Why Arsenal's Europa League exit should cause concern for future Champions League involvement
Whether it's needless red cards, dramatically changing a fanbase's opinion or the distribution of house keys, Granit Xhaka knows what he's talking about.
The wily Swiss midfielder also has some pearls of wisdom regarding continental competition. "European football is totally different than the Premier League," Xhaka declared with characteristic bluntness.
Arsenal may be riding high at the top of the Premier League, which ranks as the best in the world according to UEFA's coefficient (and every Sky Sports advert), but they were dumped out of the Europe League, Europe's secondary club competition, in the round of 16 by Sporting CP - one of Portugal's so-called Big Three which currently sits fourth in the top flight.
With qualification for next season's Champions League a formality, here's why Arsenal could face a rude awakening on their return to Europe's top table.
The Gunners have been all about consistency in terms of Premier League personnel this season. Eight Arsenal players have featured in at least 80% of the team’s league minutes this season. No other top-flight club in England has as many regulars.
Title rivals Manchester City only have three players with so much game time and Chelsea, the only other English side left in the Champions League, have just one player that has completed such a large share of minutes.
The revered Soviet coach Valeriy Lobanovskyi preached that the quality of the connections between players was more important than the ability of the individuals. This is borne out when Mikel Arteta deviates from his regular lineup, forming new partnerships which have had little time to develop and robbing his side of the normal fluency which has led them to the Premier League summit.
After the Gunners bowed out of the Europa League last 16 on penalties to Sporting following a 3-3 aggregate draw, Arteta bemoaned: “We didn't find our rhythm and flow, allowed too many spaces, didn't dominate and gave the ball away many times.”
After each week of watching Arsenal win with a scarcely unchanged team, opponents are no longer surprised by Arteta's approach and have begun to form a blueprint of frustration by sitting deep and waiting to spring forward on the counter.
“You can see that every team is playing different against us; they are dropping a lot," Xhaka said in February, “but this is [what happens] when you are top of the league."
In Europe, teams are versatile enough to form a compact rearguard but also jump into a press, as Sporting demonstrated by repeatedly knocking Arsenal out of their stride.
“We gave every single ball away and we didn’t have the capacity to dominate the game and take the game where we wanted," Arteta fretted after Sporting knocked the Gunners out. "We gave away the ball consistently and that created a really open transition game that we didn’t want to play.”
With a relatively thin squad at his disposal, Arteta is limited to a very good, but not perfect Plan A. One glance at how north London rivals Tottenham fared when sticking to Antonio Conte's dogmatic approach should be enough of a warning to think about some alternative strategies.
Arteta has taken charge of just 24 European matches as a manager, all of which have come in the decidedly second-tier Europa League. During his playing days, Arteta appeared in 31 Champions League matches but only four of those were knockout ties and he never once progressed beyond the round of 16.
In Arsenal’s current squad, only January arrival Jorginho has won the competition. The European Championship winner has also made the most appearances in the tournament among Arsenal’s current contingent with Gabriel Jesus, Thomas Partey and Oleksandr Zinchenko - who started the final Manchester City lost to Jorginho’s Chelsea in 2021 - next in terms of experience.
However, Arsenal’s three leading scorers this season - Bukayo Saka, Gabriel Martinelli and Martin Odegaard - have made two Champions League appearances between them.
Xhaka is the only player that appeared in Arsenal's most recent Champions League match who is still at the club. Bayern Munich romped to a 5-1 win at the Emirates in 2017, condemning the Gunners to a humiliating 10-2 aggregate defeat and the club's seventh consecutive exit in the round of 16.
No team in this season’s Europa League underperformed their expected goals by a larger margin than Arsenal, with the Gunners scoring just ten goals from chances that, on average, would warrant between 15 and 16 (per FBref). Arsenal had a worse conversion rate than Qarabag, Ludogorets and AEK Larnaka.
That lack of clinical edge was particularly costly in the second leg against Sporting. "We created three big chances and didn't score,” Arteta lamented at the end of the tie.
The rest of Arsenal's campaign will be solely focused on ending the club's 19-year wait for a Premier League title, bringing greater "clarity" to the season as Arteta put it. However, when the season comes to a close and minds are allowed to wander to European nights that don't take place on a Thursday, Arteta and his players have reason to be a little wary - whether they enter the competition as Premier League champions or not.