Arsenal should give Europa League precedence after settling for a loss to Man Metropolis
LONDON – It often happens that European competition becomes more important than national activities and Arsenal have certainly now reached that point. Same goes for Manchester City, especially given the responsibility that Pep Guardiola sees for the Champions League success as the ultimate validation of his methods. But they can focus on the round of 16 against Borussia Mönchengladbach, which is almost free of concerns in the Premier League after a simple 1-0 win over the Gunners at the Emirates Stadium restored their 10-point lead at the summit.
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Meanwhile, Mikel Arteta does not have such comfort. Arsenal's defeat in the 11th division of the season puts them 11 points behind the top four, which means that qualifying for the Champions League – an essential financial and football goal – will most likely be achieved through the Europa League.
It will be difficult to win Europe's second-rate competition, of course, but the success of the FA Cup final last season highlighted Arteta's ability to prepare a team for knockout matches. If anything, it is a leadership skill that he has developed more than his senior management. This criticism first appeared when Southampton Arsenal were eliminated from the FA Cup in January.
However, one could argue that no matter which team Arteta picked, Arsenal would have been beaten on Sunday.
City extended its jaw-dropping run to 18 consecutive wins in all competitions with a win that has never been in doubt from the moment Raheem Sterling scored after 77 seconds. Guardiola's side were already working with their usual bragging rights on the ball and Riyad Mahrez should be commended for the accuracy of his delivery from the right, but it's a damn charge against Arsenal's defense that Sterling, only 5-foot-7, was allowed to rise unmarked and lead a header past goalkeeper Bernd Leno.
Arsenal have been too tired to have a real fight against Man City as the schedule keeps getting strained. At this point, they should do their best for the Europa League. John Walton / PA Images via Getty Images
The Gunners regrouped in the face of an early attack, but the truth is City slacked off afterwards and was happy to control the game through conservative possession. Both teams played from start to finish as if they knew the end result and were ready to save themselves for what comes next.
For Arsenal it is certainly the biggest game of the season so far. The round of 16 of the Europa League against Benfica is about to reach the 1-1 final. Arteta called an unchanged line-up for that game from their previous game against Leeds United, the first time the Spaniard had done so during his tenure and an understandable decision given the offensive fluency they showed against Marcelo Bielsa's side. But the kick-off effect was certainly felt here, even with five changes in the team.
Bukayo Saka did his best to carry a threat of attack for the hosts and combined positively with Kieran Tierney on the left, but they both looked tired in the end, especially Tierney. Hector Bellerin was far from his best in his eighth consecutive start. At least Emile Smith Rowe got a break except for the last 18 minutes. Martin Odegaard, on loan from Real Madrid, started his third game in a row but was unable to influence it in the way Arteta would have hoped.
The same was true of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, whose three games in seven days sum up his current inconsistency: a hat-trick against Leeds, followed by waste against Benfica and anonymity against City. He had only 19 touches in the entire game, the least of all players who played 90 minutes, closely followed by Nicolas Pepe (22), whose overwhelming 73-minute display underscores the importance of money to Arsenal they have to spend wisely when trying to match teams with much more financial strength. At £ 72million, Pepe cost more than any other player on the pitch, but he was probably the most peripheral.
"With the schedule we have, it's really tough. We don't have time to recover, very little time to prepare for a game," said Arteta after the defeat on Sunday. "For example, we couldn't prepare for the game on the field against City because we didn't have enough time. But we have to get used to it.
The need for Arsenal to do everything right in the transfer market is heightened by the major financial bottlenecks the club is facing – exemplified by the first-team wage cut and 55 non-playing layoffs – but without it it would add to revenue from European football. There are tons of complications, but the fifth-placed team and FA Cup winners are going to the Europa League next season. The sixth-placed team qualifies for the first Europa Conference League.
Arsenal are six points behind defending champions Liverpool in sixth place – it's not an insurmountable hurdle but if the past few days have suggested something Arsenal may need to prioritize from here.
The European places drop to seventh place if the FA Cup winners get into the top six.
Arsenal will travel to Greece on Wednesday to face Benfica and then face a quick turnaround with a trip to Leicester on Sunday starting around noon. It's a busy schedule, compounded by the COVID-19 restrictions that have resulted in Wednesday's game being moved to Athens, and presents Arteta with a similar puzzle to the one he faced this week: a major European one Game followed by a sculpted domestic rival.
"It's hard because everyone wants to play and everyone wants to be available for every game," said Arteta. "Everyone is doing their best to be available at all times, which I really appreciate. But there are many players who are tired, they have played so many minutes and unfortunately we don't have enough players to replace them."
The mounting evidence suggests that Arsenal simply isn't strong enough to survive on both fronts. So Arteta has some tough decisions to make.