Arsenal’s Europa League campaign got off to a strong start last week as the Gunners overcame Ukrainian outfit Vorskla Poltava by a 4-2 scoreline at the Emirates Stadium. A well-taken brace for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang ought to give the striker a confidence boost, whilst Danny Welbeck and Mesut Ozil also found the back of the net.
Lucas Torreira and Stephan Lichtsteiner both made their first starts for the club, Bernd Leno got his first taste of life between the sticks in North London and exciting youngster Emile Smith-Rowe made his bow at senior level. The only drawback from Unai Emery’s perspective will have been the two late goals his side contrived to concede, meaning his wait for a first clean sheet as Arsenal boss would go on a little longer yet.
The Spanish coach’s team selection was largely as expected and confirmed that he would seek to rotate in some of his lesser used squad players for these group stage encounters at least. In that sense, Emery’s approach to the tournament is comparable to how Arsene Wenger addressed it last season. For that reason, Emery must be wary of repeating the mistakes of his predecessor.
Up until the latter stages of the competition last season, at which point it had become unarguably clear that the Gunners would fail to qualify for the Champions League via the traditional means of top four placement in the Premier League, Wenger deployed an almost entirely second XI for every Europa League clash.
The fact that his side made the semi-finals, at which point his first choice team were eliminated by Atletico Madrid, suggests that this approach was somewhat successful. However, there were consequences for this system of heavy rotation which harmed the Gunners’ cause in both domestic and continental competition.
Wenger’s Europa League team became defined by their separation, which in turn created division in the squad as a whole. This ‘B’ team, in essence, were implicitly deemed to be the inferior players at the Frenchman’s disposal.
This state of affairs created an unhealthy chasm in the group, which led to a lack of competition for first team places and ultimately resulted in something of a squad exodus. The senior staples of that second string – Theo Walcott, Olivier Giroud, Jack Wilshere – all recognised their demotion and were gone either by January or the end of the season.
In terms of the progression of the squad this overhaul was a positive development overall as it precipitated the arrivals of the likes of Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Lucas Torreira, who all represent upgrades upon those who came before them. However, too much change too quickly has a destabilising effect, and Arsenal have known plenty of change in recent times.
Steadying the ship begins with reducing the amount of alterations – whether drastic or relatively minor – being enacted at the club. For Emery, that process of reintroducing stability to proceedings ought begin with his negotiation of the Europa League.
That isn’t to say that Emery shouldn’t rotate his squad for these fixtures, but he shouldn’t allow such a clear delineation between his Premier League XI and Europa League selections to occur again. Not only is this unhealthy for the competition levels within his own ranks but it interrupts any fluency or momentum his side may be gaining.
What’s more, the Europa League is a competition that Arsenal have to take seriously this season. In Emery they have a coach who has won the tournament three times already in his career, but, for the Gunners, silverware-winning success on the continental stage is an unfamiliar concept.
As well as being a great opportunity for the North London club to land a rare European title, a Europa League triumph is likely also the most viable route back to the Champions League available to Arsenal this season considering the strength of their Premier League rivals.
Rather than waiting for when – and indeed if – his team reaches the business end of the Europa League before making it a priority, Emery should be taking the tournament very seriously from the off. Not only will this give his team a greater chance of glory, but it could also aid their league campaign.
As Emery seeks to implement a new style of play at Arsenal, those extra Europa League games are a great opportunity to give his key players additional experience of playing in this new system.
If Arsenal are serious about being in contention on all fronts they must first ensure that they’re setting out to compete in all arenas. A Europa League triumph, and the Champions League inclusion that comes with it, would be a wonderful way to mark the beginning of the Emery era but that will only come if the Gunners commit to the competition from the start.