difficult to imagine the ire Arsene Wenger would have reserved for City if he was still in charge of Arsenal.
Back in 2011, Wenger reacted to City's £400m sponsorship agreement -- then a world-record deal -- with Etihad Airways by claiming "the credibility of financial fair play is at stake," believing it to be an example of "financial doping," a phrase he first used about Chelsea's massive spending under owner Roman Abramovich from 2003 onwards. The only vaguely related aspect Arteta has so far been willing to discuss is the need to "absolutely nail" the summer transfer window. Arsenal cannot compete with City's resources and therefore must recruit without mistakes.
City have expertly assembled a squad wholly in Guardiola's image; Arteta revealed earlier this month that he has ideas he cannot yet implement because he does not have the players to do so. Identifying and signing that talent will be vital in Arsenal challenging City for the title again next season.