What’s Arsenal’s best route back to Europe’s top table?
Background image: Kieran Lynam, CC BY 2.0
From 1998 to 2017, under Arsene Wenger’s guidance, Arsenal held Champions League status. Ever since the Gunners have missed out. They have two pathways into Europe’s elite club competition next season: finish in the Premier League top four or win the Europa League. Which is their most realistic?
Arsenal threatened to secure Champions League football via domestic route last campaign before three straight defeats in April. A chance blown, Unai Emery’s side finished fifth, one point off rivals Tottenham Hotspur. The Europa League final offered redemption. Losing 4-1 to Chelsea snatched it away.
An accustomed dejection enveloping the Emirates was somewhat lifted this summer owing to quality transfer business. North London’s red half spent the second-most of Premier League clubs to acquire talent including Kieran Tierney and Nicolas Pepe.
Adding Pepe to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette forms a deadly attacking trio, one which can overcome the staunchest defences. Throw in promising youth like midfield pair Matteo Guendouzi, Joe Willock as well as winger Reiss Nelson, Gooners have a reason for optimism. That was increased when starting this season with two victories, against Newcastle United followed by Burnley.
However, such buoyancy has since been tempered with realism. Arsenal are winless in their last three matches. Defeat to Liverpool, a draw against Tottenham, and most recently throwing away a two-goal lead to drop points away at Watford brings past problems back to the fore.
In order to compete at the highest level, Emery must address defensive deficiencies. His side’s eight goals conceded in their first five league games is bettered by 12 teams. David Luiz and Sokratis Papastatpouolous have been paired at centre-back in the last four contests. The former, in particular, is failing to convince. Each made a costly error against Watford.
The Premier League’s big six all expect to make the top four. Last season’s runners up, Liverpool have started quickest having maintained a 100% record. The other serious title contender, defending champions Manchester City have allowed an early five point-gap after a shock defeat to Norwich City. Arsenal’s main challengers for a Champions League spot are Tottenham, Manchester United, and Chelsea. All four sides are currently level on points. Leicester City, West Ham United, and Everton can’t be completely ruled out, either.
Next up for the Gunners is tonight’s Europa League clash with Eintracht Frankfurt. Standard Liege and Vitoria SC make up a winnable group. The competition’s stand out teams are Manchester United, Sevilla, Roma, along with Porto. That’s prior to those which finish third in their Champions League groups dropping down. Such may include Chelsea, Valencia, and Internazionale. Perhaps even one or two bigger European giants.
Arsenal’s unreliable defence puts their target of Premier League top four and Europa League success in serious jeopardy. A solution’s needed, quickly. Luiz partnering Sokratis either requires additional assistance or a direct replacement. Rob Holding, who’s been out injured for nine months, is an option once returning in the next few days. Moreover, Tierney and Hector Bellerin are both expected back from injuries before this month’s end. The two full-backs will sure up a leaky rearguard as they’re superior to their deputies, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Saed Kolasinac defensively.
Problems don’t all lie at centre-backs’ doorstep. Midfield also needs work. Lucas Torreira has mostly been used as a substitute during this campaign. That has to change. His ball-winning ability provides much-needed balance, giving Pepe, Aubameyang, and Lacazette opportunities to counter rapidly.
Should the Gunners resolve their issues, best-case scenario, they’ll scrape fourth place. Manchester City and Liverpool are the outstanding teams. Tottenham are next in line. Emery’s men, currently seventh, sit alongside Manchester United and Chelsea in terms of potential. The Europa League has a lesser standard for them to navigate. After reaching May’s finale, defeating star-studded Napoli en route, they’re a threat to any side in a cup format.
Still, Arsenal’s main focus should be the Premier League. Finding consistency there can aid their European push but the same isn’t true vice-versa. They possess the quality to achieve a top-four spot. Ironing out needless mistakes is enough to overcome their challengers come May.