What can Arsenal realistically achieve this season?
Thursday’s debacle left me numb and speechless for over an hour. It was not so much losing and exiting the Europa League that really demoralised me, but rather the performance which demonstrated just how far Arsenal have fallen. At 0-0 (albeit 1-0 on aggregate), Arsenal seemed lethargic, despondent, and second to almost every ball. Part of this can be attributed to the sides four games in ten days, but the lack of rotation surely has to be questioned. We move on, however, and in this article I look at what the club can realistically hope to achieve before the end of the season.
The Premier League
As of present writing (2nd March), Arsenal sit eight points behind Chelsea, who occupy fourth place. Whilst the game in hand over their rivals must be taken into account, the huge caveat to this is that Arsenal’s game in hand is against Manchester City. Were CAS to uphold Manchester City’s two-year Champions League ban, then all of a sudden fifth place could well be good enough for qualification to Europe’s top table.
If this proves to be the case, then Arsenal sit just five points behind this spot, despite languishing in 10th place. With the last weekend alone seeing Tottenham, Manchester United and Chelsea all dropping points, any run of four or five positive results would both see momentum increase and also see Arsenal fly up the table with the potential to occupy on of these two places.
The smallest, smallest silver lining
Arsenal’s defeat to Olympiacos, whilst far from ideal, does at least offer the smallest possible positive- no more Thursday night games. This will both give Arteta more time to focus on the League and FA cup games, and also allow the players more recovery time between games, a factor which may be critical judging by how little rotation Arteta currently employs.
This point is especially poignant when it is considered that two of the challengers for European spots, Wolves and Manchester United, remain in the competition, and both sides have relatively small and injury-hit squads. Being in European competition certainly affects league form, as last years “race” for the top four demonstrated, so don’t be surprised to see Arsenal make up ground on these two sides at least.
Too little, too late?
Eleven games to play seems like plenty of time to catch those ahead of Arsenal in the league. Looking at the Gunners next few fixtures confirms this, hosting West Ham before visiting Brighton and Southampton.
However, look further, and a tricky run of fixtures in April and May sees the club go away to Wolves and Tottenham, as well as play host to Leicester and Liverpool. Factor in the postponed trip to the Etihad to confront current champions Manchester City, and the odds of Arsenal reaching Europa league spots, let alone champions league spots, are surely delicately balanced.
It is quite possible that Arsenal fail to make European football entirely. Would this be a bad thing? Although some may suggest it will allow the club to focus entirely on the league, the windfall that European competition generates combined with the need for Arsenal to spend in order to rebuild the squad means that missing out entirely would have huge ramifications on the summer budget, and would make make the departures of star players even more likely.
The FA Cup
Previous season’s woes in League and European competition have been ailed by success in the FA Cup. Despite their poor performances, Arsenal remain well in with a chance of winning this competition, although Monday’s game against Portsmouth cannot be taken lightly.
Wembley trips have an odd way of helping fans forget other problems, and it would be fantastic for the club if Arteta could guide the FA cups most successful side to another piece of silverware.
Trust in youth?
If Arsenal were to find themselves well out of the race for European positions, it might be best to once again write off the season and begin to plan for next year.
With this in mind, the likes of Joe Willock, Matteo Guendouzi, Eddie Nketiah and Reiss Nelson could find themselves with more minutes, along with Ainsley Maitland-Niles perhaps being given a run in his favoured position. Equally, youth prospects such as Folarin Balogun, a top striker in the youth academy, may well be afforded a few appearances.
In doing this, Arteta would be able to further identify potential in-house solutions which could save him money in the summer window, or at least provide further prove that additions are needed. Similarly, putting players in the shop window ahead of the summer window wouldn’t be the worst idea either.
Although Thursday’s result undoubtedly cast a dark shadow over the club, there is still plenty to play for and more broadly to use the season for. Provided Arsenal negotiate a tricky trip to Fratton Park on Monday, the FA cup remains a viable option, whilst with teams dropping points on a regular basis, qualification for Europe cannot be dismissed.
The key will be for the fans to remain behind the side, as they have done since Arteta took over. After all, it hasn’t been all doom and gloom- at least we remain the only side to ever go invincible in Premier League history.