Everton have saved themselves with a match to spare in this turbulent and difficult Premier League campaign. The Toffees' unbelievable, legendary comeback against Crystal Palace, just days after losing in such a shocking fashion against Brentford; the resilience and belief of this team and its supporters is something truly magical to be sure, and that’s what got this team over the line - finally.
Yet Arsenal will be no easy final match task. Frank Lampard will want to earn three points in the final match of the season to be sure, but there is no pressure should that not occur either. The boss has said that some other faces will likely see playing time in the match, but that he still wished to win.
Mikel Arteta and Arsenal, meanwhile, do have something to play for hypothetically. A victory against an Everton team that won against Palace in such an exhilarating manner - paired with an almost unbelievable loss by Tottenham to last place Norwich City - would see them move to fourth position on the table over Spurs. Can Everton play spoiler after their improbable victory in the penultimate Premier League match of the 2021-22 season?
RBM: Firstly, after the painful letdown that Arsenal and their supporters have been suffering since the North London Derby defeat, and which then carried over into their Newcastle performance, what is the energy around the club as the season nears its conclusion?
It’s definitely a mixed bag. There is the immediate disappointment in their performance on Monday and letting control of fourth place slip away. Taking a longer-term view of the club, it’s been an overall positive season. After finishing 8th for the last two seasons, Arsenal will finish 5th and back in European competition next season. They’ve removed a lot of the older players or those not part of the rebuild, but at the same time that left the Gunners with a thin squad and reliant on younger players, which cost them.
Injuries to Kieran Tierney, Thomas Partey, and Takehiro Tomiyasu left Mikel Arteta relying on U23s for the bench for the majority of the last two months. I think most everyone agrees the club is heading in the right direction, but there were a lot of hopes that they were going to pull off a huge surprise and jump from 8th to 4th.
RBM: With how well this Arsenal team has done for multiple stretches of the season, and with the poor stretches evident also, are there regrets regarding the lack of a winter number nine acquisition, especially with the sale of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to Barcelona?
I don’t think many thought Arsenal would go the entire season without a forward getting near 10 goals. Like a few other positions, the club gambled that they could stretch the existing squad for the second half of the season – but that looks costly now.
It’s easy to think they should have bought someone in January, but who, at what price, and do they fit into the overall squad project? Arsenal will sign two forwards this summer and revamp the position. It would be great if Arsenal could quit sending players away for free or paying them off.
RBM: While it would take a small miracle for Arsenal to get into the Champions League at this point, is there a sense that this is a positive step in the right direction, and one that might actually play to the team’s growth and development over the future?
Completely. While they had fourth in their sights and you could tell they were disappointed with their performance on Monday, overall it’s been a great 12 months for the club. They have a really exciting young attacking line behind the frontman (who will be signed this summer hopefully) - Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith Rowe, Martin Odegaard, and Gabriel Martinelli. They are all still under 24. A lot of older and on-loan players have moved on, but that project will continue this summer to free up space for Arteta and Edu to add depth and quality to challenge even more for the Champions League next season.
Arsenal has also improved the defense by adding Aaron Ramsdale, Ben White, and Tomiyasu. I think another summer together and ensuring Arsenal had a two-deep line capable of starting in the Premier League is the goal for next year.
RBM: Who will Arsenal be looking at this summer, and will ownership back Mikel Arteta the way a real Premier League and European contender needs backing?
I expect ownership to back Arteta again this summer as he just signed a new three-year contract and has shown improvement. Now, will they match the spending of a club like Manchester City? No. Arsenal can compete with transfer fees, but not wages. The league isn’t set up that. This season Arsenal and Everton were close in wages, £80m and £71m respectively. Compare that to Manchester United (£208m) or Chelsea, Liverpool, and City (£130-160m range).
I think they will provide the funds and freedom to sign the right players and enough players to be prepared to challenge for the Premier League top four and win the Europa League (if we end up there). So look for them to spend around the same amount as they did last summer, but continue to focus on younger players.
RBM: How do you expect Arsenal to set up on Sunday, and who should Everton be watching for in particular when they travel to north London and the Emirates?
I’d be stunned if Arsenal isn’t in a 4-2-3-1. Despite injuries, it’s Mikel Arteta’s and Arsenal’s default formation, keeping in mind defensive shifts, etc. Rob Holding will be available again, but we aren’t sure about Takehiro Tomiyasu’s injury status. Still this far out from the match I’ll go with: Ramsdale – Tavares/Gabriel/Holding/White – Xhaka/Elneny – Martinelli/Odegaard/Saka – Nketiah.
RBM: Finally, what’s your prediction for Sunday’s final match of the Premier League campaign?
I’m an eternal optimist, so even after the last two matches, I believe in this squad to find a result. Back at home and feeling a bit more freedom, I’ll go 2-1 to Arsenal with Everton having already secured their safety earlier in the week.
Our thanks to Nathan for his time.