Too little, too late, Arsenal beat Everton but still miss out on top four
LONDON -- Three thoughts from Arsenal's 3-1 win over Everton from the Emirates on the final day of the Premier League season.
1. Victory not enough
Even if Arsene Wenger stays on, as now appears likely, next season will be one of great change at Arsenal. For the first time since 1998, they will not be in the Champions League. Liverpool holding their nerve against Middlesbrough made victory here for Arsenal academic. They gave it a go, rolled with the punches, but were powerless to prevent themselves from becoming members of the Europa League Thursday night club.
Two first-half goals may have put the pressure on Liverpool, but Arsenal must now pay the consequences for a season in which they left themselves with too much ground to recover.
The opening goal came in the eighth minute as Arsenal blew from the blocks in search of a strike that might make Liverpool nervy. Danny Welbeck made a howling mistake when swinging at fresh air from Mesut Ozil's pass from the left. The goal was gaping, but his horror swiftly turned to celebration when Hector Bellerin, excellent all afternoon in attacking down the right flank, followed up to thrash the ball into the net.
Six minutes after that eighth-minute ray of light came darkness for Arsenal. Laurent Koscielny was sent off, rightly so, for an airborne foul on Enner Valencia. It meant Wenger had to abandon the 3-4-2-1 formation that had helped revive Arsenal in recent weeks, as a flat back four was forged instead.
Arsenal being reduced to 10 men did not much affect the momentum of the game. They continued to pile forward, and eventually their relentlessness delivered a second goal. Alexis Sanchez's shot deflected into the path of Welbeck, who this time was far more composed, and held the ball up to lay into Sanchez's path.
All the Chilean was required to do was pass the ball into an empty net. For that 27th-minute goal Everton's defence was an open book behind a slow, leaden midfield. Ahead of them in attack, Valencia and Romelu Lukaku were starved of service until Lukaku forced a series of saves from Petr Cech as the first half closed and Arsenal began to struggle with Everton's counterattacks.
And then an atmosphere that had fizzed now flagged to doomed near-silence as news of Georginio Wijnaldum's 45th-minute goal for Liverpool against Middlesbrough filtered in. The second half began somberly, with nothing like the fervour that had followed the kick-off.
As Philippe Coutinho and Adam Lallana's goals at Anfield became common knowledge, referee Michael Oliver became a channel for Arsenal's exasperation, though he correctly awarded a 58th-minute penalty for a Nacho Monreal handball. Romelu Lukaku powered the ball past Cech, and Everton, now safe from handing Liverpool a helping hand, pushed for an equaliser.
Meanwhile, Wenger began to think ahead to next week's FA Cup final by withdrawing Granit Xhaka and Alexis Sanchez for the latter stages. Even Sanchez, the never-say-die warrior, looked as if he knew the game was up. Aaron Ramsey's injury-time goal, a delicately floated chip over Everton goalkeeper Joel Robles, was a nice way to sign off the season, but this campaign will be recalled for Arsenal falling through the trapdoor of the Premier League's top four.
2. Arsenal rue loss of Koscielny, Gabriel
Beyond missing out on the Champions League, this was an afternoon of heavy consequences for Arsenal. Wenger has a central defensive crisis ahead of next week's FA Cup final on his hands after Gabriel suffered what appeared to be a serious knee injury at the beginning of the second half.
That came after Koscielny's sending-off ruled him out through suspension. Arsenal's acting captain's absence was of his own making. Gunners fans may suggest his tackle on Valencia was singled-footed rather than two-footed, but it was horribly rash. He had left the ground before flying in to clatter Valencia to the ground, and his studs were showing.
There were fierce protestations, with Granit Xhaka leading the delegation to Oliver, but eventually, after significant delay, Koscielny accepted his fate. To his credit, he left the field having apologised to Valencia and checked on the striker's well being. The loss of Koscielny and Gabriel meant Per Mertesacker was given his first appearance of the season in the very last league game; the German veteran might now be required at Wembley.
Arsenal responded to their setbacks by continuing to fling themselves forward. After all, Wenger's teams only know one way to play; defending a lead doggedly has never been in the Frenchman's playbook. They went down fighting, never having abandoned his attacking principles. To Wenger and Arsenal supporters, though, that should be a small crumb of comfort amid heavy disappointment.
3. Everton require improvements
Ross Barkley being dropped to the bench for Enner Valencia was a telling selection by Ronald Koeman. Having refused a new contract, Barkley is up for auction, with Koeman not prepared to pander.
That said, as Everton flagged, and continued to be dominated, even after Koscielny's dismissal, it was Barkley who Koeman called for in the 26th minute, removing Tom Davies in a tactical substitution. It did not change things. Within a minute, Sanchez scored Arsenal's second; this was an afternoon when Everton looked like a team needing significant reinforcement.
There is cash to spend at Everton, with majority owner Farhad Moshiri a billionaire. Barkley's probable sale would probably significantly swell the coffers for a squad that needs a rethink after failing to break into the top six. Seventh place is about par for Everton, but they deserve not much more than that, with poor away form being the root cause. They complete their season having not won away from Goodison Park since January.
With the likes of Arsenal and Manchester United faltering this season, Everton had an opportunity to climb higher up the table, but ultimately, they were not good enough to take that chance. And Lukaku was left to rue missing out on the Golden Boot; after Harry Kane's hat trick against Leicester on Thursday took the Spurs striker two goals clear, Sunday's hat trick at Hull left Lukaku eating dust.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.