Arsenal travel to the Stadio Olimpico for a Europa League clash with Benfica and, in something of a recurring theme for the Gunners, the situation is looking rather do or die. With the Premier League in disarray, the Europa League appears to be Arsenal’s best route back into the comforting arms of the Champions League.
Europa League or Bust for Arsenal
This is not the first time that it has been framed as must-win for Arsenal. Nor is it the second, perhaps not even the third.
In Arsene Wenger’s final season, the Gunners made a concerted push for the Europa League. Star players Mesut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey were rested in league games to ensure they stayed fit for European clashes. Indeed, it came close to working. Arsenal were stellar against Atletico Madrid at the Emirates, coming undone by poor finishing and a defensive error. It was not to be.
Nor was it to be for Unai Emery. The word Baku provokes an almost involuntary response from Arsenal fans. They went in with solid hopes of beating Chelsea. For the first 20 minutes nerves were calm, Arsenal even had a solid penalty shout. The wheels soon came off. Olivier Giroud came back to haunt Arsenal, Eden Hazard gave Chelsea fans a stylish farewell. Heartbreak again for the Gunners.
Noticing a theme yet? The same happened for Mikel Arteta’s maiden voyage into the Europa League. Minutes after a spectacular effort from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Olympiakos snatched the game at the other end. Once again, Arsenal’s dreams died with European defeat.
So, surprise surprise, the time has come again for Arsenal.
A Muddled League
The Premier League has not adhered to any rules of the universe this season. Upside down is a la mode, no one is exempt from embarrassment. Amongst this, Arsenal sit tenth in the table. After a truly torrid start, this is something of an improvement but is unlikely to draw any warm praise from many fans.
A club of Arsenal’s stature will always demand European football of some variety. Having grown accustomed to the exposure and financial comfort of the Champions League under Arsene Wenger, it could even be said that the club fears the effects of an overly long stay in the Europa League. This season, Arsenal must make a frank decision about which of the two routes into Europe they will prioritise.
Going by recent league performance, Arsenal have something of a dilemma. Since their Boxing Day thrashing of Chelsea, they have found something within themselves that many were unsure existed. With a shift of formation and a newfound focus on midfield technicians, the quality of play has been steadily improving.
The problem for Arsenal is that this uptick has guaranteed nothing. They will still have games where chances are spurned, where goals are gifted to the opposition. To back themselves in the league would be bold, but perhaps risky.
A Chance for Arsenal to Exorcise Their Demons
The alternative is to pin hopes to the Europa League. In terms of narrative, this would be something of a fairytale. Arsenal’s young manager delivering European success after years of heartbreak. This would leapfrog Arsenal back into the Champions League, and give the club a grand platform upon which to build.
That is not to say it would be easy. Arsenal have met all forms of defeat in their last three efforts. European giant who slipped from the Champions League, domestic rivals, and plucky underdogs. To take this road would be to take a great risk.
In essence, that is the exercise that Arsenal must perform. Balance the risk and reward of the two potential plans of action. The league is a slow burner, allowing for form to ebb and flow. With patience, they could try to climb their way up. The Europa League is a sprint, get the job done in a handful of games. There does, of course, exist the choice of attempting both. The reality is that Arsenal do not have the deepest squad, and are already managing injuries to star players. As the season develops this is likely to grow as a problem, at some point a question of priorities will be asked.
The likelihood is that Arsenal will back themselves in the knockout competition. In the 2019/20 FA Cup-winning run, Arsenal showed an ability to grind out results against superior opposition. This season they have shown their ability to more convincingly beat perceived ‘weaker opposition’. The brains trust at Arsenal is likely to pick up on this, and it is not unlikely that they will be inclined to bet on this path.
If Arsenal want to end the cycle of Europa League tragedy, this may be the best year of any to pull it off.