Another defeat by Manchester City on Sunday leaves the Gabon star and his teammates facing a fight to feature in Europe altogether next season
Arsenal’s 11th loss in this strange Premier League season leaves them at a crossroads over which competition to prioritise for the remainder of the campaign.
The 1-0 defeat at the Emirates Stadium to an in-form Manchester City wasn’t helped by an early concession to Raheem Sterling, who netted a free header in the second minute. While Mikel Arteta will question how a 170cm forward was left unmarked in the six-yard box, the fact Arsenal were largely kept at arm’s length by the Cityzens was bothersome.
In isolation, losing to Pep Guardiola’s men is no humiliation; however, Sunday continued a worrying trend under the green Gunners boss in which they have failed to mount any significant challenge after falling behind.
Last year’s FA Cup finalists have been beaten 16 times since Arteta’s appointment in December 2019, with 11 taking place after letting in the first goal. Nine of those matches have seen them fire blanks as they similarly did on Sunday.
It was also a peripheral evening for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who was barely involved despite Arsenal having 45 percent of possession.
When it comes to team selection, what should be Arteta’s priority? Tonight and the second leg? Or City on Sunday? Personally, I think these two games with Benfica have to take preference. If he’s going to make changes, it should be against City.
— Charles Watts (@charles_watts) February 18, 2021
There was disappointment felt over the Gabon star’s inability to thrive after scoring five times in his last two league starts (twice vs Newcastle and three times vs Leeds United), but the anonymous nature of the showing vs City resurrects the age-old debate over who should lead the attack under Arteta in these sorts of games.
There’s a sense Alexander Lacazette is the more rounded frontman and offers more to the side due to his superior link-up and hold-up play, an argument strengthened by the Central African’s anonymous showing on Sunday.
Aubameyang barely received possession against City, evidenced by an absence of attempts for 90 minutes and general non-involvement that saw him receive the fewest passes among Arsenal’s attackers in open play (19), with only nine touches coming in the final third.
The upshot of an 11th league defeat means Arteta’s men face an uphill task to finish in the Champions League spots, with 11 points separating them from an in-form West Ham United in fourth with 13 games to play. The saving grace has to be the erratic form of the teams above them, with Liverpool in sixth to Tottenham Hotspur in ninth not particularly pulling up trees at the moment.
Aubameyang scored his first Premier League hat-trick last week, then later went and breached Covid-19 regulations. 😲
Will he feature against Man City? 🎙️
— Goal Africa (@GoalAfrica) February 21, 2021
2020/21 has already highlighted the ever-changing narratives that accompany pandemic football and it’s been no different with the North London side, who have endured a topsy-turvy campaign to date.
Their wretched run of form in the autumn looked to have removed them from contention before an upswing in results after beating Chelsea 3-1 in December led to a possibility of the Gunners supplanting teams who looked clear before the upturn at the backend of 2020 and into the New Year.
However, a recent run of three defeats in five has put a downer on that turnaround and leaves Arteta’s troops with little margin for error with games running out and matches against six of the current top nine sides to come in their final 13 matches.
Barring a monumental collapse from Manchester United and Leicester City in second and third respectively, only one slot appears to be up for grabs and there’s a feeling the three-time Premier League champions have left themselves too much to do in the league.
Thus, the Europa League probably represents the easier path to silverware and a return to Champions League football.
Be that as it may, it won’t be a straightforward journey for Aubameyang and his teammates, with several quality sides still in the competition, many of whom could likewise turn attentions to the continent’s second-tier tournament if they deem it a simpler route to the CL.
Villarreal, managed by old Arsenal boss Unai Emery, are sixth in La Liga seven points behind Sevilla in fourth, Roma face a five-way battle to end in the Champions League positions in Serie A and Bayer Leverkusen currently sit in fifth-place in the Bundesliga, five points adrift of Eintracht Frankfurt.
Tottenham Hotspur are largely in the same boat as their North London rivals and Jose Mourinho will attempt to repeat his success with Man United in 2016/17 who put all their eggs in the Europa League basket when a top four spot looked beyond them.
The aforementioned four teams could turn to the EL, while AC Milan, the Red Devils and Leicester ought to fancy their chances in the competition’s latter stages if they stay in the picture.
As for Aubameyang, it’s been a massive let-down to see one of Africa’s most impressive goal scorers of his generation fail to feature prominently in the Champions League. He represented Borussia Dortmund in the revered competition four times in five years in Germany but hasn’t faced off with the continent’s best since 2017.
The move to North London in January 2018 was meant to fire the Gunners back into Europe’s biggest club competition, yet, Arsenal have regressed significantly since and may even miss out on continental football altogether in 2021/22.
Having renewed for another three years in September last year, the possibility of Auba never getting CL football at the club looms large. What began with promise and fanfare now threatens to fade away amid Arsenal’s continued decline.
Without a doubt, the next few months will be interesting for the Gabon star and Arteta, who need to find solutions promptly with next season’s participation in Europe on the line.