Arsenal’s big mistake? Guimaraes exposes Gunners transfer failure as inquest into Champions League collapse begins

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There was something ironic about Bruno Guimaraes scoring the goal that all but killed off Arsenal’s Champions League dreams for another season.

The Brazilian midfielder was a player everyone knew was available during the January transfer window.

He could have been the type of signing to help push Mikel Arteta’s side over the line in the race for the top four, but Arsenal opted against it and allowed Newcastle to seal a deal for the Lyon star.

Despite having their best opportunity in years of qualifying for the Champions League, the Gunners decided not to strengthen their squad at all ahead of the second half of the season.

In fact, they weakened it, allowing Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Pablo Mari and Folarin Balogun to leave on loan and, most surprisingly of all, letting captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang leave for free without bringing in a replacement.

“We had a clear plan of what we could do but then it had to be doable,” Arteta said in defence of Arsenal’s approach towards the January window.

“Edu [Arsenal’s technical director] and his team did a great job. We were very clear we only wanted the best people and the best players at this club.

“When the reasons to get a player on board were not the right ones we didn’t do it.”

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In some ways that is an admirable stance and it’s understandable that Arsenal did not want to just sign anyone just for the sake of it in the middle of the season.

But there were quality players available, such as Guimaraes, and now, following Monday night’s crushing 2-0 defeat at Newcastle, it’s difficult not to look back at Arsenal’s failure to strengthen in January as a key reason for their disappointing end to the campaign.

With the final Champions League place in their hands, Arteta’s young and threadbare squad couldn’t get the job done.

The season-ending injuries to Kieran Tierney and Thomas Partey were huge and when Ben White and Gabriel Maghales suffered hamstring problems during the run-in, Arsenal looked like they had totally run out of steam.

“We knew [what was at stake], but we didn’t cope with it,” Arteta said after Monday night’s defeat.

“We didn’t compete, we never got into the game, we lost every duel. 

“Newcastle were 100 times better than us in every department from the beginning to the end and that’s hard to accept.

“That’s the reality of what happened on that pitch.”

Arteta’s side knew exactly what they had to do when they travelled to St James’ Park. 

Following the defeat at Tottenham on Thursday, the Gunners were in win-or-bust territory when it came to claiming a Champions League spot.

This was Arsenal’s cup final yet they went down with a whimper following an own goal from Ben White and a late strike from Guimaraes.

Newcastle, who spent big in January and transformed their squad with five new arrivals, looked like the team chasing the top four.

Eddie Howe’s side were reinvigorated and fresh, Arsenal meanwhile looked stale and tired.

The approach to the January window always looked like a risk given what was at stake. Now, four months on, it looks like a gamble that has backfired massively.

“We did what we could, with what we were allowed to do,” said Arteta when asked if he regretted not strengthening his squad.

“The team that we were able to build is what we were able to build and it’s the team that has taken us all the way here.”

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After a dramatic season of ups and downs, Arsenal are surely now going to have to settle for a fifth-placed finish in the Premier League.

There is still a slight chance of finishing fourth, but they now need to beat Everton on Sunday and hope that Tottenham lose at relegated Norwich.

“We have to be there in case that chance appears,” said Arteta. 

Deep down, however, he will know the door to the Champions League is almost completely closed.

There may still be one game to go but the inquest will now begin.

At the start of the season a fifth-placed finish would have been viewed as a clear sign of progress for Arsenal but the way things have ended will now leave a dark cloud hanging over the Emirates heading into the summer.

The club hierarchy have already shown their faith in Arteta by handing him a new contract, so there is no question of the Spaniard being replaced ahead of the new season.

But the way Arsenal have buckled under the pressure at the key moment of the season has certainly called some of the manager’s decision-making into question.

Tactically, he was out-thought by Antonio Conte in the north London derby and his substitutions during the second half at Newcastle seemed to hamper Arsenal rather than improve them.

Arteta looked crestfallen after the full-time whistle and should Tottenham now go on and claim fourth spot as expected, he will have to somehow pick himself and his players up ahead of the new season.

No-one will know better than the Spaniard what Champions League football would have meant to Arsenal in the long term.

The financial boost it would have given ahead of the summer transfer window would have been huge and it would have made keeping the likes of Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli far easier ahead of planned contract talks.

Now the same questions that have hung over Arsenal for years remain. Can they get back to challenging at the very top? Can they match the ambition of their best players? Does Arteta have what it takes to outsmart some of the best managers in the business?

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When the dust settles in the coming days, the Spaniard will no doubt remain defiant in the face of such questions.

But ultimately one of their major reasons Arsenal failed to get themselves over the line this season was down to the decisions they made during the January transfer window.

They gambled and it didn’t pay off. Arteta will now have to deal with the repercussions.