After the result against Chelsea on Sunday, Arsenal need to start prioritising the FA Cup and the Europa League to bring back some excitement for the fans.
For a short while during Sunday’s game, it looked like the race for top four might be back on. Arsenal were closing in on a 1-0 victory over a big-six team to cut the gap to five points with 18 games left to play. Still not simple, but a very achievable goal.
What’s more, with Mikel Arteta in charge of his first home game, the team were actually playing well. Though they faded and withdrew in the second half, they were much the better side in the first.
Then it all fell apart. Chelsea found an equaliser, then a winner, leaving Arsenal 12th and 11 points off the Champions League places.
At this point, it’s time to start looking at the FA Cup and the Europa League to give the season some purpose again.
Last chance for Champions League
Arsenal aren’t going to finish in the top four this season. That’s just something we have to come to terms with. Anything can happen in a knockout competition though, and that’s what the Europa League is now.
There are still some strong teams left for the Gunners to face. Manchester United and Wolves from England, AS Roma and Inter Milan from Italy, Ajax dropping down from the Champions League.
All the same, it’s the last remaining opportunity to make it back into Europe’s top competition. Arsenal may have failed in their last two attempts to qualify through winning the Europa League, but reaching a semi-final and a final shows they weren’t far off.
Still, the only way Arteta’s side will really have a shot is if they give their full attention to the European ties.
For example, they play Olympiacos on Thursday, February 27th before a trip to Manchester City on Sunday, March 1st (as it stands). Arteta can’t go into the Olympiacos game resting players for City. He has to go full strength to reach the next round.
The value of a cup run
As well as the Europa League knockout ties, Arsenal have the FA Cup to work with. It’s a competition that certainly means a lot to the club and the fans, as the record holders of the trophy.
Cup runs are always good for morale. They allow the team to dream about lifting a trophy at the end of the campaign, the ultimate goal of any season. They generate a buzz amongst fans and allow them to look past one-off negative results in the league.
If Arsenal finish 15th but win a trophy and qualify for the Champions League, no one will care about the league finish. Keeping that hope alive for as long as possible is crucial for Arteta.
Blowing off the cup to focus on securing a higher league position or to clear the schedule for the extra Europa League fixtures may seem like a good idea, but the reality is it just has too damaging of a psychological impact.
Is relegation a real concern?
For me, no. Arsenal have played some of their worst football in a long time this season, and the results have been catastrophic, yet they’re still six points clear of the relegation zone.
That’s more than it sounds. Teams near the bottom gain points so slowly that a couple of wins is usually enough to propel your team well clear of them.
Take Aston Villa (18th) as an example. They’re six points behind Arsenal, but they’ve only picked up seven points in their last 11 games.
Continuing in that form, Arsenal only need to pick up one point between now and March 21st to stay ahead of them. That’s assuming every other team between the Gunners and Villa also pick up enough points to overtake in that period.
If that happens, that’s when we start worrying about relegation. But with the slight improvement in performances in Arteta’s first week and a long time still to play, there’s really nothing to panic about.
It’s another issue of mentality too. As soon as we start looking over our shoulders, every game piles on the pressure and becomes life or death. Arsenal need to focus on what they can make of the season, rather than worrying about what might go wrong.