Another season, another Europa League tie with an impending sense of doom for Arsenal.
For the nth consecutive year, the Gunners are leaning on European football’s secondary club competition as they continue their desperate search for a route back into the Champions League.
But, in truth, they have never been further from that level in the modern era.
For months now, it has felt as though the north London club’s domestic games are meaningless; something to get out of the way ahead of the big one on Thursday night.
Sunday’s comfortable 2-0 victory over perennial strugglers Newcastle was no exception, with fringe players such as Mohamed Elneny and Willian afforded rare starts, while Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was given the opportunity to rediscover his goalscoring touch following a bout of malaria. The result moved Arsenal up from tenth to ninth.
While there is no knocking the dominant performance, it is undeniable that the semi-final second leg against Villarreal – and a one-goal deficit – will be a different kettle of fish entirely. While it’s easy to speculate, it is difficult to imagine Arsenal’s fragile defence keeping the likes of Gerard Moreno, Samuel Chukwueze and Paco Alcacer at bay.
Dire nights like the first leg at Estadio de la Ceramica reflect that this annual forlorn pursuit of Europa League glory – if you can call it that – is more damaging in the long-term than domestic stability and a concerted push for European qualification – be that for the Europa or Champions League.
It feels ominous that the Europa League has not been kind to Arsenal, too, with a semi-final defeat to Atletico Madrid, final loss to Chelsea and last season’s last 32 embarrassment against Olympiacos in consecutive years dictating that luck may not be on their side on Thursday.
The Gunners’ strange sense of entitlement when it comes to a place at Europe’s top table is becoming increasingly confounding, with blockbuster signings such as Aubameyang, Nicolas Pépé and Thomas Partey failing to stop a gradual slide down the table and into mediocrity.
Mikel Arteta’s side sit an insurmountable 12 points off the top four at the time of writing, adrift of the Europa League places and even set to miss out on the inaugural Europa Conference League as things stand.
With that context, it’s little surprise that the Arsenal hierarchy jumped at the opportunity to become a founding member of the so-called Super League, guaranteeing their place in an elite club ‘competition’ (and cash cow) for more than two decades.
Now that nirvana is off the table for a team wallowing in mediocrity, perhaps another Europa League exit would not be the worst thing in the world. Sure, it would mean a financial hit and would make it more difficult to attract top-level names, but you could certainly argue that the squad is a few shrewd signings away from being comfortably good enough to challenge for a top six place without the distraction of European football – especially in the secondary competition with away games in the arse-end of nowhere.
It would also provide Arteta with a full season of domestic football to get his teeth into and truly test his abilities, with juggling competitions and priorities clearly something of a stumbling block this term.
Such has been Arsenal’s decline, it has reached the point where a season without European football would surely benefit the club in enabling them to focus on the league, reset, give meaning to their domestic games and get back to where they clearly feel they belong.