Mikel Arteta feeling the heat as Europa League heartbreak adds to season of frustration

Having gambled everything on the Europa League, and lost, Arsenal manager Mike Arteta now faces a serious moment of reflection as he considers his Emirates project.
Mikel Arteta feeling the heat as Europa League heartbreak adds to season of frustration

Having gambled everything on the Europa League, and lost, Arsenal manager Mike Arteta now faces a serious moment of reflection as he considers his Emirates project, writes Chris Hatherall. Picture: John Walton

Having gambled everything on the Europa League, and lost, Arsenal manager Mike Arteta now faces a serious moment of reflection as he considers his Emirates project.

It cannot be overstated just how important the competition, once derided and lampooned by Premier League fans, had become to Arsenal’s future.

Victory against Villarreal, which would have set up a classic final against Manchester United in Poland, had the potential to save what has been a hugely frustrating and inconsistent season by catapulting Arsenal back into the Champions League.

But having failed to do so, victims of a tentative first half and a shot-shy second in which luck was also missing, the assessment of the team’s campaign looks stark at a time when fans are already protesting about the ownership.

Questions about the manager’s suitability for the role will, for the first time, be asked. In fact, within seconds of the final whistle there were Arsenal fans on social media doing just that.

Those supporters may not be representative of the overall view but, nevertheless, it’s a wake-up call at a club which is slipping to new lows.

This is a side which has frustrated for large parts of the season, prompting even some of Arteta’s biggest supporters to wonder if they are on the right path, and this result means there is no silver lining.

Finishing outside the top 10 in the Premier League under Arsene Wenger would have been absolutely unthinkable, despite the desperation of Arsenal fans to see the Frenchman leave, but that is still possible for the current side which, despite good displays in Europe, sits ninth in the league where it really matters — with West Brom, Chelsea, Crystal Palace, and Brighton still to play.

Arsenal fans, and Arsenal pundits, have largely been willing to give Arteta breathing space so far. After all, he is still cutting his teeth after learning his trade under Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, but he cannot rely on that goodwill forever.

The overall sense whenever you speak to Arteta is that he is a coach of real talent, with a clear vision of where he wants to go and a determination to make it happen. But under him Arsenal continue to lurch from the sublime to the ridiculous, and often in the space of just a few days.

One day there’s defensive solidity, attacking verve, and a steely determination to get over the line; the next it’s individual errors, sloppy passing, and a strange lethargy from everyone other than outstanding youngster Bukayo Saka.

Once again they took too long to wake up against Villarreal, just as they did in the first leg, and then missed glorious chances to win it.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang twice hit the post, but the small margins were against Arsenal and that’s the problem when you gamble on cup success.

You have to say that Uefa’s decision to bolster the reputation and appeal of the Europa League by giving the winners a place in the following season’s Champions League has been a masterstroke; transforming sentiment towards it in a flash.

Suddenly it is a competition that teams want to win; a competition which can save your season, not ruin it, by guaranteeing your place at the top table. But with that prize comes the possibility that managers who prioritise it over league results could end up being badly stung.

And that must be how Arteta feels now.

There have been some strong performances from the Gunners in Europe, starting with a 4-1 win over Molde in November, then on to a 3-1 victory in Olympiakos before a pivotal 4-0 win at Slavia Prague after being held 1-1 at home in the first leg.

That was the day when Arsenal’s mentality really came to the fore and gave us a hint of what they could achieve.

Had they gone on to win the trophy it might have been easy to forget that they followed that result with a dour 1-1 draw at home against lowly Fulham and an even worse performance when losing 1-0 against Everton, also at the Emirates. Now, however, memories of those results are going to come flooding back.

The biggest challenges for Arteta next season are twofold: firstly, finding a way to get the best out of his team every week, and, secondly, finding a way to make the team, built by previous managers, feel like his own.

Beating United in the once-maligned Europa League could have made both those goals a whole lot easier — raising not only confidence but also Arsenal’s opportunities in the transfer window. But that dream has gone.

Suggestions that Arteta is no longer the man for the job are still whispered rather than shouted, but they are not entirely unjustified.

This a massive blow for a club that was once used to winning trophies, and he is the man at the helm.

The Spaniard gambled on the Europa League to save his season and, sadly for him, football’s roulette wheel, at the crucial moment, wasn’t kind.

Now he has to hope and pray his chips aren’t up.

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