Focus on Europa League creates challenges, but also provides opportunity

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Chelsea’s 3-0 win last night moved them back into the top four ahead of Sp*rs, and the gap between us and the Champions League places is now eight points. Given that Chelsea play Manchester United before we play again in the league, the gap could be eleven points with just 11 games left to play.

That’s a lot. Our maximum points tally from this season is 78, that’s if we win every game, home and away, which would mean beating both Manchester teams along the way. It means we’d need 3 points from every game, which is not impossible but highly unlikely for a team which is averaging 1.66 points per game this season.

Thierry Henry spoke on Sky Sports last night about what was left for this season, and said:

Should they focus on the Europa and let the league go? I don’t think you can do that, but you should go really strong on trying to win the Europa League. At the end of the day, that brings you back into the Champions League – and you are winning a trophy.

The danger, of course, is if you publicly prioritise one tournament you run the risk of players switching off for other games. It may just be subconscious but it can happen, I think we saw it last season with Man Utd, and that definitely makes life a bit more challenging in terms of team selection, performance, maintaining momentum (such as it is anyway) and so on.

Still, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that at this stage, even with 33 points left to play for, our best shot at making this season a success is to target the Europa League in a big way. And it would be a success whatever way you wanted to look at it. It wouldn’t excuse our poor Premier League performance, but it would put a European trophy in our cabinet – and as a club we don’t have many of those to our name.

The 1970 Fairs Cup, and the 1994 Cup Winners Cup are all we have to show for our many seasons in European football, so I don’t think we could dismiss winning the Europa League as unimportant in any way. The bonus of victory in this tournament is entry into next season’s Champions League, and that’s no small thing either.

I can strongly envisage a situation where this particular Arsenal team refocuses very strongly in Europe for the rest of this season. Regardless of what Arsene Wenger might say, the players are not stupid. They’ll be as aware of our situation as anyone else, and I think it’s going to be very difficult for the manager to get them up for league games when they know there’s basically nothing at stake.

Our record in knock-out football in recent seasons has been excellent, and while people point to the quality of teams like Napoli, Atletico Madrid and Borussia Dortmund in the Europa League, we have beaten every ‘big’ team in England on the way to our FA Cup triumphs in recent seasons.

Sp*rs, Liverpool, and Everton were dispatched on the way to winning in 2014; Man Utd beaten at Old Trafford as we made our way to the 2015 final; and Wembley triumphs over Man City and Chelsea last season helped us set a new record in cup final wins, so we know this is a team that can do it in a winner takes all situation.

The fact that the games will be played over two legs may have an impact and change the dynamic slightly, but ultimately these are knock-out games and we’ve got some prowess here. It will require the manager to pick his strongest team in every game in this tournament, regardless of what’s happening in the league either side of these fixtures, because realistically it remains our best opportunity to win something this season.

It would also provide a wonderful opportunity for Arsene Wenger to go out on a high this summer, something I really hope happens. It would be amazing for him to call time on his many years at the club having led us to a European trophy and back into the Champions League, at which point the new manager we need could come in and pick up the reins.

You could argue that winning another trophy and securing a place at the top table of European football next season should mean he continues into the final year of his deal, and I do see that point of view. My feeling, however, is that this season – with our continued woes away from home – has absolutely hammered home the need for managerial change.

Arsene Wenger is now 68 years of age. He is experienced and wise, but the game has changed, and despite his best efforts and working as hard as he can, he’s struggling to meet the very high standards that he himself has set at the club. I say this with the utmost respect, but whatever happens between now and May, success or failure, it’s time for things to go a different direction, and for me I’d dearly love to see the final act of a remarkable career at this club be a successful and triumphant one.

It’s something James and I talk about at some length on this week’s Arsecast Extra, as well as looking back at the North London derby, Alexandre Lacazette’s current woes, the abuse and threats leveled at some of our players via social media and lots more. Listen and subscribe below, I’ll have more tomorrow as we prepare for our Europa League tie with Swedish side Ostersund. Until then.

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