Every season comes with crucial junctures, tough choices, and moments that leave you feeling ‘hindsight is 20/20’. Reducing the quantity of the latter often falls on the manager’s shoulders and is likely in direct correlation with the overall result of the campaign. One of the most common inevitabilities for a manger like Arteta, with a team in four competitions this season, is the prioritization of competitions.
Arteta opted to rotate his squad with the Premier League matchup against Southampton on Tuesday clearly becoming the priority. The decision didn’t end well in the FA Cup as Arsenal’s defense of the cup ended earlier than many will have hoped, but it now puts pressure on Arteta regarding tomorrow’s match. Getting a win against that same Southampton side just 72 hours after losing, at least offers some short-term justification for the decision.
This past weekend, Southampton named close to their full-strength squad, whereas Arsenal heavily rotated their lineup. In the first half, Southampton pressed Arsenal at every opportunity forcing the Gunners into a lot of mistakes mistakes and sloppy play. An own goal from Gabriel was the result, and it was all Southampton needed to advance to the 5th round of the FA Cup.
While Arteta’s thought process was clear, that didn’t mean it was one that many Arsenal fans agreed with. The idea of winning a trophy, coupled with a valiant defense of silverware currently in The Gunners’ possession offers a romantic storyline. After all, competing season after season is about working toward those moments where you can capture silverware and share those glorious moments that Gooners indulged in at the end of the last campaign.
Where do Arsenal currently sit in the Premier League table — 11th? Not a lot to win there. Even being seven points off 4th place with half the season seems like a daunting challenge given the inconsistent level of performance Arsenal have produced this season. Why does that capture the priority over the FA Cup that proved crucial to putting Arsenal back into Europa this season?
Winning the FA Cup is nice, winning silverware is fantastic, but winning the award this year isn’t quite as lucrative, nor does it get you into the Europa League proper any more. The prize money has been halved, the Europa League conference awaits the winner which will become the third tier of UEFA competition, so the incentive is significantly lessened.
I don’t think it is hard to wrap your head around that thought process, and believe that Arteta is looking at the compact table, Arsenal’s upcoming schedule, and knows he needs to find a way to keep Arsenal moving upward. Arsenal are 6 points behind 5th place Tottenham, 7 behind 4th place Liverpool, and the upcoming run of tough matches will define what is possible for this team.
Arsenal’s next seven Premier League matches are: Southampton, Manchester United, Wolves, Aston Villa, Leeds, Manchester City, and Leicester City. Not to mention, they will have their two Europa League matches against Benfica during that difficult spell. Against those seven Premier League teams this season, Arsenal have only managed 5 points. That won’t be enough to satisfy the fans and it would effectively end Arsenal’s domestic campaign ambitions.
Arsenal need to find a way to take at least 10+ of the 21 possible points from those seven matches — and even that might not quite be enough — which starts with a win on Tuesday. That not only gets the tough run of fixtures off to a good start, it continues Arsenal’s good league form and justifies the decision to rotate specific players.
It’s going to be an interesting finish to the season. The closing of this January window could prove to make this finish even more interesting. Whether Arsenal will have much to play for until the last day or not could be contingent on what they manage to do for themselves in this coming month.
It’s never fun to bow out of a cup, especially a cup the club has won fourteen times and was currently defending, but these seasons often come to points where tough decisions have to be made. It was a tough loss to take, but Arteta and Arsenal need to prove it was a necessary evil by learning from it, keeping their good form in the Premier League rolling, and translating it to the upcoming Europa League.