Once billed as a potential final-day title decider, there ended up being little to play for between Arsenal and Manchester City’s u21 teams on Saturday.
After their strong early form put them in the title race, Arsenal faced a huge drop-off in the second half of the campaign, falling down to seventh in the table.
By comparison, City eased to their title win with plenty of games to spare, and they sat 13 points clear at the top even before Saturday’s fixtures.
Sixth-place Brighton were already out of reach of Arsenal, so the Gunners were purely playing to try and stay ahead of eighth-place Everton, who play on Monday.
There were a couple of absentees from the Arsenal squad, with Reuell Walters and Mauro Bandeira held back for first-team training, and team captain Matt Smith watching on from the stands.
The start of the game was relatively subdued, with Manchester City taking control of the possession but neither side making much in the way of chances.
That changed just before the 20th minute, as Micah Hamilton cut inside from the left-hand side and fired a finish beyond Hubert Graczyk for 1-0.
Looking to respond, Arsenal drove forward through Amario Cozier-Duberry, with the ball eventually falling to Ben Cottrell, whose shot was deflected wide.
But City made it a one-two punch minutes later, with Ben Knight pouncing on a mistake by Jack Henry-Francis and firing home for 2-0.
Arsenal’s miseries were compounded after the half-hour mark, as Catalin Cirjan was forced to withdraw with an injury, replaced by Nwaneri.
The Gunners kept pushing for a goal, however, with Lino Sousa having the best of the opportunities when put through by a clever pass by Khayon Edwards. Unfortunately, he and Josh Robinson shot wide with the final chances of the half.
After the break, City killed the contest with a fast passing move finished by Carlos Borges. Graczyk had to be alert to prevent a fourth, making a couple of quickfire saves from close range.
City should have had that fourth later in the half, with two tantalising balls across the six-yard box failing to result in a goal as the first evaded everybody and the second was shanked wide.
Charles Sagoe Jr looked the most likely to give Arsenal a consolation goal, with one shot deflected wide and another kept out by a diving save at the near post. But the match finished 3-0 to conclude Arsenal’s u21 campaign with a defeat.
It’s been a disappointing campaign for the u21s overall, with an exit from the EFL Trophy in the first knockout round, an exit from the Premier League Cup at the quarter-final stage, a seventh or eighth-place league finish, and a group-stage exit from the Premier League International Cup.
The season had started relatively well, with the young Gunners going unbeaten in the league from August to December, progressing from their Premier League Cup group, and only losing a tight and spirited EFL Trophy match to Stevenage.
But the departure of various players on loan, some injuries, and players occasionally held back for the u18s’ FA Youth Cup run left Mehmet Ali’s squad a little short.
Even so, the extent to which performances have dipped has been frustrating.
The u21s won just three of 19 games in 2023, and the only one you could really say they excelled in was the 4-1 victory over Everton last week.
Of the other two wins, one was in extra time, and the other was an 85th-minute winner.
There will certainly need to be improvement next season, or Arsenal will find themselves in a relegation battle.
Arsenal u21 lineup vs Manchester City
Graczyk, Robinson, Monlouis, Awe, Sousa, Henry-Francis, Cirjan, Cottrell, Cozier-Duberry, Sagoe Jr, Edwards
Nwaneri (for Cirjan, 36), Lewis-Skelly (for Robinson, 59), Ibrahim (for Edwards, 69), Cooper, Gower