Unai Emery’s conundrum: What should be the priority for the rest of the season?
Three weeks, six games and a dream. Arsenal are entering the business end of their season, and can ill-afford any more slip ups, like Sunday’s 3-2 loss at home to Crystal Palace, if they are to be competing in the UEFA Champions League. However, a challenge still remains for Unai Emery, which competition does the Spaniard prioritise in Arsenal’s quest to join Europe’s elite next season?
Arsenal stand a great chance of achieving qualification for the Champions League through both the Premier League and the Europa League. However, as Sunday showed, Arsenal don’t have the squad depth to be able to compete on both fronts.
Sunday’s inept display, at home to a struggling Crystal Palace, highlighted just how bad Arsenal’s 23 man squad is. The midfield pivot of Mohamed Elneny and Matteo Guendouzi may just grab the award for worst midfield pairing in Arsenal’s history after both players turned out a solid 2/10 performance on Sunday. Along with a quite horrible defence, Arsenal are being forced to prioritise one competition in order to achieve their goals for the season. However, putting your Easter eggs into one basket is a risky business and could see the Gunners end up with nothing, especially given the fixtures that remain in both competitions
Premier League: hope away from home?
Away from home, Arsenal have been almost useless, picking up just six wins from a possible 16 in the Premier League. The Gunners have flattered to deceive away from home, and face a daunting run of fixtures in the coming weeks, which will almost certainly shape the future of the club.
With Wolves, Leicester and a relegation-threatened Burnley to come away from home, Arsenal have possibly the hardest run of fixtures of any of their top four rivals. Throw in a two-legged affair with Valencia in a Europa League semi-final and Emery will be wondering just what he did to deserve such a run of tough fixtures.
However, Arsenal have salvaged some pride away from home, putting in resilient displays away to both Watford and Napoli. It should boost Arsenal, ahead of two more difficult away fixtures in Wolves and Leicester, both of whom are coming into the fixtures off the back of good form.
Whilst the away form has been terrible, the home form has been quite sensational. Arsenal hold one of the best records at home in Europe this season, making the loss to Crystal Palace all the more frustrating. If Arsenal are to miss out on the top four, Emery would look back at the Crystal Palace game with some regret, given he rung the changes.
Looking at the fixtures, we can see that Arsenal have both Wolves and Leicester away before the first-leg of their semi-final tie with Valencia, providing quite the conundrum for Emery. The players have already run the hard miles in their preceding run of fixtures against Everton, Napoli, Watford and Crystal Palace, a run which saw Arsenal play five times in the last two weeks, with full strength XIs in four of those five games.
Burnout could become an issue for Emery, and whilst the players do get paid a ridiculous amount of money, there are very few top-level professional athletes that can cope with such a demanding schedule.
Along with the lack of squad depth and fitness issues, Emery also faces the almost unthinkable task of choosing which fixtures to prioritise. As mentioned above, Arsenal have a horrendous away record this season in the Premier League, however, they play two key Premier League games before they even kick a ball in their next Europa League game.
Full-strength XIs in the games for Wolves and Leicester means the players could well be burnt out for the first leg of that crucial Europa League tie, and as shown at home to the lowly Crystal Palace, Arsenal don’t have the squad depth to be taking the much bigger Spanish giants Valencia lightly. Emery’s resting of midfield players at home to Crystal Palace showed just how strongly Emery felt about the coming Premier League games, with both Torreira and Xhaka being rested from the start. I can sense your unease from just reading this, however, spare a thought for Emery, who faces the task of choosing which competition is the priority.
We should find out Arsenal’s fate Sunday afternoon, as the final whistle is blown at the King Power, if Arsenal are to do the expected and salvage points from both the Wolves and Leicester games, Emery’s selection headache both on the pitch and in prioritising will go on. However, if Arsenal continue their dismal form away from home, then it becomes quite clear to Emery that the Europa League is Arsenal’s only realistic hope of Champions League football.
If Arsenal are to lose both the Wolves and Leicester games, then Emery’s job would be easier, as a top-four finish will probably be off the cards, and focus can be placed on the Europa League. It would make the Brighton and Burnley games irrelevant and could even lead to some much-needed rest for Arsenal’s much-travelled (and depleted) squad. However, as Emery’s sporadic line-ups have shown over the course of the season, there is no knowing what the Spaniard will do. The best Arsenal fans can do is sit back and strap in, because the club is in for one hell of a ride through the next three weeks.