Thursday, February 29, 2024

Wenger and Mertesacker on Europa League + Alexis thoughts

Hello, a quick Saturday round-up for you – although it’s funny to think that by this time next week we’ll have played our first Premier League game of the new season. Anyway, that can wait.

Arsene Wenger has been speaking about the Europa League, and what he might do with his squad for that. Perhaps it’s telling that when asked about a season without Champions League football, he said:

For us, it is a good opportunity to focus completely on the Premier League.

Considering the Europa League gives you just as many European games in the group stages – just on different days than we’re used to – that really does say something about the way he’s thinking of approaching it. Although he did say it would depend on what kind of group we’re in:

If we can afford sometimes to rest some players, we will do it. But we have to adapt to the level of the competition and see, first, what kind of group we play in.

It’s clear that the priority is the Premier League, and I don’t think anyone can argue with that, but I also think we’d be foolish to dismiss the Europa League as irrelevant. Of course everyone wants to be in the Champions League, but our experience in that competition has been like some kind of footballing limbo. The Round of 16 exits for seven consecutive seasons have, for me anyway, drained my interest in the tournament itself.

It’s like being stuck in a lift with a song you kinda like playing over and over and over again, and at some point you start to hate the song. The Europa League is a different song, and maybe the lift repair man, let’s call him Otis, has come along and got things moving again.

I mean, I get the approach. If we have a group that allows us to rotate and give some playing time to the promising youngsters, then let’s do that. It’d be great to give them competitive football because it’s better for their development than U23 games,  but if and when things start to heat up, then we really should view it as a chance to win a European trophy for the first time since 1994.

Speaking at Members Day on Thursday, Per Mertesacker was asked about the Europa League too, and said:

It’s a definite chance for us, even when you go to tough places. We’ve got to learn our lessons, and we have to learn quickly how to adapt to these new things. Man United won it last year and qualified for the Champions League so it’s a big chance for us to show we’re capable of winning something.

I know some will disagree, I just don’t think we’re a club whose track record in the Champions League allows us to be snobbish about the Europa League. I’d much rather win this season’s competition than see us crash out of the Champions League again the same way we have for so many seasons in a row now. Maybe that’s just me.

Meanwhile, having once more reiterated his stance on Alexis Sanchez, Wenger was also asked if he felt the Chilean would be fully focused next season. He said:

Of course. Why not? It’s always in your interests, even if you have a short contract, to do well. And the kind of character he is. He is a winner. When he goes on the football pitch, he wants to win. He is a guy who loves football. He has advantages and disadvantages on both sides going into a situation like that.

I have to admit that there have been players in the past in whom I wouldn’t have had that conviction. I can think of a few who, if they were told to stay in the same way, would have sulked or acted up, but I tend to agree with the manager here.

For all the talk about his potential departure this summer, I don’t think he’s unhappy at Arsenal. There is a difference between wanting to play somewhere else and hating where you are. I don’t think there’s any doubt he’d have been open to a move to another club, but I don’t believe he’s going to find it hard to stay. He looks comfortable here, he’s popular, important, he is one of the stars at Arsenal and I think he likes that.

It’s almost impossible to envisage him not wanting to win as soon as he’s out on that pitch, and while I know he can be a bit glove-chucky and temperamental at times, he’s like that anyway. He’s like that for Chile, not just Arsenal, and it didn’t stop him scoring 30 goals last season or providing 14 assists, so I’m not worried in the slightest about Alexis. That’s not to say I don’t have some worries about this team or squad at the moment, but those would be exacerbated by Sanchez leaving, not staying as appears to be the case.

Right, that’s it for this morning. Whatever you’re doing today, have a good one, and we’ll be back tomorrow to chat about the Community Shield and the potential new penalty shoot-out system we might see.

Until then.

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