Our aim should be to win the Europa League. End of it.
I can’t understand why it is even a debate, we’re not in the position to snub a European competition to save energies for a bigger prize – i.e. the league – since the competition for the Premier League top spot is the fiercest I can remember.
Perhaps missing out on our “usual” Champions League spot has weakened our belief and the way we’re perceived by opponents and pundits but we’re no longer among the top horses, we’re outsiders.
I do believe we have a fair chance to go all the way in the league and I am convinced that our team isn’t inferior to Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur, but it’s undeniable that something changed since last summer.
Sure, Europa League is not as appealing as the Champions League but it’s still a big competition and winning it would mean a lot, on different levels: it would restore some pride, it will give us automatic access to the Champions League and would convince a lot of people that the Arsenal can compete with the top Clubs; forget the relatively-unknown teams that are involved in the early stages, we will have to face big Clubs to lift the trophy and winning it will matter, as it did for Sevilla or Manchester United.
We’ll have AC Milan, Olympique Marseille, Lyon, Everton, Lazio, Zenith, Hoffenheim and Villarreal as our rivals, plus a bunch of Clubs being demoted from the Champions League, with two of Tottenham, Roma, Borussia Dortmund and Atlético Madrid as serious candidates not to make the cut to the Champions League knock-out stage and some other inevitable surprises.
It doesn’t mean we should field our strongest XI every time but Arsène Wenger should not approach the competition the same way he used to treat the League Cup – or also the FA Cup at times; calls for Reiss Nelson, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and other youngsters to start games in Europa League are definitely premature, these boys surely have bags of talent (especially the former) but should be introduced very carefully – in my opinion.
Recent history of Europa Leagues shows how some big teams failed to cope with the hunger, desire and physicality of very determined and well-organized smaller teams – like Internazionale, Shakhtar, Athletic Bilbao and Tottenham (ha!) last year – and an early exit would have an even bigger impact on the Club than actually winning it.
Beside the endless-although-harmless jokes from anyone else but us, the image of the Arsenal will suffer a big blow and another European failure – on a competition perceived as softer and easier – would harm us financially and in sporting terms, with a direct impact on our chances of recruiting players next summer.
It’s going to be Arsène Wenger’s job to find the good balance between fielding a strong, fluid and reliable team and saving some his stars’ legs, when possible; senior players like David Ospina, Alex Iwobi, Theo Walcott, Mohamed Elneny and Per Mertesacker should definitely play a big part in our European journey but I’m totally against playing to different sets of players in the league and in Europa League; recent games have shown how difficult it is for Arsène Wenger to find a balanced team that can perform, it would be completely irrational and irresponsible to throw youngsters and fringe players on the pitch when travelling to Belarus or Serbia, even Germany to face FC Köln.
Europa League should not be Arsène Wenger’s laboratory to run tests and try extravagant tactics, or even to give a chance to this or that player to build his fitness but should be a serious environment to field a strong, experienced team and then give youth a chance to taste European football – smoothly and safely.
Players like Reiss Nelson should be the cherry on a well-baked cake, not the main meal Arsène Wenger is serving to us; the home game against FC Köln on Thursday will tell us what are the intention of the manager and what we can expect from our European tour – I hope and expect it to be a very serious matter.