Arsenal completed their side of the bargain in resounding fashion but, as expected, were obliged to settle for fifth. A glaring opportunity missed, or a season of heartening progress?
There will correctly be a mark placed in both columns but a regular stream of goals on a warm afternoon, against the most obliging of opponents, meant nobody in the stands was in much of a mood to get hung up on the negatives. Europa League football will bring its own challenges, given the thinness of Arsenal’s squad was ultimately their undoing, but it at least signifies that Mikel Arteta has been able to arrest an unseemly decline.
Its complete reversal must wait and Arteta faces a busy summer amassing the depth and quality that might ensure they do not let a place at the top table slip next time. The youngest side in the league requires a sprinkling of ready-made winners to help them along; when the dust has settled their manager will surely reflect that the fundaments for greater success are present, but he admitted to not having shaken off the disappointment of Monday’s decisive no-show at Newcastle.
Satisfaction at returning to Europe’s second competition was minimal. “Today I do not get much,” he said. “I’m still in pain. I do not think I can reflect on the season the way it is. I’m a winner, I hate losing and we lost something we could win.
“I can guarantee we have tried to squeeze the lemon as much as possible, and you see what happened. I’m extremely disappointed; in the end we came up short and the feeling of guilt at not reaching that level is painful. ”
On the pitch his players showed little inclination to beat themselves up, although it helped that Everton were willing punchbags. Arsenal rained in 26 shots and should have finished with more than five goals, although if that total had been shared around a couple of their more fallow outings the streets of Islington might have been pulsating on Sunday night. Gabriel Martinelli’s opener, slightly generously awarded via VAR after his shot had struck Alex Iwobi’s upper arm, had been signposted since the start but the goal that followed it raised bigger questions.
If Eddie Nketiah’s stooping header, converted after Martinelli had flicked on Bukayo Saka’s corner, was his parting gift he could not have offered a better precis of his predatory powers. He emerged from the cold to score five goals in the final seven games but his contract expires in June: with guaranteed starts more likely elsewhere and Arsenal in the market for a center-forward, there has been an impasse.
“You know you have a player there who is going to help you and he’s done that,” Arteta said of Nketiah. The player gave nothing away during the post-match lap of honor, fixating more on his mobile phone, and body language experts may have had more joy with the meaningful waves offered by Alexandre Lacazette.
Lacazette will soon be out of contract too, along with Mohamed Elneny, and Arteta said all three would know their destinies soon. “I will speak to the three players now or tomorrow,” he said. “After that we need to start to move, but we have clear ideas of what we want to do.” It is understood that Elneny, another player recalled late in the day but seemingly willing to act as cover, will sign a new deal.
A purge of other squad players may follow. One candidate to be upgraded on, Cédric Soares, cast such uncertainties aside when wrapping his foot around Saka’s quickly taken corner to score the third in the 56th minute.
Before the hour Gabriel Magalhães, who can be sure of his importance, drilled through Asmir Begovic when Soares’s deflected shot fell into his path. The rout was completed when Martin Ødegaard, one of the campaign’s shining lights, dropped his shoulder and shimmied into the area before arrowing a smooth finish into the far corner.
Arsenal’s fans could relax and enjoy themselves, jeering Dele Alli when he departed early on his first start for Everton. The visitors were not helped by injuries to Richarlison, Jordan Pickford and André Gomes, but in truth they made it abundantly clear that Thursday night’s emotional salvage operation was enough effort for one week. Donny van de Beek’s tap-in, halving the deficit before the interval, was more than they deserved.
“I do not think it’s anything for me to stew on too much,” Frank Lampard said. In victory, Arteta was left to do the fretting.