Victory at a raucous St. James’ Park would have seen the Gunners climb back above Tottenham and kept their top four fate in their own hands ahead of their final game of the season against at home to Everton, while even a draw would at least have meant Antonio Conte’s men needing to win their last fixture, at already relegated Norwich.
Instead, Mikel Arteta’s side crumbled, beaten 2-0 by the Magpies, a result which means Spurs need only a point at Carrow Road to clinch fourth spot, a Champions League return and a sixth successive finish above their rivals.
“I just can’t believe how we performed,” Saka said after the game. “We lost all our duels. We lost all the second balls. We didn’t play out well. Just overall disappointment in every aspect.
“It’s going to hurt a lot of us. Technically it’s not over, we can still do it, but we’ve missed out on two big opportunities to put ourself in a good position.”
Shaken by last week’s damaging north London derby defeat, the Gunners were outplayed and outfought for the best part of 90 minutes on Tyneside, Ben White’s own goal shortly after half-time and Bruno Guimaraes’ clincher five minutes from the end securing a deserved success for Eddie Howe, who called the hosts’ performance the best of his reign.
Arteta admitted afterwards that the scoreline flattered Arsenal and accepted his side “didn’t cope” with the magnitude of the occasion, while midfielder Granit Xhaka went a step further with a scathing self-assessment of the Gunners’ shortcomings.
“From the first minute to the 90th we didn’t deserve to be on the pitch today,” the Swiss international said. “What happened was a disaster performance and like this you don’t deserve to play Champions League, you don’t even deserve to play Europa League … If someone isn’t ready for this game, stay at home. It doesn’t matter the age. If you’re not ready or you’re nervous, stay on the bench, stay at home, don’t come here.
It’s going to hurt a lot of us.
“We need people to have the balls to come here and play. We knew this game was maybe the most important for us but, with a performance like this, it’s not acceptable.”
A young Arsenal side was not expected to compete for the top four this season, but having dragged themselves into contention, have let inexperience show in imploding at the last and now know only victory over the Toffees – who may still be scrapping to avoid relegation – and an unlikely favour from Norwich can resurrect their Champions League dream on the final day.
“If anyone has created an expectation this year that no one in this room probably talked about at the start of the season then it is these players and I will always defend them, but tonight it’s a really difficult thing to do,” Arteta added.
“We know that in football that’s always possible and if anything happens, you have to be there. In order to do that we have to put our head down today and swallow all of the poison and tomorrow start again.”