If Unai Emery’s side win the Europa League final against Chelsea and qualify for the Champions League their campaign has been a successful one. Lose and the problems run deeper
ast May, in a series of pow-wows to determine the chosen candidate to replace Arsène Wenger, Arsenal’s executive team thrashed their way through the shortlist one by one analysing a series of criteria: style of football, an eye for promoting youth, man-management in the player-power age, and so on. Critical, though, in all of this was one overriding thought. How quickly can this manager get the club back into the Champions League? It did not really matter how they got there, or what it looked like along the way, but the mission Arsenal were desperate to accomplish was crystal clear.
Hiring a man whose CV screams Europa League specialist enhanced those odds. Hands were duly shaken with a proven expert in one of the two available routes into the Champions League. He might have come from left field in the debate about who was best to follow Wenger – “where’s Unai Emery come from?” tweeted a bewildered Ian Wright as the news broke – but there was a certain logic at work.
That logic made sense as Emery took this strangely erratic team, a bunch whose form has crumbled in the Premier League, back to his old stomping ground in Valencia. Arsenal were electric going forward – rapid, clinical and supercharged. The strike force of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette put in Champions League performances as they swept their team into the Europa League final. It is Emery’s fourth final in this competition. He has won three.
“That’s what the club saw in him as a coach,” said Lacazette. “He came to take the team to the next step and he did because we reach the final in his first season.” Well, the final represents more like half a step. Progress will only be tangible if they clamber on to the winners’ podium with big smiles in the very early hours of 30 May. So here we are. The interminably long road to Baku (which actually started in Baku in the opening group game at FK Qarabag in a match Arsenal started with a forward line of Danny Welbeck supported by Emile Smith Rowe) boils down to the defining moment of the season.
Win and the campaign has been a successful one by their main criterion. Lose and the problems run deeper. This final is actually a pivotal point for something bigger, something that stretches beyond a contest against Chelsea.
Arsenal have aspirations to try to re-establish themselves higher up the football ladder, as a more robust challenger for the top four, a more competitive contender for the Premier League title, even the rose-tinted hope to become a team capable of a genuine tilt at the senior European title. They know they are off that pace and the best way to build momentum is to get back into the Champions League.
The squad Emery inherited is still in need of surgery, and the operation to attack the transfer market is complicated. Arsenal are expected to announce a heavy loss with the next financial results, their model shows no interest in personal investment from the owner, and logistically they lost their head of recruitment when the enigmatic talent spotter Sven Mislintat left, and they are unable to appoint a director of football, with their former midfielder Edu the favourite, until July. Hardly ideal circumstances to rebuild with efficiency.
Yet again, so much boils down to their capacity to qualify for the Champions League and the double boost, in status and finance, that brings.
Last October Arsenal and Emery were still finding each other out (to an extent they still are) as Raúl Sanllehí and Vinai Venkatesham sat down to elaborate on how a return to Europe’s top table is so vital to the club’s model. “We need to regain that positioning, that privilege, to be seen as a Champions League club,” Sanllehí said. “From there the wheel starts rolling again. That is what is going to give us the speed, also to be attractive to better players, to generate more money, it is the virtuous circle. The better we do, the more money will be generated, the better players are going to come, the better we are going to do.”
Tempting as it is to obsess over the bigger picture, the body language of Arsenal’s players and fans at Mestalla emphasised how much it meant to win their semi-final, to play with joy and ambition in their boots. Sport in essence has to be about trying to lift silverware for victory’s sake more than the consequence of a golden ticket. Lacazette tried to get to the heart of it. “We know it was a great opportunity to go to the Champions League and that is really important,” he said. “But as well it is about trophies. The club needs to win a trophy, the players as well. Above all, we have got the chance to win a trophy.”