For Arsenal, it’s going to be a third European semi-final in four years. Since the Gunners swapped frequenting the Champions League for the Europa League, only once have they failed to reach at least the semis. Three of those last four appearances have come under three different managers, the latest of which is Mikel Arteta, who takes charge as the Gunners battle with Villarreal for a place in the Europa League final.
Europa League is the Endgame for Mikel Arteta and Arsenal
Mikel Arteta and Arsenal’s Struggles
Mikel Arteta has watched on a lot this season as his Arsenal side have struggled on the domestic front. The Gunners are tenth in the Premier League this season, and are facing their lowest league finish since 1994/95. They’re a point ahead of 11th-placed Aston Villa, having played a game more, and are as close to fourth place as they are to 17th.
Mikel Arteta has watched his side win just four of their last ten games. It’s a run in which they’ve experienced hapless defeats at home to Liverpool and Everton, and a late equaliser to 18th-placed Fulham. In fact, two of those four wins have come in the Europa League, in which their fortunes have differed from the one in the league.
Europa League is the Endgame
The pressure towards Mikel Arteta is starting to increase. There haven’t been calls for his head, and intense criticism yet (the lack of fans in stadiums has helped in that regard). But a sense of angst is starting to seep in. In the players performances. In the discussion over the team. Even in Arteta’s face at times.
It almost certainly would have been worse if the team weren’t still in the Europa League. In Europe, the only defeat Mikel Arteta has witnessed as Arsenal manager this season is the inconsequential loss against Olympiacos in March.
The Europa League has become the endgame for the Gunners. Even when they faced Slavia Prague in the last eight, that was the case. Win it, and gain entry back into the Champions League, and doubts will dwindle.
It could even be a catalyst for optimism and what happens in the following season, in terms of squad improvement. Fall, and Arsenal face the prospect of a season without European competition for the first time in over 25 years.
Going up Against an Old Foe
But winning the Europa League is very much easier said than done. That’s because Arsenal and Mikel Arteta are up against Villarreal. The Spanish side have won 11 of the 12 games in the competition this season, and have been relatively untroubled.
Being 21 points off the top four in La Liga, the Europa League is Villarreal’s only ticket into a first Champions League group stage since 2011. Hence a highly motivated Yellow Submarine.
But perhaps the biggest obstacle is the fact that they’re managed by Unai Emery. The same man whose record in this competition is nigh-on impeccable. Since 2011, he’s managed in this competition in five seasons, winning three and reaching the semis in two – one with Arsenal in 2019. If any manager almost guarantees success or at least adventure in this competition, it’s Emery.
The narrative of Unai Emery and Mikel Arteta going up against each other is an interesting one. The primary reason why the former was dismissed as Arsenal was that Arsenal started to look lost.
Under Emery, they looked to have lost a sense of planning. From one Spaniard to another, that problem seems to have returned. One of Arsenal’s drawbacks is that lately, in the league, the team are starting to look toothless and tactless. Arteta will surely to know what he’s doing when they travel to the Madrigal on Thursday. His future at the club may well depend on it.
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