It’s not difficult to see why the Europa League has an image problem. Most tournaments have a clear mission statement. The Champions League decides the European champions. The World Cup gives us the world champions. The FA Cup is a knockout tournament for any team from the top ten leagues in the British pyramid. Even the much maligned League Cup tells you exactly how it is composed in its title.
What does the Europa League actually decide? What does winning it mean? The name itself, Europa, seems contrived and non-descript, like something you would find on a fake ID. As a competition it lacks a clear raison d’etre. Can you describe who exactly qualifies for the Europa League in fewer than 3 sentences? Can you explain without resorting to Wikipedia?
Prior to the aggressive expansion of the European Cup, the UEFA Cup was actually a superior competition to its more glamorous cousin. Around 75% of the teams in the current Champions League would have fallen under its auspices a generation or so ago. Now it is undoubtedly a junior competition, but not one that Arsenal have any right to feel sniffy about.
Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United and Spurs have all competed in it recently. Atletico Madrid and Chelsea are amongst its recent winners and clubs such as Borussia Dortmund have not felt it beneath them in the last couple of years. Arsenal’s European history, both recent and distant, does not afford them the liberty of dismissing the competition. They are in it because it is where they deserve to be.
I am amongst the section of fans willing to embrace the novelty of the competition. I have travelled to European away games regularly over the last 15 years and the prospect of trips to the likes of Berlin, San Sebastien, Maritimo and Bucharest excite me. I have explained before that quality and prestige are not large factors on my Maslow’s triangle when it comes to watching football.
Whether Arsenal are in the Champions League or the Europa League is pretty much immaterial to me. My main goal is always to enjoy the ride as best I can. I realise that footballers do not think like this, of course. My only big reservation about playing in the Europa League is the overriding suspicion that Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Özil won’t be as attracted to the idea of a change of scenery.
So the question remains, how seriously should Arsenal take the Europa League? Whilst it is not beneath them, there is little denying that teams that compete in it with any great alacrity rarely compete for the league title in England. Chelsea finished 3rd when they won the tournament in 2013, but they were never seriously in contention for the championship.
Chelsea and Leicester City’s lack of involvement in any sort of European competition gave them a realised competitive advantage in the last two title races. Tottenham bowed out in Round of 32 this season and immediately won 11 of their final 12 league matches. Liverpool came achingly close to the title in 2013-14 with no European football to contend with.
The Europa League has an extra knockout round compared to the Champions League and it also has a greater concentration of teams from Eastern Europe. The dizzying pattern of Thursday/Sunday means that Europa League sides are often playing catch-up in terms of the fixture list. Yet given Arsenal’s level of underperformance in Europe over the last decade, there is a sense that the Europa League is at least attainable.
At time of writing, Arsenal are the favourites to win the tournament next season. The familiarity of Round of 16 exits to Barcelona / Bayern Munich has bred contempt towards the Champions League. For the neutral, Europe’s premier competition stands accused of tedious predictability. After 20 years of caviar and polite dinner conversation, a lot of Arsenal fans are ready for beer, sausages and a mucky disco.
Arsenal’s only previous European triumphs have come in the now defunct Cup Winners Cup and Fairs Cup. The 2000 UEFA Cup is the closest Arsene Wenger has come to European silverware in North London. Those of us old enough to remember the 1994 and 1995 Cup Winners’ Cup campaigns might see the Europa League as something fondly analogous. Especially if Arsenal can progress into the latter stages.
Adrian Durham memorably described the Europa League as “the tournament of failure”, in his typically understated style. For once, Durham might have stumbled upon an entirely apposite description. The double paradox neatly encapsulates Arsenal’s current conundrum. Is it better to try to win “the tournament of failure” or to dissociate oneself from it completely? Especially when 5 of our likely competitors next year will be in the Champions League.
The Premier League is a fiercely contested competition nowadays and Europa League participation does not stack up favourably with a league title assault. (Though this piece from Raphael Honigstein challenges that commonly held belief). There are many who contend that Arsenal should pretty much throw their chips in and disregard the Europa League in exchange for a proper attempt at the Premier League. It’s a perfectly understandable argument. But I think Arsenal can be a little more pragmatic than that.
The quality in the Europa League knockout stages is a lot better than many would have you believe. However, I think it ought to be within Arsenal’s gift to qualify from the groups with some weakened team selections in the appropriate fixtures. Depending on the draw, some of the fringe players could be afforded vital minutes.
Certainly this season there would have been enough in the reserve tank to take on a few Europa League games. The likes of Mathieu Debuchy, Kieran Gibbs, Per Mertesacker, Lucas Perez, Rob Holding, Alex Iwobi, Carl Jenkinson and Mohammed Elneny haven’t exactly been overloaded with games- even when fit and available. Factor in young players like Jeff Rene Adelaide and Ainsley Maitland Niles and you’ve the makings of a good shadow squad.
Assuming Arsenal qualify from the groups, I think they can take a view on where they are come February when the knockout rounds begin and make a decision from there. If the league title and the FA Cup still look like achievable targets, we could always do as Spurs did and make the Europa League a low priority. If not, we would be in a good position to mount a challenge.
Though it is important not to take smooth progression as a given. Arsenal will not get to choose whether they are in the final or not simply because they decide they can be bothered to try. I see a sort of correlation with the end of George Graham’s reign, in that I don’t think Arsenal will win another league title under Arsene Wenger, sadly.
However, the squad has enough individual quality for the Gunners to become a good cup team. One of modern football’s great paradoxes is that the importance of winning has become diminished in favour of existing. Staying in the Premier League and qualifying for the Champions League have become so lucrative that the pursuit of actual glory is now seen as unambitious.
I’ve a feeling the Europa League could reinvigorate Arsenal a little and, if they can qualify for the Champions League next season, a good experience in the junior competition might help the team to approach the premier competition with a fresh focus. Arsenal’s run to the 2000 UEFA Cup Final was followed by getting to the quarter-finals of the Champions League in 2001. I have to say I am excited for a change of scenery, but I do hope Arsenal’s presence in the tournament is not allowed to extend beyond a one season novelty.