29 May 2019: Arsenal head over to Baku knowing victory against Chelsea in the Europa League final will put them back into the Champions League and avoid playing another season in the less glamorous competition.
1 August 2020: Arsenal are going to Wembley knowing victory over Chelsea in the FA Cup final will secure them a place in the Europa League, the only European football they can obtain this season.
The chance to play in the elite competition, gain valuable funding, be a more lucrative proposition to transfer targets, and win a European trophy? That scenario is substantially more appealing than winning a legendary domestic cup and playing in the Europa League because the league position this season was so bad that it’s the only hope they’ve got.
Well, it is, and it isn’t.
Champions League or Europa League? No brainer. Yet there is no point badgering on with the ‘they deserve to be in the Champions League’ nonsense; you only deserve to be there if you’re good enough. Arsenal haven’t been that. For a while.
It was the lowest of the low after that 4-1 humbling to the Blues in Azerbaijan, but in the glorious parameters of hindsight, at least they weren’t out of Europe entirely. Fast forward a little over 12 months and a Wembley final is the club’s only chance of reaching such ‘dizzying’ heights. Make no bones about it, that’s bad. The worst season for 25 years levels of bad.
So why the encouragement?
The current predicament somehow has a tinge more optimism about it. Which, by all accounts, it shouldn’t.
The club captain has still not signed on the dotted line, the financial situation is beyond bleak, Matteo Guendouzi remains an outcast, as does Mesut Ozil, the defensive options resemble the final four chocolates left in the Quality Street tub, the owners are still loathed for not showing their hand and this Premier League season has been the worst in many supporters’ lifetimes. There is a shiny new kit though!
Yet somehow, there is still more hope about the future of Arsenal. Whether that is a rather damning indictment of the previous regime or a glowing assessment of the current one comes down to personal preference.
There is an element of both, though. Unai Emery’s tactical peculiarities had wedged a blunt knife between the supporters and the club, with faith in the Spaniard being lost more and more with every inch further up the pitch he played Lucas Torreira. He was not the man for the job and it was never going to work.
You can call it trial and error, if you like. One does not simply replace Arsene Wenger, but it would’ve been damn fine luck to get close on the first try.
Now, staring down the barrel of a mid-table finish in the Premier League with all the issues listed above and more, the disconnect between the fans and club has been bridged to some extent. All crippling concerns aside, there is a far greater sense of unity. Mikel Arteta deserves an enormous degree of credit for steadying the ship.
Not with the results, of course, as they’ve been a mixed bag, but for the first time for a while, the shore is just about visible on the horizon. You may need binoculars, but it’s there.
Fans are on board with the changes he’s made, which has been aided by the fact the squad have too. The team didn’t believe in Emery. They believe in Arteta. So do the fans.
For the first time there is an acceptance of the difficulties ahead. This will be far from smooth. The trials and tribulations lying in wait will likely cause plenty more pain and despair; they could even occur at Wembley in the FA Cup final.
There is no shying away from just how significant victory against Chelsea will be. It’s utterly vital for the club’s transfer plans and finances – not to mention keeping hold of a certain few.
Yet if Arsenal lose on 1 August, the feeling of hurt will differ slightly, as the road ahead offers far more encouragement than the one that followed after Baku. This process will take time, but under Arteta’s well-spoken and meaningful guidance, the two steps back actually feel, this time, that they’ll be followed by a step forward.
©Ross Kimberly/90 min