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Arsenal must prioritize Europa League after settling for defeat vs. Man City

LONDON — There often comes a point when European competition takes on greater significance than domestic pursuits, and Arsenal have surely reached that juncture now. The same is true of Manchester City, especially given the responsibility Pep Guardiola feels in delivering Champions League success as the ultimate validation of his methods. But they can concentrate on their last-16 tie against Borussia Monchengladbach almost free of Premier League concerns after a facile 1-0 win over the Gunners at Emirates Stadium restored their 10-point lead at the summit.

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Meanwhile, Mikel Arteta has no such comforts. Arsenal’s 11th league defeat of the season leaves them 11 points adrift of the top four, meaning Champions League qualification — an essential financial and footballing target — is surely most likely achieved through the Europa League.

Winning Europe’s second-tier competition will be difficult, of course, but last season’s FA Cup final success underlined Arteta’s ability to prepare a team for knockout matches. If anything, it’s a managerial skill he’s arguably developed to greater effect than his squad management, a criticism that first emerged when Southampton knocked Arsenal out of the FA Cup in January.

Yet it could reasonably be argued that Arsenal would have been beaten on Sunday no matter what team Arteta selected.

City extended their staggering run to 18 successive victories in all competitions with a victory that never looked in doubt from the moment Raheem Sterling scored after 77 seconds. Guardiola’s side were already working the ball with their customary swagger and Riyad Mahrez should be praised for the accuracy of his delivery from the right, but it is a damning indictment of Arsenal’s defence that Sterling, just 5-foot-7, was allowed to rise unmarked and guide a header past goalkeeper Bernd Leno.

The Gunners regrouped in the face of an early onslaught, but in truth City eased off thereafter, happy to control the game through conservative possession. From start to finish, both teams played as though they knew the end result and were willing to save themselves for what comes next.

For Arsenal, it is surely their biggest game of the season to date. Their Europa League last-32 tie against Benfica is finely poised after the first leg ended 1-1. Arteta named an unchanged lineup for that game from their previous outing against Leeds United, the first time the Spaniard had done so during his tenure, and an understandable decision given the attacking fluency they showed against Marcelo Bielsa’s side. But the knock-on effect was surely felt here, even with five alterations to the team.

Bukayo Saka did his best to carry an attacking threat for the hosts, combining positively with Kieran Tierney down the left, but both looked fatigued by the end, particularly Tierney. Hector Bellerin, in his eighth consecutive start, was some way off his best. At least Emile Smith Rowe was given a breather for all but the final 18 minutes. Martin Odegaard, on loan from Real Madrid, started his third consecutive game, but could not affect it in anything like the way Arteta would have hoped.

The same was true of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, whose three outings in seven days sum up his inconsistency at present: a hat trick against Leeds, followed by profligacy against Benfica and then anonymity against City. He had just 19 touches all game, the fewest of any player to play 90 minutes, closely followed by Nicolas Pepe (22), whose underwhelming 73-minute display underlines how important it is for Arsenal to spend the money they have wisely when trying to match teams with much greater financial muscle. At £72 million, Pepe cost more than any other player on the pitch, yet he was probably the most peripheral.

“With the schedule we have, it is really demanding. We have no time to recover, very little time to prepare a game,” Arteta said after Sunday’s defeat. “For example, against City we could not prepare the game on the field because we didn’t have enough time. But we have to get used to it.

The need for Arsenal to get everything right in the transfer market is heightened by the wider financial constraints the club are under — exemplified by the first-team wage cut and 55 non-playing staff redundancies — but it would be exacerbated still further without any income from European football. There are a myriad of complications, but the fifth-placed team and FA Cup winners go into the Europa League next season, with the sixth-placed side qualifying for the inaugural Europa Conference League.

Arsenal are six points behind defending champions Liverpool in sixth place — it’s not an insurmountable hurdle, but if the past few days have suggested anything, it is that Arsenal may have to prioritise their pursuits from here.

Arsenal travel to Greece on Wednesday to face Benfica and then face a quick turnaround with a trip to Leicester on Sunday, kicking off at midday. It’s a grueling schedule made tougher by COVID-19 restrictions, which have forced their Wednesday game to be moved to Athens, and offers a similar conundrum for Arteta as the one he faced this week: a major European game followed by an in-form domestic rival.

“It’s hard because everybody wants to play and everybody wants to be available for every game,” said Arteta. “Everybody is doing their best to be available all the time, which I value a lot. But there are a lot of players with fatigue, they played so many minutes and we don’t have enough players to replace them, unfortunately.”

The mounting evidence suggests Arsenal simply do not possess a strong enough squad to compete on both fronts. Therefore, Arteta has some difficult decisions ahead.

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