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Thursday, September 16, 2021

Why Europa League Failure Could Signal The End Of Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal Project

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It has been a dire week for Arsenal and Mikel Arteta. First came Saturday’s dismal 3-0 home defeat to Liverpool in the Premier League
. Then on Thursday further disappointment as Slavia Prague snatched a late equalizer in the Europa League.

While the first defeat likely ended Arsenal’s hopes of qualification for European competition through their league position this season, it is perhaps the draw with Slavia that will concern Mikel Arteta more.

Qualification for European competition next season through the league already looked difficult, even accounting for a relatively easy-looking run-in. The Gunners have been wildly inconsistent in the Premier League, and while few expected them to pull up any trees, they currently sit tenth, below Aston Villa, West Ham and Everton and just two points ahead of newly-promoted Leeds.

Even though Arteta has long stated his ambitions for the club in soccer’s fashionable vernacular of the ‘long-term project’, a tenth-place finish with the squad at his disposal – not the strongest in the league but by no means devoid of talent – would represent a considerable underachievement.

Since offering Arteta his public backing in December, Arsenal’s technical director Edu Gaspar has been conspicuous in his silence. And while public statements of support can sometimes be a kiss of death for managers, that silence inevitably raises questions about how the hierarchy view Arteta’s work.

In any long-term project there needs to be some sign of progress and though Arteta has consistently talked a good game, his side are showing little of it on the pitch. Against Liverpool, they were inert, the outfield players as passive as ten red training cones, without any clear plan of how to counter Liverpool’s control.

But the the Europa League still represented an opportunity to salvage the season – as it has for Arsenal in three of the last four campaigns.

By winning it, a second trophy in two seasons after the FA Cup in 2020, Arteta would almost certainly secure another season in charge. It would not only be the silverware but the Champions League qualification and money that comes with it.

But in the game with Slavia, Arteta’s team selection and substitutions were odd to say the least. Arsenal created more than enough chances to have won comfortably, but in the quarter-final of the competition that could define Arteta’s Arsenal future, he decided to leave Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, his biggest goal threat, on the bench.

The decision to play Willian on the left was also strange, given he has never looked entirely comfortable on that side, as was the choice of right-footed Cedric Soares at left-back. With Arsenal’s only left-footer playing on the right, they lacked the natural width that could have caused trouble down the other side.

Even with those Arsenal selection issues, Slavia were there for the taking. The Czech side were struggling with balls in behind their backline and toiling when Bukayo Saka isolated their defenders one-on-one. Yet Arteta waited until the 78th minute to bring on Aubameyang and tricky winger Nicolas Pepe, for whom the situation looked tailor-made.

“I think when they came on they had a real impact,” Arteta Arsenal’s club website on Friday. The only reaction that quote will get from Arsenal fans is: why did they not come on sooner?

With the way the game was going, Arsenal had a perfect chance to build a lead to take with them to Prague next week. They did not capitalize, and for that, even if not for the sloppy equalizer, Arteta must take some blame.

Before the Europa League tie, the Arsenal boss had responded to negative comments from Gary Neville on Sky Sports, saying: “It’s just about how we take the criticism. It’s not good to get the criticism to feel guilty, because that guilt is going to be changed into fear. It’s about feeling responsible, and that is the key word for me.”

A key word indeed. If Arsenal finish this season with nothing to show for it – no trophy, no qualification for Europe, no concrete indicators of improvement, no money in the bank – then Arteta will no doubt be held responsible. And in top-level soccer that usually means one thing.

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