As you’re no doubt aware by now, next season’s fixture list is out. With it also came out a few articles trumpeting ARSENAL FIXTURE CONGESTION NIGHTMARE, as a glance at the schedule shows that Arsenal’s first Sunday game after a Europa League Thursday night is...Chelsea at the Bridge. Suboptimal, to be sure. But to read these articles makes it sound like Arsenal are facing a challenge the likes of which has never been encountered before, and that they will be uniquely burdened in a way that will permanently hinder their progression back to the Champions League.
But here’s the nasty little secret: it’s not any worse than it ever is!
Yes, it’s suboptimal to play a Thursday/Sunday schedule. We know this. But, with the exception of games at Chelsea and Manchester City, the rest of the post-EL games are against Southampton, Huddersfield, Everton, and Brighton. These are all eminently winnable games, so even if you are inclined to chalk off the City/Chelsea games as automatic losses - which you absolutely shouldn’t, given that Arsenal beat Chelsea twice last year and took a point from City - it’s not like those two losses will doom Arsenal’s season.
What will doom Arsenal’s season, absolutely, is if Arsene Wenger does not do two things: learn to love squad rotation and, somewhat related, learn to be more proactive about the new and more varied tactical challenges he will face in the Europa League. For all of Wenger’s strengths, a willingness to shake things up is almost certainly not one of them - the three man backline aside, Arsene sticks with the same crew and the same tactics almost all the time, and if he does that this coming season, Arsenal will suffer.
Fixture congestion isn’t solely because of the Europa League, either; September, for instance, sees EL games, PL games, and League Cup games. This is Arsenal’s September: there are games on Saturday, Thursday, Sunday, Wednesday, Saturday, Thursday, Saturday. That is not all that much worse than having Tuesday/Wednesday CL games every other week, is it?
You’ll note that nowhere does this article say a schedule featuring the Europa League will be easy. It won’t; Arsenal, like all teams involved in European competition, have a very crowded schedule. But the fact that Arsenal are in the Europa League doesn’t make 2017/18 any worse than 2016/17 was, it’s just gonna be a different strain of challenging.
The one wild card, of course, is travel - EL teams tend to be further-flung than CL teams, so long away trips are more likely now. But guess what? It’s not like Arsenal fly commercially scheduled airlines and have to wait in line at Heathrow to get on their plane, only to find themselves wedged between the well-meaning grandfather who just wants to talk about how proud he is of his grandkids for the whole flight and the person who can’t seem to sit still. They fly charter. They’ll be fine.
And, should Arsenal somehow manage to survive the shark-infested waters of the early fixture list in a way that I know they’re capable of, look at the end of their league season:
That, friends, is a stretch of games that is very, very winnable. If Arsenal are there or thereabouts by the end of March, the season could end very, very well. Nobody ever writes about that part of the fixture list, though, because it doesn’t fit the narrative.
Manchester United seemed to manage the rigors of the Europa League fairly well last year, right? Sure, they finished sixth, but guess what, they’re in the Champions League this year, so a super-strong league finish wasn’t nearly as vital. I’m not sure that Arsenal’s task this season is any harsher than what MUFC faced last year. Arsenal can win the Europa League, after all, and I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to think that if the club is doing better in the league, they might de-prioritize the EL a bit, or vice versa. Either way, I’m not any more worried about Arsenal’s grueling fixture list than I am in a Champions League season, and you shouldn’t be either.