It’s the Europa League or bust for Arsenal.
The competition that Arsene Wenger has treated virtually as an afterthought this season could end up being his savior. For the increasingly beleaguered Arsenal manager, things have got that desperate.
A sobering 3-0 loss to Manchester City in the League Cup final on Sunday ended Arsenal’s chances of lifting domestic silverware. Eliminated from the FA Cup in humiliating fashion by second-tier Nottingham Forest in January, Arsenal is languishing in sixth place in the Premier League, 10 points adrift of the top four with 11 games left.
Wenger has long compared qualifying for the Champions League through its league position to winning a trophy, laughably to some critics. But not even that is likely this season.
So, Arsenal’s season now hangs on the oft-maligned Europa League, in which Wenger has been fielding reserve teams. Win it, and a back-door route to the Champions League opens up, like it did for Manchester United last season. Fail to win it, and even Wenger — English soccer’s great survivor — might struggle to talk his way out of this one.
One of England’s great clubs has become the butt of many jokes, and the legacy of its manager of 21 years was in danger of being tarnished. The performance against City exposed all the frailties that Arsenal has long been accused of: no backbone, no leadership, a poor attitude.
“There’s only one Arsene Wenger,” Arsenal fans chanted sarcastically as they poured out of Wembley Stadium before even the midway point of the second half. By then, some Arsenal players were strolling around in midfield, seemingly having given up and overwhelmed by City’s carousel of ball-players.
“You can lose finals,” Arsenal great Thierry Henry said, “but it’s how you lose them.”
A look at the issues facing Arsenal, on and off the field:
The long-serving Wenger was awarded another two-year contract extension after Arsenal won the FA Cup last May, though the team’s failure to qualify for this season’s Champions League was viewed as a “catalyst for change,” according to chief executive Ivan Gazidis.
Hollow words, many fans will have thought, but there has been a slight erosion of the 68-year-old Wenger’s power in recent months through the biggest overhaul of the Frenchman’s backroom staff since he was appointed in 1996.
In has come Sven Mislintat as head of recruitment, and former Barcelona director of football Raul Sanllehi arrived as head of football relations. Arsenal is seemingly preparing for life without Wenger, who will be readying himself for renewed questions about his future as he approaches the final year of his contract.
No one knows if Wenger plans to quit if Arsenal finishes the season without a trophy and a Champions League spot. That has never happened in his long reign.
Henry, Arsenal’s record scorer and currently a member of Belgium’s technical staff, said Monday he would be interested in replacing Wenger if there was a vacancy.
“Who wouldn’t like to be the Arsenal coach?” Henry said.
There are some big obstacles in Arsenal’s way in the Europa League.
Firstly, the team was handed one of the toughest opponents in the draw for the last 16: AC Milan. The Italian side is a shadow of its former self, like Arsenal, and is only in seventh place in the Italian league, but it has enough talent and experience in the team to eliminate Wenger’s men.
Wenger is also hampered by the ineligibility of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, the new signing from Borussia Dortmund who is cup-tied. With fellow striker Alexandre Lacazette out with a long-term injury, Arsenal is relying on the injury-prone Danny Welbeck or 18-year-old Eddie Nketiah.
Then there is the strength of the second-tiered European competition. Atletico Madrid, Dortmund, Lazio and Leipzig could all be viewed as better bets for the title than Arsenal, on current form. Arsenal, after all, just lost to unheralded Swedish team Ostersund in the second leg of its last-32 match.
There was talk of a new era at Arsenal after a 5-1 win over Everton in the Premier League, during which Aubameyang, another new signing in Henrikh Mkhitaryan, and Mesut Ozil linked up to great effect. That might have been a false dawn.
Since then, Arsenal has lost the north London derby to Tottenham 1-0, been embarrassingly beaten 2-1 by Ostersund, and then brushed aside by City in the League Cup final. It would be no surprise, too, if City beats Arsenal at Emirates Stadium in the Premier League on Thursday.
Aubameyang looked off the pace in the losses to Tottenham and City, and Wenger still has to sort out how he fits two playmakers — Ozil and Mkhitaryan — in the same team.
“SPINELESS, A DISGRACE”
Arsenal’s players were ripped into for their feeble performance against City in the League Cup final.
Former United player Gary Neville, commentating on the game, was highly critical, calling midfielders Aaron Ramsey, Granit Xhaka and Mesut Ozil “spineless” and their work rate “an absolute disgrace.” Former striker Ian Wright also picked up on Arsenal’s players walking around and said they were “insipid.”
Arsenal has long been accused of lacking leadership and authority at center back and central midfield, and nowhere was this more apparent than in City’s crucial first goal, when center half Shkodran Mustafi was muscled off the ball by Sergio Aguero from a long ball forward.
Wenger chose to strengthen his forward line in January by signing Aubameyang, rather than bringing in an experienced, reliable defender or midfielder. That could prove to be a mistake.
Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80