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Arsenal had best get used to this feeling. This is the price they pay for being back in the big time, the grim knowledge that spring is more likely to be a season of endings than new life in north London.

First Aston Villa inflicted a heavy -- but not necessarily mortal -- blow on their push for the Premier League title. Now Bayern Munich's experience of the big time has shone through in the Champions League with a 1-0 win over the Gunners in Bavaria eliminating the visitors on aggregate, 3-2. It would now appear likely that Mikel Arteta is bound for a fourth season without major silverware. And yet this campaign ought to be remembered as a success, not the roaring one that Manchester City might well enjoy but a stride in the right direction.

After all, two years to the day from the first leg of the Bayern Munich quarterfinal, Arsenal were being taken to the cleaners by Brighton. They might have had the makings of a promising young side then but the idea that this team, taken to the cleaners by Yves Bissouma, could have made the leap to serious European contention would have seemed laughable. Even 12 months later as Arsenal were clinging on to top spot, it was fair to question whether this was all for real. Were Martin Odegaard, William Saliba and Bukayo Saka just having the seasons of their lives? Were the Gunners mere beneficiaries of a weird calendar and Liverpool's drop off?

Over the last nine months, those questions have been addressed. Arsenal have proven they belong. Home and away, they have taken four points from Manchester City and Liverpool, they are tracking to be the first team to better Pep Guardiola for expected goal difference over a 38-game season since his first in England. They have proven themselves able to put together the runs of champions, winning 10 and drawing one to start 2024's Premier League fixtures. As Arteta himself noted after the Villa defeat, that sort of run in any other league would have his side "six or eight points" clear.

He has a point. Arsenal's contemporaries in Europe do not have it this hard. Bayern spent several years doing all they could to fritter the Bundesliga away before Bayer Leverkusen got hot at the right time. Paris Saint-Germain have lost two of the world's best forwards and still romped to the French title. In general, all it takes is for one of Real Madrid or Barcelona to have their frequent off years and the other cruises to the crown.

Arteta, meanwhile, has to overcome not just the richest club in the world but one that has used its sovereign wealth backing to assemble the best front office, management team and playing staff in the sport. Oh, and then there is Liverpool, a club that aced nearly every major recruitment decision in a five-year period, who set the benchmark for the running of an elite club from the moment they found the right coach for them in Jurgen Klopp and still might end up with one league title, one Champions League and some domestic cups to show for this era of remorseless excellence.

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It is not like there is anything particularly unique about Liverpool in that regard. The last truly great Arsenal team before this one lived a similar existence. In 2003, a Pascal Cygan injury and Mark Viduka goal from an offside position turned Arsene Wenger's side from title favorites to deposed champions in eight days. The Invincibles lost what would otherwise have probably been a treble in what felt like the blink of an eye. Neither of those teams needed to hit in excess of 90 points to win the league title either. The margins have got finer, such that a defeat to England's fourth-best side that leaves them two points from top spot can be viewed as a cataclysm.

Even if it is and this season ends as a near miss, Arsenal will be back, something which could not be said with the same certainty 12 months ago. Even before the transfer window closed last summer, they knew what they had to do in this. Edu will look to strengthen the frontline with both a new striker and a wide forward who can inject pace into the front line. Benjamin Sesko of RB Leipzig is one option for the former position that they particularly admire. Further additions are wanted in midfield and on the left side of defense. Though the club wanted to leave a sizeable cushion between themselves and any PSR worries last year, there will be money for serious additions, a run to the quarterfinals of the Champions League expected to be worth in the region of €100 million for any English club. There are sellable assets on their books -- Aaron Ramsdale, Reiss Nelson and Emile Smith Rowe are among those expected to depart -- while there are more smash hits on Arsenal's list of recent signings than a Beyoncé album.

Those new additions will join a settled squad where no player with over 1,000 Premier League minutes this season is over the age of 20. Declan Rice, Odegaard, Saka, Saliba, Gabriel Martinelli, Kai Havertz: all are under 25. Some of them might have already peaked but the prospect that some might have higher levels to reach is tantalizing.

Arsenal are so nearly back to where their history has taught them they belong. That is what makes it hurt all the more than losing Europa League finals or falling short in the race for a top-four finish. They may not reach the summit as often as they might like or expect over the years to come but if their trajectory over the last two years suggests anything, they will in due course.