Mikel Arteta, who played his final game for Arsenal on Sunday, says he decided to quit after realising he was no longer good enough to represent the Gunners.
The 34-year-old moved to the Emirates Stadium in 2011 but is now ’99 per cent’ retired from the game – with a coaching role likely to be his next step.
Club-captain Arteta came off the bench as a late substitute in Sunday’s 4-0 win over Aston Villa which saw Arsenal claim second spot – albeit 10 points adrift of champions Leicester – and maintain their run of finishing above local rivals Spurs every season since 1995.
Olivier Giroud scored a hat-trick before Arteta’s late shot hit the crossbar and rebounded in off Villa goalkeeper Mark Bunn for an own goal.
Arteta burst into tears when the full-time whistle was blown before explaining why.
“It was unbelievable because the last few months have been really difficult and I have been through a difficult position as well with my role in the team,” the Spaniard said.
“To have the opportunity to say goodbye and 99 per cent to say goodbye to the sport that I love is very hard, but my taste of it can’t get better than today.
“A big thank you to everybody.”
Arteta, who joined Arsenal following a successful spell with Everton, won two FA Cups and two Community Shields with Arsene Wenger’s side and insists he knew it was time to call time on his playing days with the Gunners.
“It is very hard to stop but I wanted to leave it… I wanted to decide and I thought for the last few months I wasn’t good enough to represent this club on the pitch,” he said.
“You have to accept it. It’s been a long time to be playing football and I didn’t want to cheat them or anyone. It is time.
“You have to be honest with yourself. That’s what I haven’t been upset with the manager, I have been upset with myself.
“When you can’t get it right and you have been through injuries and difficult moments at this level… for me to play at this club you have to be the best in your position.
“When you lose that, I think you should be away from this place. I have probably been here too long. In the last few months, I probably didn’t deserve to be here but at least I got the chance today to stay in touch with them and it has been amazing.
“For me, the standards you need to play for this club, it cannot be eight out of 10, it has to be 10 out of 10. When you cannot deliver that, it is not good enough.”
Arteta confirmed he has three “very different” options on the table but refused to be drawn on links to coaching roles at Manchester City or Tottenham – although he did say there was a chance he could stay at Arsenal in a backroom capacity.
He said: “It is very unusual to have opportunities at this level. As well, that made me think it was probably time (to retire) and the way I have been watching football in the last few months – or probably over a year – it was not as a player, it was more as a coach. Then you have to think about it.
“I have been left the door very open (at Arsenal) and I may have to make a decision. I don’t want to say clubs but I have three very different options and I am very proud because it is not common.”
While Arteta, as well as fellow departing midfielder Tomas Rosicky, were given a rousing send off by the Arsenal fans, Villa acting manager Eric Black knows rifts between their fans and players after a season which has seen them finish bottom with just 16 points need to be addressed if they are to bounce straight back.
“I think it’s realistic due to the stature of Aston Villa, no question,” he said when asked if an immediate top-flight return was possible.
“Obviously there are on-going things in regards to the ownership and a new manager that comes in but I have no doubt that Aston Villa will be a massive club with a great opportunity to come straight back.
“I said to them (the players), some of you are going to be here next year and you need to try and get that discord (with the fans) removed slightly. It’s small steps as we’ve spoken about in previous weeks.”