The cup competitions make it look worse than it is. Well, for now.
Arsenal’s “death run,” the one which will without question derail their title ambitions and leave them scraping the barrel for a place in the top four, only really comes into effect in March, when back-to-back Premier League games sees them face Tottenham, Chelsea, Manchester City, and Everton.
What is true, based on the wackiness of this season, is that last weekend’s result against Liverpool will for the most part be forgotten if Arsenal beat Manchester United tonight. It will take them above Chelsea in the league, with Sunderland, Stoke and Swansea as the next three league fixtures.
The problem, though, is the cup competitions. Arsenal emphasise the importance of the Champions League, not as another means to ending the trophy drought – I don’t believe there are too many at Arsenal who believe this team to be complete enough to challenge Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and the other English clubs on the European stage – but instead as a way of maintaining a status as one of the top clubs in Europe, as well as taking home the sizeable earnings that come with competing in the European Cup.
However, it’s going to get in the way. These ties against Bayern Munich will get in the way of the one trophy that is genuinely up for grabs for Arsene Wenger’s side. Moreover, the FA Cup doesn’t represent an easier route to silverware than the domestic title due to the need for consistency and a 100 per cent record from now until the end of the competition. After the mauling at the hands of Liverpool on the weekend, can there be too many Arsenal supporters going into the FA Cup tie on Sunday with absolute confidence of a win? Even if Arsenal do get past Brendan Rodgers’ side, there’s always the unpredictability that comes with playing lower league teams.
But such is the nature of the Premier League this season that slip-ups and dips in form can be compensated for and levelled out somewhere else down the road, perhaps even in the following game, as Arsenal have a chance to do against United.
It goes back to the argument that you don’t have to beat the best teams in the Premier League to win the title. As long as you’re making it up elsewhere – and providing other teams show equal inability to pick up maximum points throughout the campaign – it’s still very much attainable. Whereas in Europe, you do have to beat the best teams – something which Arsenal may not be able to do for a sustained period.
It makes ‘sacrificing’ one or both of the FA Cup and Champions League an understandable action; there is something else at stake which is arguably far easier to win. Due to the current squad size at Arsenal, a problem compounded by a lack of investment in the January window and the injuries to key players, it’s something which I’d advocate.
The issue is, how do Arsenal go about prioritising the Premier League without upsetting the supporters? For all the impossibilities of reaching the Champions League final – the quality of those around Europe and the vast sums of luck that often goes hand-in-hand with the champions – supporters nevertheless want to be a part of the occasion of European nights, especially when it involves clubs like Bayern.
As well as that, sacrificing the Champions League, through the fielding of a ‘weakened’ team, doesn’t really fall in line with the ticket prices fans are paying at the Emirates. It’s less of an issue in the domestic cup competitions, however.
And then look to the possible knock-on effects of being dumped out of Europe: the decline in morale in the players, the sense that the team can’t get the job done from the fans, the subsequent failing to pick up maximum points in the league. But it’s a gamble. When clubs are in positions such as this, they have to take risks and hope that what they bank on pays off.
Arsenal don’t have the squad to juggle three competitions. It’s not a failing of the team as individuals; they’ve shown in the past that they can get results at some of the biggest teams in Europe.
Of course, the criticism is that this could have been avoided. For all the funds now available to the manager, the squad could have been better prepared, both at the start of the season and in January prior to this run of fixtures. Moreover, the managing of players like Aaron Ramsey could have been far better, not playing him in every game and taking further care with his return from injury.
But it’s the situation the club are in now. They can either focus their strengths on the one piece of silverware that is very much waiting to be snapped up, the Premier League title, or they can see how far this limited squad can be stretched over three competitions, with the most probable outcome being further injuries, eventual losses right across all three fronts, and a final battle to secure a top four place. It shouldn’t be too difficult to come to a conclusion.