Arsenal losing the league does not have to be a collapse of character | Arsenal

In the moment of full operatic collapse, the pain of a season of dashed and throttled glory reaching its narrative end point, the Emirates Stadium was treated to the sight of Roberto De Zerbi doing a knee slide.

A slightly creaky one but with sufficient momentum to get a little purchase on the lime green early summer turf, fist pumping, head up sedately. Brighton had just gone 3-0 up in this game, playing a lovely, breezy, light kind of pass‑and-run football. And De Zerbi had marched and pranced and barked around his technical area all afternoon, chest puffed, like an alpha squirrel taking control of the acorn patch. His team were delightful here, and instructive too en route to a vital victory.

This will probably go down as the afternoon Arsenal lost the title, if only because losing something is more fun, a little more brutal, a little more cinematic than someone else winning it. Is that the right way to read this?

The correct answer is, of course, no. Or at least, it is if we can move beyond the pure pleasure of footballing schadenfreude. Losing the league doesn’t have to be a collapse or a failure of character, although no doubt this is the kind of entry‑level psycho‑whiffle that will be punted about the place by some of our more heavyweight ex‑pro pundits.

Chokes, bottle jobs, collapses: these all exist in sport. But to decide that this is what happened here is a failure to see the strain of getting this far, the steps already taken, and the beauty, sometimes, of failure. Perhaps having a better squad, an all-time great manager and nation‑state‑backed resources really does give you “character”. It certainly makes you into a thrillingly good football team. Arsenal are not the first opponents to have melted trying to match this Manchester City generation.

By the end of the afternoon there was a Weirs internal mathematics to the Sunday games at the top of the Premier League.

The same Everton team that had beaten Brighton 5-1 last week had lost 3-0 at Manchester City. Two hours later the same Brighton team that lost 5-1 against Everton beat Arsenal 3-0.

There is one constant here. That constant is City simply marching through everyone in sight. As things stand they need to beat Chelsea next Sunday to win the league. It could happen earlier if Arsenal lose at Nottingham Forest the day before.

Is this a collapse? Arsenal have lost/are losing/will lose the league because they dropped nine points in four games across 17 days in April, when they kept scoring but just couldn’t keep them out. They collapsed/choked/lacked character because the squad wasn’t deep enough to allow for the loss of a key defender, because their best attacking players have no rotational backup and have grown weary in the last few weeks of an endless season.

Mikel Arteta shows his anguish during Arsenal’s defeat
Arsenal are a mortal very good team but Mikel Arteta’s players have grown weary across an endless season. Photograph: Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP

Above all they are an ordinary, mortal, very good team. As opposed to a generational winning machine treading its own path towards something entirely new. Near-perfection is the standard now. City have completed their 11th straight league win, doing all this at a point in the season when your average stretched and faltering champion team starts to tie up and feel the burn.

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Arsenal met the perfect opponents to press this point here. Brighton kicked off still in the hunt for fourth place, required to win all five of their remaining games, and to do so coming off the back of losing 5-1 to Everton. If they play like this it could well happen.

They are just a lovely team to watch, brave everywhere on the ball, always trying to kill you at every stage, never quite on the defensive even when they’re defending. Plus they are of course a terrible team to play at a time such as this. Just as the fear creeps in, here is a team where nobody seems to fear anything, where everyone is super cool on the ball, where even the manager looks like he’s having the time of his life. At one point in the first half he could be seen bantering noisily on the touchline with his 19‑year‑old forward, the excellent Julio Enciso, mimicking the runs he wanted him to make even as the game rolled on, then yelling to his goalkeeper to punt a ball his way and let him try it as though this was all some glorious blue‑sky warm-down session.

Arsenal were still Arsenal here, just a little less super-sharp. They had chances, but didn’t take them. Steadily Kaoru Mitoma began to torment Ben White on the left, thumbing through the mental PDF of his master’s paper in dribbling, lingering over the “groovy feints” section and simply gliding past with a dip and a wobble and a surge.

It was Mitoma who helped make the first goal on the Brighton left, the ball nudged in eventually by Enciso. The second came from a loose attempt to play out from the back, finished by Deniz Undav whose final touch was absurdly relaxed, lifting the ball high over Aaron Ramsdale in a gentle arc.

The third followed soon after, as Arsenal’s muscles tightened, the game, the day, an entire never-ending season finally slipping away.

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