Arsenal and the Europa League- A Marriage of Inconvenience

And so it came to pass that Arsenal’s best chance of not playing in the Europa League next season rests on winning the competition itself. For a clunky, unloved competition, it is perhaps apt that its greatest reward lies in the fact that you don’t have to enter it again for the next season.

The signing of Pierre Emerick Aubameyang and Mesut Özil’s new contract have removed a fraction of the urgency around Champions League re-qualification. After a decade or so of slightly sanctimonious parsimony (‘Arsenal don’t buy stars’ we were told proudly, ‘we make them’) the club has already entered the phase that Liverpool and Manchester United recently negotiated of frantically trying to spend its way back into the top four.

Arsenal have little option but to chase their losses and the Europa League is, symbolically and footballistically, the best place for them to do this now. Arsene will stake his shirt on the roulette table in sub-zero conditions on Thursday evening as the club’s managed decline bites like an icy gust of wind from the Storsjön lake.

As a supporter, it is fair to say I never really took to the Champions League. I love cup football, specifically knockout football. I recognise that I risk the mortal of sin of tumbling into “yer da” territory for admitting that I prefer the FA and League Cups in terms of excitement and intrigue, but there we are.

The Champions League is a tournament redesigned specifically and nakedly for wealth maintenance at the expense of suspense and entertainment. Cup football was intended as a break from the routine of the league structure and to add variety to the season. The Champions League fails to do this for reasons that are well documented and the wealth it creates has also served to make league campaigns all over Europe far less competitive.

It is important for Arsenal to re-qualify, but only as a means to an end. Within the structure of the Champions League, participation is winning and surviving is thriving (and the Premier League is aping this model too). Essentially, to qualify for the Champions League is to invest your lottery winnings- beneficial, but hardly exciting. As a result, I thought I might enjoy Arsenal’s participation in the Europa League this season, just for a change of pace.

The problem is that the Europa League mimics the dull, seeded group phase structure of its more glamorous cousin. The Europa League has long suffered a kind of identity crisis, to the point that UEFA have decided that its biggest prize ought to be entry into the Champions League. It’s unclear what winning the Europa League means or says, but I think UEFA have missed an opportunity to celebrate its difference by replicating the cold Champions League format.

The NCAA Basketball tournament (aka ‘March madness’) provides some inspiration in this respect. It embraces its status as a second class tournament with an experimental and fun format (including single match knockout ties). Nobody really seems to cherish the Europa League and the qualification criteria is so diffuse that it is basically a random assortment of teams thrown together by chance; so it seems a shame not to try to invigorate it with a more unique format.

I am not snobby about Arsenal being in the Europa League, but I must say that I found the group phase eye bleedingly tedious. I understood and supported Arsenal’s decision to muddle through the group stage with a scratch team, but it made for a series of disjointed performances against a clutch of poor sides.

The match in Borisov had the air of a pre-season friendly, with more than half of the home end comprised of locals in red and white shirts. The match itself also lacked any sort of intensity as a result, which served to make a slightly madcap 4-2 victory a pretty soporific affair. I was also in Cologne as Arsenal toiled quite ineptly to a 1-0 defeat but still somehow managed to win the group that evening anyway.

The safety net of the group phase makes the odd bad result entirely without consequence for the higher seeds, burgling games of meaning. The Thursday evening matches also lay waste to the domestic calendar. Even without the lingering interference of Sky and BT, the cycle of Sunday away matches has made Arsenal’s miserable away form all the more painful to endure, when viewed through the prism of replacement bus services, Sunday licensing laws and innumerable Monday morning hangovers.

Now, Arsenal have to hastily reconfigure their priorities and turn the Europa League into the season’s new centrepiece. The irony of course, is that the rotation policy adopted in the group phase was supposed to allow Arsenal the opportunity to focus on their league ambitions. Chelsea and Leicester City had previously benefited from Europe free campaigns and playing a scratch team in the group stage was supposed to create a similar marginal gain for the Gunners.

Now, if anything, Arsene is approaching the time where he might have to sacrifice league matches for the sake of the Europa League campaign. He has already emphatically confirmed that he will play the first team against Ostersunds- largely because ‘The Europa League team’ made such a balls of the FA Cup 3rd Round tie against Nottingham Forest.

That Forest took the B team apart so easily goes some way to illustrating how poor the opposition were in the group phase. The guts of the Europa League team have since been surgically removed too. Olivier Giroud, Theo Walcott, Mathieu Debuchy and Francis Coquelin were all sold in January. (The former trio all scored in Arsenal’s most recent Europa League match). Jack Wilshere has arguably become a member of ‘The A Team’ now, if you will.

Alexandre Lacazette did not kick a ball in the group stage, but should Arsenal’s participation in the knockouts outlast his knee injury, he will be central to their prospects of winning the tournament. The final takes place in his hometown of Lyon, which could provide a neat coda for a difficult first season in England.

It’s quite fitting that Alexandre Lacazette and Danny Welbeck are the men tasked with leading this charge. Their billing has slipped into a kind of Europa League style purgatory with the purchase of Pierre Emerick Aubameyang. Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s arrival provides an extra obstacle for Welbeck in the positions wide of and behind the main striker too.

In Arsenal’s giddy PR push for the arrival of Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang, I was a little surprised that there wasn’t a puff piece or two on Lacazette’s quality and importance. It can’t have been easy for him to see his relative demotion consolidated through a series of gifs and graphics. Hopefully Europa League glory can help him out of his funk.

The tournament has become an awkward marriage of inconvenience for Arsenal. They need to win it so that they can qualify for its more glamorous alternative. Lacazette and Welbeck are central to that aim as a surrogate to their more glamorous alternative, who is ineligible. Yet Welbeck and Lacazette ought to look upon this as an opportunity in its own right. Arsenal have been forced to downgrade their aspirations this season, but as it stands, they have more chance of rescuing the campaign than Aubameyang does.

Arsene is left with quite the plate spinning challenge as he frantically re-orders his team’s fading season. He needs to repair the damaged confidence (and knee ligaments) of his second most expensive signing and trust in his second and third choice strikers in pursuit of a competition that was second or third priority until now. There again, Arsene is pretty experienced in crisis management. He also has plenty of recent practice in partially salvaging seasons through cup competitions.

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If you’ll forgive me an indulgence, I have teamed up with Arsenal historians Mark Andrews and Andy Kelly to write “Royal Arsenal- Champions of the South”, a new book about Arsenal’s turbulent early years, from their inception in 1886 until they took the brave decision to turn professional. The book contains a lot of hitherto undiscovered detail and ought to be available in May. But you can pre-order a hardback copy here if you like.