Tottenham and Arsenal both finished the season with a flourish, scoring five goals apiece in wins over Norwich City and Everton, but what really mattered were the two games before that. When the pressure was on, Arsenal went to Spurs and lost and then compounded that defeat by losing at Newcastle, while Spurs, who was four points behind with three games remaining, capitalized by beating Burnley. Champions League qualification was in Arsenal’s hands and it blew it.
That will have consequences. Arsenal and Tottenham are both thought to be interested in signing Gabriel Jesus, who is likely to leave Manchester City this summer. Being able to offer Champions League football gives Tottenham a clear edge. Harry Kane’s dalliance with City was unlikely to be rekindled after City signed Erling Haaland, but there is less reason now for him to seek a move away. And while the majority of Arsenal’s stars are young enough that they can afford to be patient, Bukayo Saka or Emile Smith Rowe are just that bit likelier now to be tempted by an offer from a club that is playing in the premier European competition.
And, of course, there is the money: Tottenham can realistically expect to make up to $100 million more than Arsenal from its European campaign next season. That, in turn, means it can be more aggressive in the transfer market. That may be enough to persuade Antonio Conte to stay—and that feels vital.
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The revolution Conte has wrought has been remarkable. He took over in the wake of a miserable 3–0 defeat to Manchester United that had led to the dismissal on Nuno Espirito Santo. It has not been a straightforward process and Conte seemed on the verge of walking out after defeat to Burnley in February, but his astonishing energy and intensity did lift a squad that was enhanced in January by the smart acquisitions of Dejan Kulusevski and Rodrigo Bentancur.
On his first day, Conte saw a player eating nachos and realized just how poor nutrition at the club was. He banned sandwiches, ketchup and butter, a disciplined regime that not only improved fitness but was also symbolic of a cultural change. Many longer serving staff—players and in the backroom—had already been alarmed at how standards had slipped since the Mauricio Pochettino days.
With Spurs going out of the Europa Conference League, in part because of a fixture it was unable to fulfill because of COVID-19, and losing early in the FA Cup, they were able to focus solely on the Premier league in the final weeks of the season, an advantage Arsenal had enjoyed almost from the start of the season. That meant not only was it more rested, but it had more time to prepare specific pressing plans. And that perhaps has been the most encouraging aspect of the run-in, that Spurs have begun to look like a Conte side, overwhelming opponents.
Conte, though, could be at Paris Saint-Germain by the start of next season, with the blood-letting in Paris likely to begin this week after it was confirmed that Kylian Mbappé will stay at the club. Daniel Levy, the Spurs chairman, is known to have been trying to build bridges with Pochettino, with a job swap a possibility.
For Arsenal, meanwhile, there is the sense of a great opportunity wasted. This is a young squad and there have been clear signs of progress. But two concerns remain. Firstly, Arsenal’s record against top sides is shaky: nine points from 10 league games against other Big Six teams isn’t terrible, but all three wins came against opponents down on their luck. It’s a long time since Arsenal has taken on a top side in top form and prevailed.
And that feeds into the other issue: fragility. This remains a slender squad that struggled after injuries to Thomas Partey and Kieran Tierney, and it remains a team prone to meltdowns after setbacks such as the penalties conceded at home to City and away at Spurs. Whether those decisions were right or wrong is less important than the way Arsenal fell apart at each.
When Arsenal was bottom of the table with no points from three games, this finish would have seemed a great achievement. Take a step back and there is a sense of a club on the rise. But if Spurs invests heavily, if Chelsea’s new owner has a splurge, if United, as it must, improves under new management, this season may come to represent an opportunity for Arsenal to get into the top four that will not return soon.