Many teams will have welcomed the international break. For some, it served as an opportunity to nurse key players back to fitness. For others, it provided a chance for the type of intensive training ground work that has not been possible for much of the campaign due to the congested calendar. Arsenal would perhaps have preferred to continue playing following a four-match unbeaten run and with a single loss of their last six top-flight matches, or two in ten if you include the Europa League.
A 2-1 victory over Tottenham Hotspur in March was among their strongest performances of the season. The Gunners then proceeded to drop two points against West Ham but their fightback from 3-0 down after 32 minutes was impressive.
At first glance, Arsenal appear to have little riding on the remainder of the Premier League season. Mikel Arteta’s men are nine points adrift of the top four, and it does not look likely that they will make up that deficit in their remaining nine matches. They are also in no danger of relegation, as Roy Keane predicted in November.
Yet Arsenal are currently on course for their lowest finish since coming 12th in 1994/95. Arsene Wenger’s tenure had clearly run its course towards the end but the Frenchman never finished lower than sixth during his 22 years in north London. The Gunners failed to secure a top-four finish in only two of Wenger’s seasons at the helm.
Some may argue that it does not really matter what position in the table Mikel Arteta’s side occupy after 38 games if it is not in the top four. It could even be viewed as preferable for Arsenal to finish eighth rather than seventh if that allows them to avoid the Europa League.
Proponents of that view would contend that a year out of Europe could aid Arsenal’s top-four ambitions, yet a club of their size should be targeting participation in continental competition season after season. Arsenal would also be less attractive to potential recruits if they missed out on the Europa League. A second consecutive campaign outside the top seven – they finished eighth in 2019/20 – would hardly indicate a club moving in the right direction.
Arsenal are out of the FA Cup and the League Cup, but they are through to the quarter-finals of the Europa League. Should they win that tournament and thus qualify for the Champions League group stage, their position in the final Premier League standings would matter less. But Arsenal would be making a mistake by putting all their eggs in one basket. Such an approach was promoted in 2018/19, and Arsenal went on to be beaten comfortably by Chelsea in the Europa League final.
Nor should success in that competition be taken for granted. Manchester United, who have amassed 15 more points than Arsenal domestically, are the favourites to lift the trophy. Villarreal, Ajax and Roma will also hope to go all the way. Slavia Prague, who Arsenal face in the quarter-finals, have already knocked out Leicester City and Rangers.
For the most part Arsenal fans retain faith in Arteta, and the Spaniard has shown enough in his 15 months at the helm to deserve their trust and patience. But while it is difficult to envisage Arteta losing his job in any circumstances this summer, a poor end to the campaign would significantly increase the pressure on him heading into next season.
It makes sense for Arsenal to prioritise the Europa League from this point onwards, but they must also strive to finish as high up the Premier League table as possible.
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