It shouldn’t have had to end like this for Arsenal.
The Gunners should have been able to secure their first top-four finish in three years. Their disappointing defense should have held together just long enough to earn the team more than one goddamn point in four critical games. The nebbish weirdos who make this team tick should have roared into form instead of farting and dying. But Arsenal never do what they should, and now their hopes of qualifying for the Champions League via a top-four Premier League finish are dead.
But redemption is still possible. If Arsenal can somehow win the Europa League final against Chelsea in the dumber of the two all-England European finals, they’ll secure a spot in the Champions League in the first year of life post-Arsène Wenger. They have a chance to stabilize the club ahead of a tumultuous summer and move forward into the Unai Emery era with positive momentum and the promise of top-tier competition. Or they could eat shit, lose, and yet again trudge through the Europa League next season. Nobody wants that, and so the stakes for this month’s final are as high as they could be for the Gunners.
It would be fair or even perhaps generous to describe this Arsenal campaign as hot and cold. Following two opening defeats in the league, Emery’s men didn’t lose again for four months, beating Tottenham and tying Liverpool in the process. New midfielder Lucas Torreira looked great, and the frontline duo of Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang gelled perfectly. Even during that successful spell, the unfortunate (and unfortunately accurate) consensus was that Arsenal were getting lucky, as the winning streak was littered with late goals, fortunate bounces, and sluggish defending that poor finishing and solid goalkeeping bailed them out from.
Still, in the Premier League it’s not “how” but rather “how many” that matters, and the debatable flukiness of a nice little run in the league mattered less than the points on the board. Arsenal’s 11 straight wins in all competitions from late August to late October was their best run of form in 12 years. No team ever accomplishes anything without at least a little bit of luck, and an optimist might have believed Arsenal could hold it together long enough to build on the confidence they banked in the run up to the new year.
Instead, Héctor Bellerín’s ACL went up in smoke and the defense went with it. Liverpool exposed the molasses-legged duo of Sokratis and Shkodran Mustafi with a 5-1 drubbing in late December, and once Bellerín was ruled out for the season, Arsenal’s ability to defend in any kind of space died. The bottom well and truly fell out in mid-April, right after Arsenal finished Matchday 31 in third place.
After splitting 1-0's with Watford and Everton, Arsenal began their season-ruining brutal streak. Next was a 3-2 loss to Crystal Palace, then a 3-1 loss to Wolves, then a 3-0 loss to Leicester, then a draw with Brighton. At the beginning of April, it seemed Arsenal would hold off a sluggish Tottenham and maybe even catch Chelsea for third. Heading into the final matchday of the season, Arsenal need to win, to have Spurs lose, and to have the combined scoreline of those two results add up to at least an eight goal swing to slip past Spurs in fourth place on goal difference. It’s not happening.
However, in Europe, things have gone swimmingly. Arsenal hired Unai Emery to replace Arsène Wenger specifically because of the former’s history conquering Europe’s second-rate continental competition. His Sevilla sides won three straight Europa titles, and he demonstrated his uncanny knack for balancing his squad’s ambitions on two fronts. Without the resources or big names to credibly contend for a title or even truly overcome the rest of the EPL’s big six in the top four race, the Europa League seemed the surest path back into the Champions League. Suffice it to say, Arsenal took the competition seriously.
The Gunners beat BATE Borisov, snuck past Rennes, blanked Napoli, then smoked Valencia 7-3 over two legs to book their ticket to the final, one season after falling in the semis. Yesterday’s 4-2 party at the Mestalla was Arsenal at their terrifying peak. Kevin Gameiro opened the scoring early, but smart counterpressing and ruthless finishing from their strikers earned Arsenal a raucous win. Aubameyang got the hat trick, running at and around Valencia defenders all night, and eventually converted a few of the plethora of chances he earned. Lacazette looked tremendous all night both setting up his partner and looking for his own offense. His goal was arguably the best of the night.
But whooping on BATE Borisov and even Valencia does not make for a successful season. Arsenal did not replace Wenger after 65 years at the helm to finish fifth and secure more Europa League sludge. The mandate was always for Emery to lead Arsenal back to the Champions League. Though the Premier League campaign had its moments, it was ultimately unsuccessful. And so it all comes down to the final against Chelsea.
The two sides split their head-to-head matchup this season, and though Chelsea already all but clinched Champions League play by finishing fourth in the league, the Blues will absolutely go all-out to secure a trophy. Should Arsenal lose, they won’t be able to promise Champions League soccer to anyone they want to sign this summer, and the first year of the Emery reign will go down as an interesting failure. That will not bode well for his or the team’s immediate future.
But if they win, the Gunners will be able to pitch prospective players on the most hallowed of Arsenal traditions, which is finishing second in the UCL group stage then immediately losing 9-0 in the knockout rounds. Momentum matters at this level, and Arsenal have a real chance to generate some. And it all hinges on one game.