By Ben Reardon
It has been a tough few years for Arsenal.
The Gunners have fluctuated domestically and, while they won the FA Cup last term by beating Chelsea under the Wembley arch, they failed to qualify for the Champions League for the first time in Arsene Wenger’s 21 years as Manager.
Concluding a league season of discontent with a fifth-place finish, supporters called for the departure of the long-standing Frenchman throughout the course of the 2016/17 campaign – where they finished 11 points behind arch North London foes, Tottenham Hotspur.
The inconsistency of previous seasons has subsequently continued into the current one. The defeat away at Watford was a third loss in eight fixtures. It was a result which leaves them sixth in the top-flight.
Wenger’s men have been reduced to European football’s secondary competition, which they have every chance of winning. There are more incentives than just silverware as success in the Europa League will lead to a place back in the Champions League and an opportunity to be back among the elite sides of the continent.
It is a competition, that if approached seriously and in a professional manner, Arsenal should be in the mix as one of the leading contenders. They must look at Manchester United’s success in Stockholm in May when Jose Mourinho’s Red Devils defeated Ajax in the final to see that, while the Europa League needs to be respected despite the lack of enthusiasm shown by those at the Emirates Stadium, it is a means to an end with greater rewards for the winners’ in the long-term – albeit via an alternative route.
Arsenal’s leading lights have come under increased scrutiny following on from the frustrations of last season. Wantaway Chilean forward Alexis Sanchez was courted by the likes of Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain and, to their credit, the club stood firm, digging their heels in and refusing to succumb to the financial firepower from potential Sanchez suitors.
Mesut Ozil was also linked with a move away from the capital with Europe’s top-tier teams circling like sharks around Arsenal’s prized duo, while Alexandre Lacazette was recruited for a club-record transfer fee of £46.5m in July.
So far, Arsenal’s campaign in the Europa League has gone according to plan. Two games, two wins, proving that whilst their remains concerns with their Premier League form, their fixtures in Europe have provided a suitable escapism from domestic issues, which must be addressed sooner rather than later.
Arsenal’s first foray into Europe’s secondary tournament in two decades has seen them dispatch FC Koln 3-1 at the Emirates Stadium, in a clash marred by the backdrop of fan unrest, before at trip to Belarus, where they comfortably saw off BATE Borisov 4-2.
Arsenal are tasked with another visit to an Eastern European outfit when they head to the Serbian capital, where Red Star Belgrade lie in wait, in what will be a tricky, unknown quantity for the beleaguered Premier League outfit to overcome should they want to progress in the competition this season.
The Europa League also provides the under-pressure Wenger to experiment with his playing squad against so called ‘lesser opposition.’
The 67-year-old has used the competition to blood young and fringe players into the starting line-up, without the necessary pressure of a full-throttle, adrenaline-fuelled, top-flight domestic clash.
In their convincing triumph at Borisov, Wenger utilised his already youthful side to significant effect. Rob Holding, the 21-year-old centre-back signed from Bolton Wanderers last summer, netted in Belarus. He, of course, is used to Premier League experience, while the others on show are only just finding their feet at the North London club.
Reiss Nelson, Joseph Willock and Ainsley Maitland-Niles all started against BATE, while Marcus McGuane and Edward Nketiah both came off the bench to gain valuable first-team experience. Oh and a certain Jack Wilshere featured from the off after his injury set-backs over the last few years!
Given their prolonged two decades of finishing in the top four, Arsenal usually underwhelm in Europe the following campaign. The Europa League is a very good chance to wipe the slate clean and win something. They are on course to finish as group winners, but the likes of AC Milan, Marseille and Athletic Bilbao could await in the knockout-stages so it is a competition that is not to be scoffed at.
Arsenal must accept that they are no longer dining at Europe’s top table. However, this is a winnable competition. The Thursday-Sunday issue will come into play. Do the club really want that throughout a nine-month season? Well, they look miles apart from their fellow top four challenges so if they do want to play in the Champions League next season, this is likely to be the only way through, whether supporters like it or not.
Touch of class x