Arsenal’s season is not just about doing well enough to add to their young talent this summer: it’s about making sure they keep hold of it.
Arsenal’s summer plans rely on continuing to overhaul their squad and to rebuild it around their burgeoning talent like Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith Rowe, Kieran Tierney and Gabriel Martinelli. Finish the season well, by competing for as long as possible and they can continue to shed players that no longer fit their plans, while adding new quality to complement their young stars. Finish the season poorly and Arsenal risk their young talent being picked off, damaging their future before it’s properly started. If wolves come to the door and poach one or more of the shining lights, it would have a devastating impact.
Football has a ruthless ecosystem. If Arsenal plan to pick off players from around the world to improve their squad, you can be sure that clubs who fancy themselves are sniffing around Arsenal’s quality too. Football’s survival of the fittest has a law of the jungle as merciless as anything you’ve seen on TV nature shows. When Pep Guardiola praised Saka after Arsenal’s latest emasculation against Man City, it wasn’t solely because he thinks Saka’s a good player and isn’t that nice for Arsenal. It’s because he’d sidle in for Saka or any of the rest of them in an instant if Arsenal’s season were to plummet. When Arteta sheepishly approached Pep at the final whistle and could barely look him in the eye, it wasn’t just because Arsenal lost to City yet again, it’s also because of what else Arsenal could lose. To end this season meekly wouldn’t just ruin this campaign and impact next season, it would risk derailing Arsenal’s future, period.
The risk of going out of the Europa League to Benfica took Arsenal to the brink of that crossroad of all crossroads: the risk of losing the very players that represent their path back to being a competitive force. Losing to Benfica would have left the club with a third of a league campaign to go, yet very little to aim for. It would have felt very empty only to play to finish as high as possible in the Premier League. It’s hard to argue that the Gunners are in a false position there and are actually better than the sides above them. Last weekend’s surprise 3-1 win at Leicester could yet challenge the fragile status quo above Arsenal and bolster confidence for the Gunners to finish high enough to maintain European football. Qualification is a carrot, but if you can’t finish high enough to make the Champions League and you’ve just about made peace with the Europa League, it would be rather demoralising to strain for even that outcome and yet miss out.
Arsenal got so used to 20 years of Champions League football that having to settle for the Europa League seemed humiliating at first. They only just qualified for it this season by winning the FA Cup against the odds. If Arsenal don’t finish this campaign high enough, they might suffer the indignity of reaching the inaugural UEFA Europa Conference League. That sounds like something you’d make up in a daydream, but no, it’s real. If you think some Europa League teams sound dubious, get ready for clubs that haven’t even heard of themselves. Arsenal really don’t want this season to drift into such a barren wasteland that they veer from being half-desperate to finish high enough to reach the Europa League again, then, if their form plummets, become just as desperate to finish low enough not to qualify for UEFA’s latest hallucination. Give it a few years and everyone will play in some sort of UEFA creation. Arsenal’s finances need it.
It’s just as well then for Arsenal that they squeaked past Benfica. They’ve bought another 4 weeks of meaningful season, by qualifying for the Europa League’s last 16. The campaign stays alive into deepest March, with a possibility to win a trophy that they’ve found unpalatably unwinnable over the years. Horrible defeats in 2 finals, 20-odd years apart, still hurt. It’s amazing how close you can get to extremes. Fail to see off Benfica and Arsenal stared immediate deflation full in the face, yet before you know it they nab a late winner to knock Benfica out and draw Olympiacos, with swift opportunity to put right last season’s elimination at their hands. Winning the Europa League suddenly feels plausible again. It’s possible for Arsenal to reach yet another final. They’ve played in a final every season since 2014 bar 2016, winning 4 FA Cups and losing a League Cup and a Europa League. Not winning a trophy this season might not make Arsenal’s young stars want to leave, but those players need the scent of belief that more success is possible at Arsenal, following last season’s FA Cup success, should clubs try to destabilise them this summer and submit official bids.
Arteta’s Arsenal is in a similar position to that of George Graham’s in the mid-1980s. Arteta has shown his determined hand of “non-negotiables” by shifting out the likes of Ozil, Mustafi and Sokratis and giving youngsters a clear platform. Graham came in with a stern brush and swept out those who didn’t fit his model, like Steve Williams, Charlie Nicholas and Kenny Sansom. They helped Arsenal to win the Littlewoods Cup in 1987 but didn’t last much longer. Graham gave a stronger platform to Tony Adams, including making him captain and Graham continued the development of promising young talent like Michael Thomas, David Rocastle and Paul Merson, all of whom played key roles in the league titles that followed. If had Arsenal lost one or more of them, that success might never have happened. If Arteta’s Arsenal can do the rest of this season justice, hold onto young talent and build around it, they could look forward to a similar fresh era of success.