Arsenal had a rare high in the Premier League on Sunday, fighting back from behind to defeat Leicester City 3-1 at the King Power Stadium.
The Gunners‘ victory over Brendan Rodgers’ top-four chasers was the best result under Mikel Arteta since the turn of the year, with the impressive victory reminding fans of the Boxing Day win against Chelsea.
While Arsenal are still outsiders to secure a top-four finish and Champions League football, the eight-point deficit to a West Ham side currently occupying the position is a margin that can be cut in the final 12 matches of the season.
The issue for Arsenal, however, is that it would take a considerable turn of events for that to occur and if they fall short, another season in the Europa League could be on the cards.
Europe’s second-tier competition has provided some respite for Arsenal in recent years, with the semi-final charge under Arsene Wenger and the trip to Baku under Unai Emery coming in a competition that has also allowed young players to earn their stripes.
Bukayo Saka, Gabriel Martinelli and Emile Smith Rowe are among the players who have benefited from regular opportunities on a Thursday night, allowing them to find a platform to display their abilities and push towards Premier League involvement.
It’s a considerable boost, with the trio all saving Arsenal millions in the transfer market in positions where they would have likely had to splash the cash in order to find players capable of making the difference.
After four years in the competition though, the Europa League is more of a hindrance than an opportunity as the Thursday-Sunday schedule is a significant detriment to the Premier League charge.
Arsenal should absolutely put their focus towards winning the competition this season, which would provide an avenue back into the promised land of the Champions League.
However, the three seasons using the competition as a wildcard to secure their spot back amongst Europe’s elite has not been successful as promising signs have ultimately led to disappointment at various different stages.
The biggest problem for Arsenal and the Europa League, however, is that Arteta has made it clear he wants to work with a much smaller squad at his disposal, with a number of high-earning out-of-form players leaving in the January transfer window.
Arsenal made six changes to the side that defeated Benfica for the clash against Leicester, something that certainly would have been criticised had the result not gone their way.
The victory against the Foxes was also an exception to a trend that has been witnessed throughout the season. On the eight occasions Arsenal have played in the Premier League following a European match, there have been just two victories.
Six of those games have resulted in defeats, including a 1-0 loss to Burnley at the Emirates Stadium, with Arsenal taking just six points from a possible 24 in those matches. Clearly, the squad has had difficulties with the challenges posed by Thursday-Sunday football.
The argument for the necessity of European football has always orientated around revenue but the reported £34m earnings from reaching the final of the Europa League in 2018-19 were less than the four Premier League sides competing in the Champions League earned.
While the Europa League earnings are better than nothing, they’re not comparable to the earnings from the Champions League and the club would almost certainly benefit in the long run by a year out of European competition altogether if it were to result in Champions League football the following year.
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A year without European football on a Thursday evening could benefit Arsenal’s Premier League campaign, as the evidence shows, with Leicester City winning the Premier League title in 2015-16 with no European distractions and Chelsea doing likewise a year later as they won the league, one year on from finishing tenth in the top flight.
But there’s another potential problem that presents itself next season.
UEFA is launching a third European competition next term, the UEFA Conference League, with the spot going to the Carabao Cup winners. However, Tottenham and Manchester City could both be involved in European competition again, so that spot may be passed on to the next best placed side in the Premier League, depending on the FA Cup winners and qualification.
Involvement in that competition would be an issue for Arsenal, though Arteta would likely just give younger players more opportunities to save the first-team stars from trips to the likes of San Marino, Malta, Gibraltar and other European nations.
In short, if it’s not Champions League football, Arsenal may be better off without the midweek distractions, but the likelihood of that being the case seems particularly slim.