In a week when they have got little right, Arsenal at least found an appropriate way to lose. Bernd Leno could console himself that, in fumbling Richarlison’s cross over the line with 14 minutes left, he had not scored their most harmful own goal of the last five days but his error compounded a miserable night. Arsenal began with the cries of protesting fans wafting through the north London sky; they finished in the knowledge that the only way to leaven a summer of harsh reckonings will come through winning the Europa League next month.
That is, as recent actions have made perfectly clear, not the kind of continental competition for which the club’s owners feel it is fit. The Kroenkes might have hoped to see Mikel Arteta’s players lighten the mood; in fairness they did not deserve to lose and may not have done had VAR not made a futile bid for the headlines by denying them a penalty early in the second half. But Arsenal’s hierarchy cannot hide behind their team: it will no longer wash and the several thousand supporters who expressed their displeasure outside the Emirates either side of kick-off made the point emphatically.
Their chants and fireworks were still audible at pitch level well into the first half and, for a group of players who will not have escaped the anger and frustration felt since Sunday, the experience must have been disorientating. Arsenal had changed their routine upon learning of the pre-match protest, arriving well in advance of kick-off to avoid any problems with access. Arteta did not know whether any of his players had caught sight of the demonstration during those hours of dead time inside the ground, but would not offer it up as a distraction.
“Obviously they knew what is happening, they are all connected to social media,” he said. “We knew our fans wanted to express their feelings and made our preparations with that in mind, it’s no excuse.”
For long periods this was a low-key affair: a meeting between two faded powers with little potential reward to raise the pulse. In that sense, perhaps it was a glimpse of what the Super League conspirators could have won. Everton’s first victory in six games did ignite their push for merit-based European qualification, though: they are three points from the top four in a crowded field and, having rode their luck after half-time, departed the scene with whoops and hollers.
“I think honestly it was a draw,” Carlo Ancelotti said. That might have been the best Everton could hope for if, after Richarlison had needlessly kicked Dani Ceballos’s right shin seven minutes into the second half, Jon Moss’s decision to award Arsenal a penalty had been upheld. VAR ultimately ruled that Nicolas Pépé had been offside by an arm’s width earlier in the move and Arteta, so dignified when asked to take the rap on behalf of his superiors earlier in the week, was left to rage at the reversal.
“This has been building up: enough is enough,” he said. “Today I had enough. We had many of them that nobody explains: they say ‘sorry, it was a mistake’ but it affects a lot of people and unfortunately it affects our football club.”
It was certainly a textbook example of VAR’s pernickety, pervasive influence but there have been far worse. One wondered whether Arteta was projecting to some degree, and nobody could blame him if that were true. What an agitating, exhausting few days it must have been: he had looked anxious as he paced the touchline, discontent still seeping in through the roof and the sound of a police helicopter thrumming overhead, and must have wondered how his home turf had been converted into a hollowed-out battleground like this.
Regardless, he is not delivering results and the despair deepened when Richarlison beat Granit Xhaka too easily down the right and drilled across for Leno to make his blunder. Arsenal had woken from a timorous opening period and would still have levelled at the death if Jordan Pickford had not saved from Gabriel Martinelli, but salvaging their season via the domestic route looks impossible at this point.
“It’s going to be very difficult mathematically to achieve that now,” Arteta said. His club will continue to pay the price for the gravest of miscalculations.