While it is not as prestigious as playing in the Champions League, there is reason to be proud of the Gunners advancing in the Europa League, given what they have put into it. A 6-0 win against BATE sends Arsenal into the next stage on the right foot.
The round of 32 will include 12 top two finishers from the Europa Group Stage and eight third place finishers from the Champions Group Stage. Winning the group means the Gunners will get a "preferential" draw in the upcoming knockout round, scheduled for mid-February. An automatic ticket to the 2017/18 Champions League, of course, is the ultimate prize.
As you have seen, the team has not fielded their strongest first team players in the Europa League competition regularly. But the "B Team", consisting of of Reiss Nelson, Joe Willock, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, and other youth products playing with sporadic first team names like Olivier Giroud, Jack Wilshere, Theo Walcott, etc. has been impressive.
Not only has this B team challenged, these players of youth and experience respectively have succeeded in progressing the team in a European competition atop group H. Have you ever heard the phrase, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”?
The goal for the Gunners is simple: Get back to the Champions League for 2018/19, even if it is ugly. The Champions League qualification will increase attendance at games, build inspiration, assist with transfer market deals, gain Kroenke more money, etc. Everyone at the club wins with Champions League qualification.
But how to do that is a tricky question. Arsenal need to weigh their options very carefully if they want to return to Champions League action. Are we confident enough to believe Arsenal will finish in the Premier League top 4? Should we attempt to try and win the Europa League with our best starters similarly to how United did to return the Champions League next year?
There is enough reason to stay with the current plans and focus on a top 4 Premier League finish, as the odds are much greater than that of the Europa League route.
What to consider:
Arsenal's February 2018 Schedule Outlook
As of right now, Arsenal's schedule includes the following matches in the same month as the round of 32 Europa League games:
(A) [Europa League draw]
(H/A) [FA Cup 5th Round draw]*
(H) [Europa League draw]
(H) Manchester City
(N) [Carabao Cup Final]*
*Assuming Arsenal advance to the stages of these competitions
A tough month, to say the least. Especially if we assume that our race with Tottenham and City will be competitive come February in the Premier League. Arsenal will need to be playing their Premier League games with the best available players, in order to get through February with a decent chance of finishing 4th or higher. And remember, the league and FA Cup continue for another 3 months.
A Tough Europa League Draw
The remaining 31 [foreign] opponents Arsenal could see between the round of 32 and the final seem are very talented compared to last year. All the names below are clubs in the Europa League knockout round ranked ahead of Arsenal (ranked 32nd) in UEFA coefficient:
Atletico Madrid (14), CSKA Moscow (15), Lazio (18), Zenit St. Petersburg (19), Sporting CP (20), Spartak Moscow (22), RB Leipzig (23), Villarreal (24), AC Milan (25), Lyon (26), RB Salzburg (27), Real Sociedad (28), Napoli (29), Atalanta (30), and Dynamo Kyiv (31).
While coefficients are not always telling, they still indicate current form for a club in European play. Arsenal have the excuse that they rested their best performers which scored them lower, but there are some intimidating names in that list (Napoli, Atletico, Leipzig) that have shown quality in their league or in recent past. There is some stiff competition ahead for Arsenal in the Europa League, and arguably a lot more than what we see in the Premier League.
Resting For the Premier League
The rigor of the two UEFA Leagues lead to many injuries that can derail title campaigns. One example: last year Santi Cazorla went down in the Ludogorets match (and that injury is still being treated). In 2004, 20 injuries happened in a single day of games in the Champions League. Anecdotally, injuries are more prevalent in teams that play more games, especially against better competition. Moreover, injury studies do not include fatigue or the wear-and-tear that lead to injury from playing so many games across all competitions.
While admittedly their Europa League opponents have been less than impressive, Arsenal have been able to mostly bench their Premier League XI and let them rest for the domestic league, the idea beaing that rest would have a direct correlation to a healthier and more lethal Premier League XI.
If I am being honest, still sitting 5th on the table at 28 points almost half way through the season causes me some anxiety. The Gunners have only collected one win against the other top 5 this season. Even with resting the players, it is fair to speculate about putting too many eggs in the Premier League top four basket, given how Arsenal are currently positioned in the table.
Factoring all this in, I still believe Arsenal have what it takes to finish in the top four this year. Ideally, in the Europa League, Wenger would keep using his current “play the kids” strategy, to see if this B Team can get us closer to the final. But the Europa League should not be the priority.
Considering All The Options
With all the rumors of Jack, Giroud, Alexis, Walcott, Mesut Özil, and more being hot transfer commodities in January, we need to consider the team we will have left for the remainder of the season. This team is not deep enough to rest their Champions League aspirations on the balance of a two leg knockout round fixture or neutral venue cup final. The Europa League maybe a good time to continue giving our youth and inconsistent starters a chance to see minutes.
Mohamed Elneny, Calum Chambers, Rob Holding, Reiss Nelson, Eddie Nketiah, Joe Willock, Francis Coquelin, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Mathieu Debuchy, David Ospina, Alex Iwobi - the list goes on. All not getting the consistent first team minutes they seek. These are players that have the ability to prove their worth in bigger competitions while still playing against decent European opposition like those listed previously. The benefit of the strongest members of the squad being able to focus on the remaining opponents is vital to our Premier League campaign.
No fan wants to see a Liverpool-type Europa League failure in a cup final that would result in the Gunners out of Champions League play next year. United knew they didn't have the quality for a top 5 finish last year, there were no other options. Arsenal need to have the confidence to focus on England's top 4.
Despite the lack of change in our current table position, we have a better likelihood finishing ahead of 4th in the Premier League than we do winning the Europa League.