Wenger relieved as first-choice Arsenal show fans what might have been
Has there ever been a more unlikely, impromptu or ecstatically celebrated St Totteringham’s Day? It is the name Arsenal fans have given for the date on which the now annual ascendancy over their fierce rivals is confirmed, but it is doubtful that even one supporter arrived here yesterday seriously expecting that sequence to be upheld.
Even Arsène Wenger, who has now guided Arsenal to a Premier League finish above Tottenham Hotspur for 20 straight seasons, seemed shocked. He was informed of the fourth and fifth Newcastle United goals by an Arsenal fan behind the dugout and, with his own team already sure of their win, responded with a clenched fist uppercut. It was an instinctive and very genuine gesture that underlined his personal pride at that particular record and his acute appreciation of the wider significance.
By ending such a tense season with the biggest high of the whole campaign, much of the pressure surrounding Wenger was visibly eased. A second-place finish is Arsenal’s best since 2005 although it would clearly also be hazardous to overlook how they have profited from the implosion of their rivals.
A final tally of 71 points remains Arsenal’s lowest since 2012 and their 65 goals were also their fewest since 2007. Wenger appeared to acknowledge these deficiencies by admitting he wants to make three signings and, even after a hat-trick by Olivier Giroud and the midfield returns of Jack Wilshere and Santi Cazorla, the team’s central spine must remain the transfer priority.
Having sprinkled a little salt in Tottenham’s wounds by noting that “it looked for many years” like they would finish above Arsenal, Wenger said he still could not count the season as a success. “We are second in the league and we want to be first,” he said. “We are not happy but the 18 other teams behind would be happy to be in our position. For a while, our supporters have not been going home happy and at least today they had some satisfaction.”
After the attempted fan protest two weeks ago, there were even plenty of chants for Wenger on the lap of appreciation. “A positive feeling,” said Wenger. “I am not masochist enough to love to be booed.”
But he will be well aware that the mood could turn again if he does not act decisively in the transfer market and next season does not begin well. Avoiding major injuries is also crucial, with Wilshere and Cazorla finally starting yesterday for the first time this season.
Roy Hodgson was present to see Wilshere’s return but there was to be no involvement for Theo Walcott, whose minor hamstring injury further lengthens the odds of him making England’s Euro 2016 squad.
It did not take long for Aston Villa to demonstrate just why they have ended the season with half as many points as the next worst club. Nacho Monreal was released down Arsenal’s left and, while his cross was certainly precise, it is doubtful whether Giroud would be afforded more space in a training ground exercise against a few mannequins. Neither of Villa’s centre-backs – Joleon Lescott and Kevin Toner – stepped out to contest the cross, but even then Giroud’s header should have been saved, as the ball squirmed beneath goalkeeper Mark Bunn. Villa’s visiting supporters
saw the funny side. Only five minutes had elapsed but they taunted the Arsenal players for being so slow to take the lead.
Despite having not experienced an away victory since the opening day of the season, they still travelled in large numbers and even the feeblest of shots by Ashley Westwood prompted a huge cheer.
A subsequent corner that came to nothing was then greeted with the sort of celebrations usually reserved for a goal. The more serious point was that Arsenal were actually labouring. Their fans had reacted to news of Newcastle’s goals with sufficient excitement to make the players well aware that second place was now feasible but a series of good chances came and went before Arsenal’s pressure finally paid off. Mesut Özil had got into space down the left and his cross was easily converted by Giroud. It was Özil’s 19th assist of the season to leave him only one behind Thierry Henry’s alltime Premier League record.
Villa had put up some resistance between the first and second goals but they were now beaten and, following a simple Hector Bellerin through-ball, Giroud completed his hat-trick. News then filtered through of Tottenham’s extraordinary capitulation on Tyneside.
Finally, a tearful Mikel Arteta came on to mark one last appearance with a shot that led to Arsenal’s fourth goal, and a season of almost unparalleled frustration was to end in rapturous celebration.
Hats off: Olivier Giroud capped the season finale with three goals