Mikel Arteta has warned Arsenal the competition will be even tougher if they hope to mount another Premier League title challenge next season.
Wolves visit the Emirates Stadium on Sunday for a fixture that at one stage looked like it would mark Arsenal’s coronation as champions for the first time in 19 years.
Instead they go into their final game eight points adrift of champions Manchester City, the same margin that Arteta’s side led by in early April, with their courageous title tilt having finally been ended by defeat to Nottingham Forest last Saturday.
Arsenal’s challenge has wilted since they threw away a 2-0 lead against Liverpool at Anfield on Easter Sunday, followed by successive draws against West Ham and Southampton before City finally took control of the race with a thumping 4-1 win against the Gunners at the Etihad.
Arteta called for his players to end a nevertheless memorable season on a high against Wolves, but pointed to what is likely to be an even more intense struggle next campaign if the club are to finally end a two-decade wait to be champions.
“The competition is going to be even harder next season,” said Arteta. “In my opinion it’s been the hardest this season in 22 years that I’ve been in this league.
“In order to (compete) we have a really promising plan, we have to reflect a little bit, take a step back, make sure this is the right one and go again with more determination and hunger in the tummies to do even better.
“Now is about finishing the season in style and providing a great performance and a victory in front of our people to show our gratitude.
“(We) received a lot of incredible energy they have given us throughout the season, and (we will) start to build for next season. We have to wrap it up in the best possible way. It’s been some journey, full of emotions.
“Looking with a bit of perspective, there’s a lot of things not only on the field that have happened at the club that deserve a lot of credit for a lot of people.
“We have to nail everything that we do, we have to seek excellence in everything that we touch and we participate in that’s going to have a big impact at the club.”
Arsenal’s late collapse was in part precipitated by the loss of defender William Saliba to injury in March, with the deputising Rob Holding criticised for failing to match the 22-year-old’s imperious form across the season.
Arteta remained hopeful that the back injury the defender picked up during the team’s Europa League exit to Sporting Lisbon will not stretch into next season and that he will be ready to resume training after the summer.
There is also optimism that Takehiro Tomiyasu, who has played only 21 times in the league due to injury, will be fit to take part in pre-season.
Arteta said of Saliba: “He’s evolving the right way, the last few weeks have been much more positive than the previous two months.
“We wanted to protect him, it’s an injury that needed some care and attention. We’ve been pretty conservative to give him the best possible chance to have a good pre-season and to go again next season.
“Tomiyasu will be (back) around pre-season like Willy, they’ll be in a good place. They’ve been working so hard the boys, it’s been a really difficult year for (Tomiyasu) with some issues that he’s had.
“He’s a tremendous person, a top professional, we just want him to be available because when he is he’s really helpful for the team.”