Arsenal take on Chelsea in the Europa League Final and this clash could put Arsenal’s plans in context rather than merely defining their current season.
Barely two months back, Arsenal were in pole position to finish in the top four and make a return to the Champions League. There was a point when Unai Emery’s side were tipped to leapfrog North London rivals Tottenham into third as the Gunners were on top of their form while Spurs were faltering after dramatically bowing out of the title race.
Arsenal have, instead, shot themselves hard on their foot and finished fifth. Arsenal have always forged a reputation for their immaculate end of the season form. Under Arsene Wenger, despite stumbling throughout the many seasons, they always found form in the last 10 games or so, but this time the scenario was different. Emery’s side secured wins in only 4 of their last ten games in the league, leaving their Champions League hopes to hang by a thread.
Their last seven games rather than the last 10 defined their season. Losing to Everton was a big blow, but they got themselves on track with an away win to Watford. That was followed by an impressive 1-0 away win at Napoli, but three consecutive defeats since to Crystal Palace, Wolves and Leicester City, all but ended their hopes of a top-four finish and the 1-1 draw to Brighton simply confirmed it.
However, Emery’s side have shown a penchant for knockout games in the Europa League this season and have performed at the very top level in the competition. Their form in Europe’s second-tier competition has been such that they were regarded favourites, until Chelsea, who rather silently crept into the Finals arrived onto the scene.
Arsenal fans would have been very much happy to play a Frankfurt side, but its their old rivals Chelsea that face them and the game is very much in the balance. There are no favourites when the two Londoners make a 6000 miles round trip to Baku, Azerbaijan, but it would be Arsenal’s future on the line if they lose this one.
Bringing Emery’s brand of football
In Arsene Wenger’s 22 years, a single season was spent in the Europa League, the rest among the elites of Europe. The Frenchman gave his best in his last season to win the Europa League only for a semifinal defeat to send them back to the second tier competition. Unai Emery has the chance to right the wrongs and propel Arsenal back into the Champions League.
Arsenal’s only significant achievement was being the losing finalist back in 2006. Since then they have stumbled at various knockout rounds, although never looked like a side that could win the ultimate prize. A return to the Champions League would be a treat for the fans as they could really see what Emery’s brand of ‘Knockout’ football actually is.
Unai Emery’s side have not performed well to take a top-four spot domestically, but in the Europa League, they have played rather admirably. Emery’s run in this season’s competition, especially in the knockout games brought a certain level of excitement back to the Emirates when they beat BATE, Rennes and their toughest opponent so far in Napoli over two legs each. Arsenal fans certainly need this level of entertainment, but more importantly it’s the excitement over how the team would perform against top quality opposition.
After spending more than £100 million on two top quality strikers, Arsenal suddenly are perceived as a club with no money to spare. A change of management, both on-field and behind the scenes have somewhat contributed to a more rigorous approach from the club. The Gunners did not have any money to spend in January after exhausting their £70 million summer budget.
This summer the money is even more crucial given the amount is only a reported £45 million. Arsenal have to make do with that as the board continues its stringent approach. The transfer landscape is changing with each window, and while other clubs can gather significant funds to spend, Arsenal are very tight with their purse strings.
There is one aspect of spending, while the other is if quality players would want to join the North London club. Arsenal’s approach has changed since Wenger left, and the appointment of Sven Mislintat brought enormous short term success. How things could be in his absence is simply a test Arsenal have not faced, but with Edu set to be their sporting director, the Gunners should look to find ways to attract good players.
Good players don’t want to play in the Europa League, and would undoubtedly prefer Champions League football. In case of Arsenal don’t make it into the competition next season, there are chances the club have to make do with lesser quality players. Emery has already signalled he gives no upper hand to superstar reputations; he certainly might lose the few left in the side without being able to replace them adequately.
Can Arsenal endure another season in the Europa League?
Certainly not! Two seasons in the competition after nearly two decades at the top has already seen its repercussions. Arsenal’s board have been stressing since the beginning of the season that they cannot endure another season in the Europa League. Financially it would be catastrophic for the side, while there could be the inferior perception surrounding the competition that could come to haunt the club.
Players like Alexandre Lacazette, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and Hector Bellerin could only take so much at a club hanging in the balance in Europe’s second-tier competition. These are elite individuals, and the least they would want is to play in the Champions League. A win against Chelsea would go a long way to ensuring their best stars get retained.
Lacazette and Aubameyang are linked with a move away from the Emirates, and it could be a reality for the club if they fail to qualify for the Champions League. Additionally, the prospect of becoming an also-ran team could loom hard on the Gunners, and it could take years for them to get back at the top level.
The last time Arsenal had such a game of importance was back against Leicester at the Emirates, where the Gunners triumphed, but the Foxes ran away with the title. In terms of defining their future, the Europa League final is the most important game the Gunners might be playing in a long time, and it is a chance for Emery to prove his worth at the club.
Simply put, a club like Arsenal, with all their ambition and plans for the future, cannot endure another season in the Europa League. They belong with the Champions League elite and it’s imperative they play there next season. Taking all the above points into account, for Arsenal to break away from this chain of second-tier European football, more for the fans here, they need to win against Chelsea and get back in the Champions League.