By Blair Newman, Football Whispers
Last season was one of numerous unpleasant firsts for Arsenal. They finished behind rivals Tottenham Hotspur for the first time in 22 years, finished outside of the Premier League’s top four for the first time in 21 years, and missed out on Champions League qualification for the first time in 20 years.
As a result, they find themselves competing in continental action on Thursday nights as opposed to the traditional Tuesday and Wednesday evening affairs. The Europa League is their new midweek home, and it’s unclear how they, as a team, will react to this.
Arsene Wenger has included a multitude of youngsters in his squad for tonight’s opener against Koln, while several experienced stars are set to be rested. Petr Cech, Laurent Koscielny, Granit Xhaka, Mesut Ozil and Alexandre Lacazette are among those set to miss out.
This news gives weight to the notion that Arsenal will not be treating the Europa League particularly seriously. By leaving out so many key individuals, their chances of progress will undoubtedly be hampered. Here our friends at Football Whispers argue that the opposite approach should be taken.
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Last season, Manchester United struggled to convince. Jose Mourinho’s first term in charge was pockmarked by constant tactical adjustments, a negative mentality in big games, and an unwillingness to take risks.
In the end, they were unable to penetrate the Premier League’s top four, finishing sixth in the table. It was a disappointing finish, but they were granted access to the Champions League nonetheless. This was due to the fact they knocked out the likes of Saint-Etienne and Celta Vigo before defeating Ajax in the 2016/17 Europa League final to clinch a spot at Europe’s top table this season.
Arsenal would be wise to follow Manchester United’s example and focus on the continent’s secondary competition as a means to reaching the continent’s top club tournament. If they don’t, they are unlikely to find much opportunity domestically.
Of last season’s top four, few look significantly worse than before. Reigning Premier League champions Chelsea have bolstered their squad, as have Manchester City. Tottenham Hotspur, meanwhile, look certain to grow together as a young team full of promise and quality, while Liverpool look like an increasingly dangerous attacking outfit.
Manchester United have also strengthened, with the additions of Romelu Lukaku and Nemanja Matic reinforcing the spine of an already solid unit. This leaves Arsenal, fresh from a chaotic summer of want-away player speculation and underwhelming spending, on the outside looking in.
Considering the talent on and off the pitch the rest of the league’s best have managed to assemble, Wenger’s side look more and more like a top-six settler, as opposed to a top-four challenger. This has only been confirmed by their start to the campaign, featuring a disappointing 1-0 defeat to Stoke City and a comprehensive 4-0 mauling away to Liverpool.
Arsenal’s chances of Champions League qualification through the Premier League may look poor, but the Europa League offers a far friendlier vista. Pitted in Group H alongside BATE Borisov and Red Star Belgrade, as well as Koln, they are heavy favourites to seal top spot and a safe progression to the knockout rounds.
The draw could have been much tougher on the Gunners. While their top seeding gave them an advantage, they could have had sterner second seed tests than BATE. Nice, Marseille, Hertha Berlin and high-flying La Liga side Real Sociedad were all options. Likewise, compared to other third seeds Koln appear simple; Hoffenheim and Atalanta would have provided more complex challenges.
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Thus, Arsenal have a great chance at topping their group and ensuring a kinder draw for the round of 32. From there, anything is possible. The presence of AC Milan, Lazio, Villarreal and the Champions League drop-outs may at first disconcert, but Wenger has shown his ability to master victory in one-off situations.
While the Frenchman hasn’t picked up a Premier League title since 2004, he has won a variety of cup competitions since then. In the 13 years since, they have lifted the FA Cup four times and won the Community Shield on three occasions.
Last term, when most wrote them off, Arsenal knocked out Manchester City in the semi-finals before convincingly beating double-seeking Chelsea in the final to win the cup. That win essentially secured Wenger’s job for another two years and was enough to buy some crucial time in the eyes of a portion of the fan-base.
A similar feat could be accomplished in the Europa League. Their ability to win out in knockout ties could help them, and the two-legged format only gives them one extra opportunity to go through at every stage.
Arsenal may not see the competition as their priority right now, but in eight months’ time the scenery may not look quite so forgiving. They are in a dogfight for a top-four spot in the Premier League, and they aren’t the favourites to win. With that in mind, come next May, the Europa League may be their only hope of a return to the Champions League.