As Arsenal continue to sink to new depths this season, they are looking at the unthinkable - a season without European football.
When the Gunners dropped down from Champions League to the Europa League, the consensus was that they would make a swift return to the top competition.
In Arsene Wenger's penultimate season, they had been top of the table in December of 2016 before their spring collapse left them out of the top four by a solitary point. Despite dropping from second in the league to fifth, they actually accrued four more points than they had the previous campaign and their total of 75 would have been enough to secure a place among Europe's elite in every season since the turn of the millennium bar two.
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But that was four years ago and, rather than the traditional spring scramble for a top four finish, Arsenal are in danger of dropping out of the Europa League. They need a remarkable run of wins, and other results to go their way if they are to climb out of the midtable mire they have been stuck in since their appalling autumn run. The Champions League has never been so far away.
But there is a glimmer of hope to rescue Arsenal from their hellish season - their current run in the Europa League. Their profligate finishing in the 1-1 draw with Slavia Prague at the Emirates has made their task unnecessarily hard but, given the quality of chances they were able to create in the stalemate, they will remain confident of progressing to the semi-finals, where they will face either Villarreal or Dinamo Zagreb. Given their good recent history in cup competitions, winning a first European trophy since 1994 is a genuine possibility.
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That would bring with it, of course, a place in the Champions League next season. But the evidence so far is that playing in the Champions League would bring nothing but humiliation. Arsenal have taken a paltry point in the Premier League from their six games against Burnley, Wolves and Aston Villa. The thought of pitting that team against a Paris Saint-Germain, Real Madrid or Bayern Munich is harrowing.
Arsenal's pedestrian season should raise serious questions about the future of their manager, Mikel Arteta. The Spaniard has mostly been given an uncritical press since he took over from Unai Emery in December 2019 and it is without doubt that circumstances have made his already-difficult job all the harder. He deserves great credit for negotiating a pay-cut among his players when the Covid-19 pandemic hit and for the FA Cup triumph after football resumed.
But while the highs have been excellent, the lows have been nothing short of appalling. His first brief was to shore up a leaky defence. But Arsenal have had a solitary clean sheet since the end of January - and that was against Sheffield United, for whom relegation has long since been certain. In that time they have shipped goals from familiar routes - set pieces and stupid errors in possession at the back.
Their defensive emphasis under Arteta has also sapped their ability to attack. The seeds for this decline were obvious for over a year. But last season they had Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to dig them out of holes, this season he has been way off the pace and the inevitable result has been a quickening of Arsenal's decline. If Aubameyang is off form, that is not Arteta's fault. But he has failed to legislate for his side's over-reliance of a striker who is now the wrong side of 30.
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At the heart of his problems is clearly stubbornness. He clearly does not have the players to play out from the back, yet persists with it. He dropped Mesut Ozil, then oversaw a team devoid of creativity.
It is no coincidence that Arsenal got better when Emile Smith Rowe became a regular starter and more fluent when Martin Odegaard was brought in on loan in January. Willian has been played far too often this season despite being in terrible form, while Gabriel Martinelli has barely featured, despite his promising debut season in England and some bright moments when he has had a chance.
But aside from his baffling selection policies and preference for playing it out from the back is a wider issue: all too often, Arsenal appear not to have a plan. Their pace is pedestrian at best and all too often they waste a considerable portion of the match failing to mount any credible attacks. Then, when the inevitable concession of a chance comes, they find themselves scrambling and desperate, having looked considerably relaxed about not scoring previously.
Sometimes they start games well and chuck away leads and their problems with game management were all too evident against Slavia. In the recent 2-1 derby win over Tottenham, they were in total control for most of the match. When Spurs had Erik Lamela sent off, it was Arsenal who began playing like they were a man down. The blame for this lies with Arteta - all too often Arsenal are not ambitious and happy to cede territory, rather than exert control on the game.
With each defeat, Arteta appears in front of the television cameras to say his players' performance had been "unacceptable". But, just as night follows day, the next match tends to bring more of the same. Either his message is not filtering through, or the turgid passing and defensive mindset is his message. It's unclear which would be more worrying.
Arteta could yet become a fine manager. He was thrust into a difficult position at a very young age and has had the impact of Covid to make his task all the harder. But far from making an Arsenal a better team, they are arguably worse than they were when he took over. It is likely that winning the Europa League would guarantee him another season at the Emirates, but they should cut their losses before their decline gets even more stark.
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