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A season of what-ifs for Arsenal

In many ways, Wednesday’s Europa League Final defeat to Chelsea summed up where Arsenal are a year into Unai Emery’s tenure. It has been a season filled with what-if situations, none more notable than the second half collapse in Baku. This came just 24 days after the 1-1 draw against Brighton ultimately cost the club a place in the Premier League’s top four.

The what-if question can also be levelled at a season riddled by injuries as the absence of defenders Rob Holding, Laurent Koscielny and Hector Bellerin for almost half the season frequently exposed a defensive frailty that Emery was hired to eradicate. The lack of a settled back line or even formation proved too demanding for a defence that has now shipped over 100 goals across the last two Premier League campaigns.

As a result, the manner of Eden Hazard’s second goal was all too familiar with Sokratis drawn towards the Belgian as he strode towards the Arsenal penalty area, leaving Olivier Giroud free on the left side of the box. Laurent Koscielny attempted to cover for the Greek, who in turn could not stop the unmarked Hazard from wrapping up the victory.

Goals like this in games of this magnitude conceded by defenders as experienced as Sokratis and Koscielny demonstrate a severe lack of understanding between the pair as part of the team’s defensive organisation. This is one area that has to be addressed if Arsenal are to return to Europe’s top table and compete for trophies domestically.

Whilst Sarri’s stubborn commitment to his tried and trusted 4-3-3 has drawn criticism, its effectiveness was apparent throughout the final. The defence was well organised despite Antonio Rudiger’s absence, Jorginho demonstrated his defensive nous with a number of vital interceptions as well as being the trigger for Chelsea’s press and the front three broke incisively and with regularity, especially after Olivier Giroud’s 49th minute opener. Sarri’s system is well balanced with every player now understanding their roles, something which he questioned following Arsenal’s 2-0 victory over Chelsea in January. Emery’s Arsenal still lack their own identity, arguably a result of circumstance rather than a reflection of his ability as a manager.

This is especially evident in defensive areas with midfielder Ainsley Maitland-Niles shoehorned into a defensive position in Hector Bellerin’s absence, due to an apparent lack of confidence in summer recruit Stephan Lichtsteiner and long-standing squad member Carl Jenkinson. Those four players cost the club around £1 million in combined transfer fees, a stark contrast to the £125 million afforded to Pep Guardiola in 2017 when he was unhappy with his full-backs.

In order to ease the defensive responsibilities on Maitland-Niles, Emery has been forced to compromise by utilising wing-backs. This has pushed Nacho Monreal into an uncomfortable centre-back role, whilst Mesut Ozil’s lack of defensive work frequently leaves the two central midfielders isolated out of possession. Chelsea’s impressive trio of Kante, Jorginho and Kovacic were able to press home their numerical advantage as Torreira and Xhaka began to tire during the second half of the final.

Arsenal’s deficiencies are evident, and in such circumstances, almost stealing a place in the Champions League is admirable. New arrivals in the upcoming transfer window are essential and a minimum requirement has to be addressing the lack of strength in depth in defence, potentially funded by offloading the £350,000 a week enigma that is Mesut Ozil.

So what if Arsenal had won the Europa League and secured Champions League football? An obvious positive would have been the associated prestige of the competition, its financial rewards and therefore increased spending power, all attracting better players to the club.

However, aside from the front two, is this squad really ready for Champions League football? The simple answer is no. Whilst not an ideal situation for the club and its supporters, another season in the Europa League as the post-Wenger transitional period continues could prove to be beneficial in the long-term, especially by providing more game time to a promising group of academy graduates. It is easy to look at the moments which defined Arsenal’s season and analyse what could have been done differently, but the reality is this team ultimately performed level with or slightly above expectations with what Emery had at his disposal.

Defeat in the Europa League Final may have defined the outcome of Arsenal’s season but it should not define the period of transition the club are currently undergoing. As Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool have shown, a first season Europa League Final defeat can soon become a distant memory with the right recruitment. The challenge Arsenal now face is to put this disappointment behind them and press forward in a similar upward trajectory.

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