The high of Arsenal’s brilliant performance at Stoke City on Saturday soon made way, at least in some quarters, on Sunday, when Liverpool eased to victory over a poor West Ham United side. Three points for the Reds effectively ended the Gunners hopes of playing Champions League football yet again next season, with only an extremely unlikely set of results for Manchester City or Jurgen Klopp’s side making it now possible.
For the longest time, this has been Arsene Wenger’s ‘thing’ – an innate ability to finish in the top four, regardless of circumstances at Arsenal or indeed other clubs.
Now that that has gone, it is perhaps another stick to beat him with, and I am sure some will. However, I do not want to make this a Wenger In or out piece. Instead choosing to look at what next season will mean for the club, playing in Europe’s secondary competition for the first time since losing the 2000 UEFA Cup (as it was then) final.
Perhaps the biggest question we will face this summer is how the offer of Europa League football will sit with the likes of Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil, and anyone else whose contract is on the verge of expiry. The prospect of Thursday night football, when the rest of Europe’s big boys dine at the top table, will not help smooth negotiations for our hierarchy, that is for sure.
Nevertheless, it need not be overly negative for the rest of the squad. Of course, the hope is we add quality in the necessary areas over the summer, allowing us to battle on four fronts once again next term, get back into the Champions League and most importantly, challenge for the title.
In my eyes, the group stage of the Europa League could be exactly the type of experience young players like Rob Holding and Callum Chambers will need to grow. A back three of those two plus a more senior figure of Laurent Koscielny or Skhodran Mustafi or even Nacho Monreal could develop nicely in a set of group games we should come through relatively unscathed. I hope that neither is to be farmed out on loan, allowing the English pair to build up a rapport at the back. Away from the full glare and Europe’s elite, this would be a great chance to gain experience against unknown quantities and stand them in good stead for the future.
It is true that the pre-Christmas phase of the competition can see teams travel to unknown European backwaters, but as a club, we have enough pedigree on the continent to survive to the knock out round. It will also give squad players, like Mo Elneny, Alex Iwobi, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and even perhaps Jack Wilshere a stage to thrive on, build some confidence and push the more senior members of the squad. Any youngster who attempts to use the competition as a platform to show their worth will be fine by me.
Once February rolls around, there may be a chance to take stock, see where we are at in the league and decide how we approach the latter phases of the competition.
If we were in the hunt for the league title, that would have to of course take precedence, but so often by this time in the season, we’re unfortunately well off the pace. This point is when we could reintroduce our biggest names to European football, with Sanchez, Ozil and others all having had the winter off to concentrate on our domestic results.
Should we get as far as the quarterfinals of the Europa League, I would want us to go hell for leather to win it. It’s no real secret that while Arsenal are a big club in England, our record and trophy haul in Europe still leaves a lot to be desired. Tottenham have never taken the competition seriously, but the likes of Chelsea and Liverpool have both contested finals in recent years, and Manchester United will do soon when they play Ajax in a fortnight’s time.
Perhaps it is just me trying to make the best of a bad situation, but I for one am looking forward to a change from the monotony of negotiating Champions League groups with Borussia Dortmund and then drawing Bayern Munich or Barcelona, regardless of where we had ended up after six match days. I am bored of the inevitable last 16 exit and heckling of other fans, which comes with it. Truth be told, I am bored of not being quite good enough.
Maybe, if we are being very honest, the Europa League is our level right now. We have had a disappointing season this year, but this competition could be a chance to be taken seriously again. Contesting and actually winning something outside of England is nothing to be sniffed at, and winning it three times in a row did Sevilla’s reputation no harm at all.
Yes, it is the Champions League’s ugly step-sister, but nobody at our club will be laughing too much if Jose Mourinho and United lift the trophy in Stockholm on May 25th. Moreover, if that poor excuse of a team can reach the final, surely we can give it a good shot ourselves.