So for yet another season, Arsenal have been involved in the Europa League – the proverbial ugly duckling of European football’s elite competitions. Nothing like the glitz and glam of the Champions League, and the added caveat of having to get used to the Thursday/Sunday schedule too.
The Gunners’ previous two campaigns have seen them go incredibly close to winning the whole thing, with Arsene Wenger leading the Gunners to the semi-finals in his final season in charge, and Unai Emery taking them to the showpiece finale in his debut campaign. Certainly nothing to be embarrassed about in terms of how far they have gotten in their two attempts.
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But there is no denying that the north London side may have achieved Champions League qualification in either of those campaigns if they had simply planned things better. When Wenger got the club to the semi-finals to face Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid, the Frenchman simply rejected the notion of trying to freshen things up or rotate a bit.
The first leg that saw them draw 1-1, saw him make just two changes from the team that beat West Ham only four days earlier. And then before the return contest in Spain, Wenger made numerous changes against Manchester United in an attempt to almost rectify his prior mistake, this time fielding youngsters like Reiss Nelson, Konstantinos Mavropanos and Ainsley Maitland-Niles.
It was indecision of the highest order, not knowing what to prioritise and how best to juggle fighting for the top four and challenging for the Europa League. It was a challenge that plagued Emery last year too, most notably in the way he quite dreadfully made a whole host of changes in the 3-2 home defeat to Crystal Palace.
Fringe players like Carl Jenkinson, Mavropanos and Mohamed Elneny, amongst others, were brought in, and the Gunners missed the chance to go three points clear of fifth-placed Chelsea with just four games to go.
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Both Wenger and Emery found it far too big a task to decide which competition needed prioritising, and then when it appeared they looked to have decided on one, it was rather too little, too late.
Mikel Arteta must ensure that he has learned from his two predecessors’ mistakes in the art of decisiveness, and be a bit bolder in respect to what he feels is the best path to success.
Judging which teams are left in the Europa League and what their run-in for the Premier League looks like must all be assessed properly, and with a bit more care and thought. The Gunners have already been burned twice by two different managers. Arteta must ensure it doesn’t happen for a third time.
With the next round of Europa League fixtures in late February, Arteta has just over a month to plot out his path.