Nicolas Pepe scored twice in the second half as Arsenal beat Brighton, only to be denied a place in Europe by Tottenham’s fightback against Leicester.
A strong finish to the season moved the Gunners within a point of their north London rivals heading into the final day, and with Arsenal cruising after Pepe’s double, they were set to snatch seventh place from Spurs.
Despite finishing the season with a fifth straight win, Arsenal were condemned to an eighth-placed finish as Tottenham clinched a 4-2 victory at the King Power Stadium.
That result ends the Gunners’ record of playing in Europe every season since 1995-96 and means they have not finished above Tottenham since 2016.
Arsenal director Josh Kroenke, son of owner Stan, was in attendance and some of the 10,000 fans returning to Emirates Stadium held banners that read ‘Kroenke out’, with the club’s involvement in the abandoned European Super League having intensified ill-feeling towards the board.
Fans also voiced their disapproval during the game and as news of Tottenham’s win filtered through after the final whistle, a cruel blow after Arsenal thought they had salvaged something from what has been a lacklustre season.
Arsenal turnaround offers some encouragement
The mood at the final whistle was in stark contrast to that midway through the second half.
Arsenal were firmly on top, with Gabriel heading against the crossbar in the first half before Pepe controlled Calum Chambers’ low ball into the Brighton box and fired right-footed past goalkeeper Robert Sanchez.
Pepe then added his 16th goal of the season, stroking the ball inside the far post with his left foot after the recalled Martin Odegaard rolled the ball into his path on the right wing.
There was a party atmosphere inside the ground when Arsenal midfielder Thomas Partey volleyed against the crossbar and leapfrogging their derby rivals looked possible.
After Arsenal’s defeat at Everton on 19 December, that seemed unthinkable as the Gunners were 15th, four points above the relegation zone and 11 behind third-placed Tottenham.
The fact they got so close, even after being seven points adrift of Spurs with five games left, offers some encouragement for next season.
So too the form of Pepe and Odegaard. Ivorian Pepe has finished the season with five goals in three games, suggesting he could be a key man for Arsenal next term, while Norwegian Odegaard played like he wants to return for another loan stint from Real Madrid.
Potter keeps building at Brighton
Brighton were hoping to finish the season with a flourish, despite being assured of another year of Premier League football with three games to spare.
They drew with West Ham then came from behind to beat champions Manchester City on Tuesday, reaching 41 points to equal their best tally in four seasons in the Premier League.
They were unable to improve on that at the Emirates, having just one shot on target, while Arsenal’s victory would have been more emphatic had Rob Holding not had a first-half effort disallowed for offside after Partey flicked on an Odegaard corner.
That meant the Seagulls finished one place lower than last season in 16th, but in his second year on the south coast, manager Graham Potter continues to improve the quality of his team and make their football easier on their eye.
The 46-year-old has already been linked with the Tottenham job this summer, but if Brighton can retain his services, along with the likes of defender Ben White and midfielder Yves Bissouma, they can hope to improve again next term.
‘It wasn’t in our hands, but we tried our best’ – what they said
Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta: “It wasn’t in our hands. We tried to do our best, but it was not enough.
“This club deserves trophies and the Champions League and we haven’t managed to do that in very challenging circumstances. Now we have to be critical of ourselves and prepare for next season in the best possible way.
“It is frustrating because last season with 61 points we [would have finished] fifth. Now we are eighth and that is the step that we have to identify.
“The level has gone so high so the only way to do it is to be much better next season and much more consistent, and this is the challenge ahead of us.”
Brighton boss Graham Potter: “We did our best but we just weren’t good enough today. The boys kept going and I can’t criticise them for that. Sometimes you have to be honest and say we weren’t at our level.
“We have had a tough week, a tough season and maybe today was a step too far for us. We weren’t good enough to maintain attacks long enough. We didn’t do enough to win the game so the result is a fair one.”