FootballPremier League

Europa League offers Mikel Arteta a chance to make immediate progress at Arsenal

February 17, 2020

THERE is little doubt that the Europa League has been a thorn in Arsenal’s side this last three seasons. It’s hurt the club’s bottom line, their ability to attract and retain talent [arguably] and the relentless cycle of the Thursday / Sunday schedule is an irritant to players and supporters alike. The group stages are, in truth, an interminable procession of dross, dead rubber piled upon dead rubber.

For many connected with Arsenal – players, supporters, directors – the principal attraction of winning the Europa League is not having to play in it. Since 2015, winning the trophy has brought with it the carrot of Champions League qualification which, when you think about it, is a significant self-own for the diminishing of the tournament’s status.

It also sums up a depressing truth about the sport in the 21st century, the trophy itself is a mere trinket, the Champions League qualification trumping the hoisting of silverware for entirely fiscal reasons. Arsenal were once mocked for their continuous qualification for the Champions League, their reliability at securing a top four finish at the expense of all other ambitions was seen as a punchline.

The discourse has shifted and now pretty much everyone accepts a truth that Wenger’s Arsenal teams, mired in stadium debt, were early adopters of. Having been absent from the competition for three seasons and counting, once again dining at the top table of European football has become an obsession and, if anything, pursuit of that goal has clouded decision making at the club and kicked it further into the long grass.

The decision to over-commit resources to late-peak players with little to no resale value on large salaries, the failure to sell valuable players close to the end of their contracts and a subsequent overhaul of coaching and executive staff has taken place since 2017. Losing Champions League football has damaged Arsenal and resulted in on-pitch and administrative chaos.

However, hidden among this avalanche of upheaval and a desire to break back into Europe’s land of milk and honey, Arsenal’s interest in the Europa League need not be simply platonic, but romantic too. The club has only won two European trophies in its history and hasn’t tasted continental success since 1994.

Winning the Europa League – especially in such a traumatic season where Arsenal, the club that has been the byword for consistency and reliability, has employed three different managers and two different captains – would represent glory for a club in need of it. [Relatively speaking, of course, fans of clubs in the Football League won’t be crying any tears because the Gunners have not won a major trophy since 2017].

A European trophy would represent an achievement the majority of the global fan base and fans under 30 have never seen before. Arsenal’s ‘brand’ in England remains strong as one of the country’s establishment football clubs, even a season of midtable mediocrity won’t change that, most people will suspect that hovering between 12th and 9th represents a temporary arrangement, as it did Chelsea in 2015-16 and as it did Liverpool during the Hodgson/ Dalglish years.

Arsenal’s ‘brand’ on the continent is not nearly as strong. They have never won the European Cup and though regular participants in the Champions League, they simply made up the numbers for the majority of their time in the tournament. Winning the Europa League is a trophy which offers glory in its own right. Arsenal have won fewer European trophies than Nottingham Forest, Aston Villa and Spurs and the same amount as West Ham – it remains a blight on their historic resume.

To readjust sight lines back to the bottom line, winning a continental trophy would be great for Arsenal’s “global brand” which has been damaged by mismanagement in recent seasons. Critics often sneered that Arsenal treated Champions League qualification “like a trophy”, the phrase itself based on a misquote from Arsene Wenger.

Winning the Europa League would hoist the Gunners back into the Champions League, but with a flourish and a bus parade. On this occasion, it would literally be a trophy and the process of celebrating it ought to become a tangible symbol of Arsenal leaving behind a period of transition and managed decline.

champWinning the FA Cup in 2014 and drawing a 9-year trophy drought to a conclusion was supposed to represent this break with decline too, but it never quite materialised with Arsene Wenger’s waning powers. Six years on and with greater administrative stability and a bright young coach at the helm, winning the Europa League would be a glorious and fitting way for Arsenal to both make a trying season worthwhile and build a platform for a better future.