Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Europe and the Final Countdown

Arsenal will be back in European competition next season. It might not be the European competition we all wanted and that was well within the team’s grasp before a disastrous pair of away fixtures last week. Now we have tossed Champions League qualification from our own hands into the lap of the undercooked lasagna Gods.

Likely participation in the Europa League will, clearly, require a perm for the squad. Volume and quality will be the name of the game. One of the chief factors in the Gunners’ spring collapse has been the necessity of asking their squad players to do a little too much for a little too long. Some of those players were able to perform in spurts but it looks like it won’t be quite enough to get the team over the line.

The benefits that Arsenal were supposed to accrue from the absence of European competition did not materialise at all. They look absolutely cream crackered and they obtained a number of injuries to key players, most of them muscular injuries. It ought to bear some internal investigation that Arsenal suffered so many muscular injuries, many of which recurred, in the physically least demanding season they have negotiated for over two decades.

The lack of a Europa League group stage also meant that when some of those squad players were called upon, they lacked sharpness and match practice at a crucial stage of the competition. In a world where Eddie Nketiah had six Europa League group stage games under his belt, Arteta might have felt emboldened to end the failing Lacazette experiment at an earlier stage.

Sambi Lokonga might have been able to step into the breach left by Thomas Partey with a little more pish and vinegar. Nicolas Pepe started seldom at the beginning of the 2020-21 season with the exception of the Europa League group stages and he finished his league season very strongly indeed. Cedric Soares…well let’s not make this parallel universe totally beyond the realms of the realistic.

Joe Willock played a lot of Europa League football in the winter of 2020 and went on a scoring spree in the second half of the campaign- albeit in the colours of Newcastle United. A Willock or Pepe style scoring spree could have made all the difference for Arsenal in their quest for Champions League football. We are looking at a difference of a couple of points, one result going differently in our favour; maximum two.

I think it’s less a case of absence making the heart grow fonder and more the case that having seen a campaign without European football the benefits Arsenal were supposed to derive proved to be illusory. If the Europa League is to be the club’s fate in 2022-23 then the next generation of academy talent should get a chance to prove themselves.

It remains to be seen whether there are any more Sakas or Smith Rowes waiting to emerge (we shouldn’t bank on it) but, if nothing else, we ought to be able to find the next generation of Nketiahs and Willocks. William Saliba will, hopefully, return to the club next season and being able to immediately offer him six European matches before Christmas can only benefit his development and put him in the strongest position to challenge Ben White and Gabriel. Even if he cannot dislodge either immediately, we might need him at a critical part of next season and that football will serve him well.

Most importantly, of course, is that the Europa League is a competition that Arsenal would be among the favourites to win- it also gives Arsenal two potential routes to Champions League qualification in 2023. While I think there has been an air of tolerance and rueful acceptance at falling slightly short on this occasion; I don’t think the same can be said of next season.

Assuming both that Arsenal are in the Europa League and that they are able to go deep into the tournament, they may have to negotiate a tight race for the top four again next year with a European quarter and semi-final thrown into the mix. That will require management of resources that we don’t yet possess.

What is also clear is that Arsenal need to become better at handling pressure at the business end of the season. Soft factors are overindexed in football analysis, in my view, but it is very difficult to deny the charge that Arsenal emphatically failed the mental exam of having their fate in their own hands at Spurs and Newcastle.

Even if the miracle happens on Sunday and Tottenham Spurs it all up and Arsenal beat Everton, that would be a symptom of Spurs opening the door rather than Arsenal breaking the lock. In 2018-19, Arsenal spontaneously combusted in the league run-in and had their backsides handed to them by Chelsea in Baku. Last season, Arteta’s Gunners were expelled from the Europa League semi-finals with a whimper by Unai Emery’s Villarreal.

This season, Arsenal’s Champions League fate was in their own hands and they hurled it into a flaming skip. Expelling that proclivity towards self-destruction from Arsenal’s DNA is going to be one of the toughest examinations of Arteta’s next contract. (Weirdly enough it doesn’t seem to apply to the FA Cup, where Arsenal have a virtually immaculate recent history of winning the crunch games).

I think keeping the squad players engaged has been a weakness in Arteta’s management this season. It is simply not possible to manage a squad of 25 players all of whom will absolutely die for you. In any sizeable team that you manage in any profession, you will have some people who clock in at 9, work until 5 and then don’t give their job or their prospects another thought outside of those hours and that is fine. You just have to motivate them to work to their best between 9am and 5pm.

European football next season gives Arteta the opportunity to keep some of those players engaged and give his players more exposure to high pressure games and occasions. Arsenal will have to wear the mantle of expectation if they are to play in the Europa League and I think that would have residual value for the players too. They need to learn to wear big boys’ pants at some point and European football can only help with that objective.

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