EDITOR’S NOTE: Another day, another new author. Welcome Aaron Lerner!
If you hadn’t heard, or had just forgotten as part of a coping mechanism, Arsenal will be taking a tour of lesser known European cities this season in the NIT of European club football. Yes, the Gunners might find themselves spending a lovely Thursday evening in Luhansk, Ukraine or Zlín, Czech Republic sometime this fall. All jokes aside, participation in the Europa League gives Arsenal an important second avenue to return to the Champions League next season.
I know there are many supporters who believe that Arsenal should challenge for the Premier League every season, who want more for the club than fourth place trophies and FA Cup wins. I am not in that camp. I am happy to see a top 4 finish, Champions League football, and the occasional title challenge like we saw in 2015-16 (and please don’t get me started on that gigantic missed opportunity). So for me, this season is a success if Arsenal get back to the Champions League.
And winning the Europa League is the easier way to do that.
On its way to winning the Europa League, Manchester United defeated Fenerbahçe, Feyenoord, Zorya Luhansk, Saint-Étienne, Rostov, Anderlecht, Celta Vigo, and Ajax. No disrespect to any of those sides, but that’s not exactly a murderer’s row. Those are all the types of teams that Arsenal should beat.
The path back into the top 4 is a more difficult one. Gone are the days of the clear-cut top 4 of Arsenal, Chelsea, City, United where Champions League qualification was basically a foregone conclusion. The Premier League is now a top 6 league – Liverpool and Tottenham have cemented their place in the challenge for those coveted four slots.
So how does Arsenal stack up in the league this season? As of right now, Arsenal have spent the fifth most of any Premier League team in the transfer market. They have been outspent by Chelsea (by almost £80m), United (by almost £100M), and City (by almost £160m). The window is still open, so Arsenal can still bring in reinforcements, but so can their big-spending rivals. Even though summer spending does not guarantee league success, it will be difficult for Arsenal to match the squad depth and keep pace with those three on a week-in, week-out basis. So to get back into the top 4, Arsenal will have to finish ahead of both Liverpool and Tottenham.
I think that the Gunners have a better chance of winning the Europa League than doing that. That’s not to say I don’t think they can finish ahead of those two (or any of Chelsea, United, and City), because I do. It just means that if you told me I could only bet on one of those two things happening, my money would go on the Europa League win.
But what about United’s 2016-17 Premier League campaign? Would I be happy with a similar group of results for Arsenal in 2017-18?
I wouldn’t be thrilled with it, but I’d be okay with it. In fact, I might be happier with a United-like campaign than I was with Arsenal’s 2016-17 season. Even though Arsenal finished 6 points ahead of United, United had a significantly better record against the other top teams (5-3-2) than Arsenal did (2-3-5, yuck). United just weren’t able to grind out results against mid- and lower-table teams like Arsenal were. I’d rather the Gunners be more competitive with the top sides and need to improve their consistency against lesser teams than be half a step behind the top sides while feasting on the mid- and lower-table. It would give me more hope and reason to believe in the team’s chances going forward.
Finally, as we have learned with Arsenal’s recent FA Cup triumphs, winning a trophy at the end of a season can (somewhat) salvage a disappointing campaign. Winning the Europa League would be no different. When Aaron Ramsey nodded home Olivier Giroud’s cross and Arsenal lifted the FA Cup was anyone thinking “but they really had a disappointing year and came 5th in the league?”
No. We were thinking “I love the Arsenal! Giroud to Ramsey might be the most attractive goal-scoring combination in the history of football. WE WON THE FA CUP AGAIN!”
Now imagine that feeling plus knowing we are back in the Champions League.