Chased down by serial winners, Arsenal’s race is finally run | Arsenal

In recent months Mikel Arteta has, on occasion, brought a young olive tree into team meetings. It resembles a bigger equivalent that stands outside the manager’s office, whose occupant cites it as a club symbol and an exemplar of the need for sound roots. On a warm mid-May evening, Arsenal’s title pretensions were finally lost in the forest: it was the Tricky Trees, nourished by a relentlessly positive home environment, who handed Manchester City the most bloodless of triumphs while guaranteeing their own survival.

Such a low-key coronation befits what this title race ultimately became: City, operating at a consistent high-tempo purr with which nobody else can live, are lusciously accomplished serial winners who nonetheless fail to warm the blood of many neutrals. Arsenal, whose polarity between giddying highs and plunging lows is still that little bit too pronounced, could not keep up but it is hard to imagine a side that could. Arteta will privately have hated such a flat day’s work but he has created a team of vast potential whose point, in finishing second, remains well stated.

In truth Arsenal had already grieved the demise of their dash for the top. That process began before last Sunday’s evisceration by Brighton at an Emirates Stadium that Arteta noted had been muted before kick-off. Their performance here, neither terrible nor remotely stirring, was similarly low-key. If their starting XI had an end-of season look, Arteta could point out defensive injuries had forced his hand significantly. He had preached the game’s importance and you sensed he meant it: even though City have outsprinted Arsenal, running them as close as possible would constitute a badge of honour.

Arteta spent the early part of last week healing from the torment of that lesson from Brighton, which had visibly shocked him. The Seagulls had been cool, precise, clinical; this time, though, there was nothing especially measured about the challenge Arsenal faced. The City Ground is one of the country’s finest venues on occasions like this: the low sun cast two thirds of the pitch into an amber glow; Mull of Kintyre reverberated with an extra frisson of meaning before kick-off; three fans in Steve Cooper masks joined thousands of others in creating a raucous atmosphere as discomfiting to the visitors as any rejigged back four.

Forest would be in the top half if home form were all that counted. In a bygone era when City occasionally evinced some fallibility, they had held Pep Guardiola’s side to a point here by conducting a late smash and grab on a 27% share of the possession. On the same day Arsenal had won, dramatically and headily, at Aston Villa. At the time that had seemed a significant point in the race: Arteta’s team had recently lost to their title rivals but were now two points clear with a game in hand. Nobody told them, as Jorginho disappeared beneath a throng of ecstatic bodies in added time, that City would not drop another point before reasserting their supremacy.

A Nottingham Forest fan
Nottingham Forest fans created a raucous atmosphere. Photograph: Carl Recine/Reuters

Here, they found a toughened Forest of the kind that troubled City. Cooper, deemed a dead man walking at various points of the campaign, deserves a mountain of credit for creating such a thing. Between layers of expensive new signings, slathered generously but outwardly unsuited to a relegation fight, he has discovered a filling with substance. Forest had a go early on and then sat back, realising Arsenal were again short of their slick, instinctive best and setting themselves up for the counter.

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When they struck, it was a reflection of how the day felt for either side. Martin Ødegaard’s loose pass in midfield was the act of a player who, after a season of breathtaking individual form, has exhausted the tank. He has started every league game bar one and, had a few margins fallen differently, would have entered the final weekend with the chance of being a league-winning captain at 24. What a physical and mental effort it has been, even if the prize has slipped away. Morgan Gibbs-White seized upon the mistake and saw Forest’s reward in plain sight: his urgency and certainty gave Taiwo Awoniyi a chance that was converted via a fortunate ricochet.

Even at that point, the game felt more or less won. Arsenal have roused themselves for some scarcely credible comebacks this season but never looked like running up a head of steam: the tautness in their game has gone, the elastic limit exceeded. They barely fashioned a chance but Forest, majestically marshalled by Joe Worrall and Moussa Niakhaté, had more than enough cause not to let anything through. Gabriel Jesus’ late slip by the left byline summed up the visitors’ effectiveness in attack; soon afterwards the City Ground erupted and Forest, a unit of commanding oak trees by now, savoured the kind of jubilant scene Arsenal must wait another year for.

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