Our recent good form continued into the final day of the season with a well deserved home win over Brighton & Hove Albion in front of 10,000 noisy fans.
Two beautifully taken Nicolas Pepe goals secured the three points although a scoreline of 4-0 or 5-0 would not have unduly flattered us.
We also dodged a bullet by not qualifying for the Europa No-Hoper Conference competition. Results elsewhere meant that it will be Totteringham who will be trooping off to Montenegro and Latvia on Thursday nights, while we stay home and focus 100% on the Premier League and domestic cups.
It would have been nice to celebrate St Totteringham’s Day, but not at the cost of having to enter a competition with a minuscule financial upside, a laughable prize for the winner and a serious potential for disruption. By May next year the Spuds will quite likely be rueing those two late goals against Leicester.
Another benefit of not having to compete in a Euro competition is that we will not need such a bloated squad so we can clear out the unwanted and fringe players and focus on a really high quality nucleus, much of which is already in place.
Arteta made a couple of changes from the team that beat Chelsea, giving Saka a well deserved rest and bringing Xhaka back in for Elneny. Aubameyang was up front again ahead of Pepe, Odegaard and Smith Rowe.
The home crowd were in great voice and were happy to let Josh Kroenke (who was attending) know what they thought of his family’s stewardship of our club.
Despite the atmosphere Brighton started on the front foot and it took 10 minutes or so before Arsenal got into gear. After that it was mostly one way traffic. Odegaard and Smith Rowe came close to unlocking the Seagulls’ defence; Tierney fizzed a great cross through the six yard box but none of our forwards had gambled on being on the end of it.
We thought we had the breakthrough in the 31st minute when Holding poked the ball home from a corner but he was correctly flagged for offside.
There was little threat at the other end but we had a narrow escape when Smith Rowe dwelt on the ball on the half way line and had it pinched off him. A three-on-two break in Brighton’s favour was fortunately snuffed out by the alert Tierney.
Just before half time Gabriel sent a looping header onto the crossbar: it was an inch away from being a goal, but we trooped off at half time still on level terms.
Five minutes after the restart the in-form Pepe put us ahead, controlling a Chambers pass and firing home through the Brighton keeper’s legs.
Ten minutes later Pepe got his second, picking up the ball from Odegaard on the right wing and cutting inside before slotting home low in the far corner. What I liked about both of Pepe’s goals was that he didn’t just blast them: in each case he chose his spot and slotted him with laser-like accuracy. Forget the ludicrous price tag, the Pepe we have seen in the second half of the season can be a big asset in the next campaign.
The match played out with Arsenal fully in control. Aubameyang was set free down the left but sliced his shot well wide; Thomas Partey was unlucky not to get his first Arsenal goal when Xhaka rifled a pass into him in the Brighton box. Partey’s control and instant shot were top class, but the ball came back off the bar.
In the final 15 minutes Saka, Lacazette and Martinelli all got the chance to come on and feel the love of the crowd, as did the players they replaced (Smith Rowe, Aubameyang and Odegaard) who all got standing ovations.
In the end we had 16 attempts on goal (five on target) and 11 corners in an attacking display. There has been criticism of our lack of creativity under Arteta but there was plenty of creativity and attacking intent yesterday.
We end the season with the same league position as last time (eighth) but with five more points.
Perhaps more importantly, we have seen an indisputable improvement in results since Christmas – a 24 game run of W14-D5-L5 since Boxing Day. The Arteta critics don’t want to hear it, but that’s solid Top Four form and bodes well for the coming season. It’s a return of 1.95 points per game which, if sustained across a full season, would give us 74 points (the same total that was good enough to get Manchester United the runners-up spot this time round).
A relatively small number of key signings, added to the talented young players who have come into their own this year, could see us being even more competitive next time.
Leno – 7
Not too busy, but looked confident playing out from the back and dealt well with crosses.
Chambers – 7
Typically reliable. I would not be unhappy with Chambo getting a run at the RB slot next season.
Holding – 7
It’s becoming almost boring to keep saying how solid and reliable Holding is. An underrated player.
Gabriel – 7
Love his power and speed. Like Holding he was unlucky not to get on the scoresheet. A good performance.
Tierney – 7.5
Alert and decisive at the back; always dangerous going forward. Great player.
Partey – 7
A good game from Thomas. He seems to be ironing out his issues with misplaced passing and looked dominant in midfield at times. Also unlucky not to score (he had two good shots which did not take the usual Row Z trajectory, much to everyone’s astonishment).
Xhaka – 7.5
A tidy, accomplished performance. When he plays like this Xhaka is a real asset.
Pepe – 8
The boy has an eye for goal. He was involved for most of the game and never stops trying to take on defenders. It’s frustrating at times because inevitably he will lose the ball in some of the attempts, but you need players doing this to break the lines and Nico has been doing it well in recent outings.
Odegaard – 8.5 (MoTM)
Pulled all the strings in the CAM position. A really good game from the young man. It may well have been his last appearance in an Arsenal shirt but I would be pleased if we were able to keep him.
Smith Rowe – 7.5
Another dynamic, progressive outing from ESR.
Aubameyang – 6
It’s just not happening for the captain at the moment.
Saka – 7
Lacazette – 7
Martinelli – 7