After topping their Europa League group in Unai Emery’s first season in charge with 16 points, Arsenal put up a limp display in the 1st leg of their Round of 32 encounter, an away day to forget at Bate Borisov which was a distant reflection of what was witnessed in the group stages of that campaign, further compounded by the sending off of Alexandre Lacazette. 12 months on, albeit in not so contrasting performances, the much-maligned French striker got Arsenal a priceless victory at Olympiacos as The gunners take a slender 1-0 advantage to the Emirates after edging the Greek side at the Georgios Karaiskakis stadium. A competition seen by many as a more realistic way of granting last season’s Europa League runners up entry into the much-coveted Uefa Champions League.
Arsenal more than ever needs to qualify for the Champions League as the weight of the clubs departure has already started to weigh in on its financials. The club reported a loss in revenue and is expected to report similar numbers in the coming financial year. With the fifth-highest wage bill in the EPL ( £232m) and the 9th in Europe according to UEFA’s report, Arsenal is spending Champions League money while being a Europa League club coupled with the fact they are a club that operates without direct owner investment. Figures obtained from forbes.com paint the perfect picture of how the club has struggled to grow financially in the last three years since its departure from the Champions League
In mid-November 2019, Arsenal were outright favorites to win the Europa League title at +500. But a mediocre, at best, last few months have seen those odds drop to +833, on average. Arsenal is now just the fifth favourite, trailing all of Man United (+583), Sevilla (+617), Inter Milan, and Ajax (both +717). Part of the reason they have dropped so far is a relatively tough Round of 32 draws with Olympiakos. While they’re still heavily favoured to advance, most of the top-four are perceived to have easier draws.
While Unai Emery’s side navigated their qualification into the next round of last season’s Europa League Round of 32 and 16 campaigns respectively with convincing performances at the Emirates to overturn ill-disciplined away day deficits, Mikel Arteta’s army have given themselves a chance to approach their first knockout fixture without the bag of nerves that they had to navigate at a similar stage last season.
Now despite overcoming away day disappointments last term with impressive wins at Naples and Valencia on their road to the final in Baku, a quite different Arsenal backline that relied on the fitness of the departed Laurent Koscielny and Nacho Monreal in defence now astonishingly seem to have a better rear guard structure with the likes of Shkodran Mustafi, David Luiz as well as 18-year old left-winger, Bukayo Saka forming an overly solid baseline rather than an expectedly combustible one.
Having registered five clean-sheets in his last nine matches in charge, the understandably inexperienced Mikel Arteta has obviously decided to establish a fairly stable defence as a basis to instil a slowly developing expansive approach that has seen Arsenal dominate games in the second half of matches and his Arsenal knockout record of 3 wins from 3 so far has given the Ex-Arsenal player enough credit in the bank to restore some belief in progressing further into knockout competitions, especially the Europa League.
However, like any infant coach making his first foray into management, there are several rooms for improvement, mostly offensive, especially if the gunners are to go one better than last season’s second-place finish in the second tier of Europe’s center stage.
While Aaron Ramsey might have been missed in the latter stages of the competition last season, the impact of French mates Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette was quite colossal as Arsenal fell one short of achieving the prime target in the Europa League. However, there was an impression that the former Ligue 1 duo would have to always combine together to grant Arsenal ultimate success in this competition in the 2018/2019 continental campaign.
Conversely, Arteta’s side has shown a different phase to their offensive game so far this campaign, with the renaissance of Mesut Ozil and growing influence of record signing Nicolas Pepe, who has restored some finesse to Arsenal’s creative instinct in the past couple of weeks. This fairly steady purple patch currently witnessed only serves as an indication to Arsenal’s expected offensive dynamism this campaign.
Such increasing attacking optimism is only further backed by the fresh effervescence Gabriel Martinelli has served multiple times in his debut campaign in Europe, with the Brazilian carrying the bulk of the goal threat in the absence of Aubameyang, coming only second to the Gabonese in hitting the target with 10 goals registered by the 18-year old prodigious talent so far this term.
While more experienced hands in the frame of Alex Iwobi and Henrikh Mkhitaryan have left the Emirates for pastures new, the teenage spark of the likes of Martinelli and Saka have surprisingly given the attack a more assuring, niche-inspired style of play that has shed light on an impressive first taste of first-team football. So far with their goal contributions, they have proven to be capable additions to the productive strength of this youthful Arsenal side.
Interestingly, possibly due to the Dubai winter training camp, the team seem to be expressing a more collective bond than was shown even at the best phase of Unai Emery’s 18-month spell at the helm at the Emirates. Little things really do matter and this was well highlighted during the celebrations of the last two goals scored by Alexandre Lacazette who was beginning to test the patience of even his most loyal fans especially before the trip to Dubai.
Such togetherness in the Arsenal dressing room is capable of giving the team a sense of belonging as they seek to banish the memories of a disappointing night in Baku following a disjointed performance in last season’s Europa League final.
In conclusion, while the performances of Lucas Torreira, Granit Xhaka and Mesut Ozil have inspired confidence in the Arsenal midfield, the key to finally unlocking the true dynamic potential of the team may well lie in how Arteta combines the pieces at his disposal in midfield and despite the qualities shown by the duo of Matteo Guendouzi and Dani Ceballos in the couple of games played under Arteta, a more free-flowing approach might be needed in the middle of the park if the Spaniard is to strike gold in Europe at the first time of asking. Perhaps the leadership qualities shown by David Luiz (ironically increasingly shown following Arteta’s arrival), who was an integral part of Chelsea’s Europa League campaign last term may well play a similarly pivotal role in ensuring Champions League football returns to Arsenal via the long route of continental engagement.
Post written by @KingHenrythefif and @Wf_SimonSeez on Twitter. To engage, leave your comments in the section below or on Twitter @canoncrested