Arsenal’s sad end intersects with need to feel City’s title claim is real

<span><a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Arsenal;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Arsenal</a> fans’ excitement fades at the Emirates as they learn news of <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Phil Foden;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Phil Foden</a>’s second goal for <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Manchester City;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Manchester City</a> against West Ham.</span><span>Photograph: Paul Childs/Action Images/Reuters</span>

Well, you can still have a lot of fun in 80 seconds. As carnival atmospheres go, this was a micro‑carnival, a highlights snippet. Arsenal’s final‑day Premier League jeopardy: let’s have a look at your best bits.

As the players walked out at the Emirates Stadium there was a starburst of red and white smoke above the lip of the stand and a sense of event glamour and skirling possibilities, like the final rally of a presidential campaign.

Eighty seconds was all it took for reality to intrude, as news filtered through of Phil Foden’s wonderful opening goal for Manchester City against West Ham at the Etihad, the ball zinged into the top corner from Foden Country, which is not Stockport, but a central region just outside the penalty area.

Related: Manchester City beat West Ham to win fourth Premier League title in a row

In that moment the energy inside the Emirates Stadium just seemed to fade, sucked up through the stadium roof into the north London haze. Arsenal had some chances to score against a zesty and resilient Everton. Jordan Pickford made one brilliant reflex block.

Hope began to rise. One-nil is, as they say, a dangerous score. But not as dangerous as 2-0 (Foden, 18 minutes). A little later Idrissa Gueye sent the Everton fans into a frenzy with a deflected free-kick to make it 1-0. Takehiro Tomiyasu scored a fine equaliser.

There was naturally a little cruelty for the Arsenal fans in the middle of all this. On 44 minutes news came through that West Ham had scored. On 45+2 minutes a rumour surged around that it was 2-2 in Manchester, the Arsenal crowd suddenly beside itself. This was of course fake news, misinformation, an internet energy wave. We know about these. First Brexit. Now City 2-2 West Ham.

Half-time came and went in a vague funk. Before long Rodri had made it 3-1 to City and the day, barring three or four more sensational overhead kicks from Mohammed Kudus, was sliding only one way.

There was a nice familial warmth around the stands throughout that second half at the Emirates Stadium. Arsenal nicked a late winner through the excellent Kai Havertz and closed the final gap behind City to two points. And from a neutral perspective there are probably two things worth saying about the closing notes of a drama‑driven season.

First, there’s the thing nobody really wants to talk about much because it’s a hypothetical, and also because, frankly, it’s harshing the super soaraway vibe. Here it is though. When you’ve had a final‑day thriller, when proximity at the top is the unique selling point of the league, how does this intersect with a champion team carrying 115 charges related to alleged financial irregularity, every one of them potentially the source of a points deduction?

Is this real? Are we waiting for the other shoe to drop? These questions can exist simultaneously with the fact Manchester City are a brilliant, hall-of-famer team and a joy to watch. None of this is anything to do with the players or manager. These are incredible champions. But they have also won the league by two points in a season when teams with far fewer charges were docked eight points and four points for breaking rules on expenditure. How are fans of those teams supposed to feel watching the trophy being hoist?

Those charges have been processed during the current season. If City are found guilty – a big if, as they deny every charge – a genuine regulator with a desire to enforce the rules would have a full range of penalties available. In the middle of which two points look pretty small beer.

Is there any way this could affect the current season? Most things don’t happen. This one probably won’t. Although clearly the benefits of spending vast sums of money continue to be felt. The charges are being examined now, not eight years ago. And the tribunal has great freedom when it comes to levying punishment.

There are also issues of sporting legitimacy, robustness and the basic credibility of the brand here. We need to feel this is real, that success has been fairly audited. If there is any weight at all to the Premier League charging its teams, even the most powerful, this needs to be resolved as soon as possible, if only to avoid that sense of a shadow-asterisk, a league title awarded pending resolution.

As for Arsenal, the question will still be asked, even after an 89-point season. Is this actually good? Football is a furiously literal-minded business. Coming second will always be seen as failure, as not-first. But the players, manager and supporters will know how good Arsenal have been this season.

The team has progressed. The defence is solid, the attack fluid, Martin Ødegaard a remarkable influence. This is all good. Nobody has choked or chucked anything. The levels are just vertiginously high now.

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Where to go from here? You don’t need a high-grade No 9 to score goals. But you do perhaps need one for the closest games. We remember, on this final day, the 0-0 at the Etihad Stadium. Is there enough depth? That first XI is running itself into the ground. How easy will it be to raise the intensity again after coming so close?

At the end here Mikel Arteta talked about not being satisfied with second best and always pushing for more. That will only happen with a little investment. But Arsenal should be pleased with this very good second place; even if only first can ever really be great.