The hidden importance of beating Slavia Prague
Arsenal FC v Slavia Praha - UEFA Europa League Quarter Final: Leg One
LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 08: Players of Arsenal looks dejected after conceding their side's first goal scored by Tomas Holes of Slavia Praha (not pictured) during the UEFA Europa League Quarter Final First Leg match between Arsenal FC and Slavia Praha at Emirates Stadium on April 08, 2021 in London, England. Sporting stadiums around Europe remain under strict restrictions due to the Coronavirus Pandemic as Government social distancing laws prohibit fans inside venues resulting in games being played behind closed doors. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)

The disappointing 1-1 draw between Arsenal and Slavia Prague in the first leg of the Europa League quarter-final has set the return leg, and Arsenal's season more widely, on a knife-edge.

Poor finishing and questionable substitutions cost Arsenal dear, with Alexandre Lacazette and Bukayo Saka missing glaring chances. It is hard to think that the Gunners can reproduce such poor chance conversion again in the second leg in Prague, but they will have to play well to get the opportunities against a side that have knocked out both Rangers and Leicester City in previous rounds.

If Arsenal were to exit the competition, just how damaging could it be to the squad, the manager, and years to come?

Europa League or Bust

For some time now, Arsenal have been out of the running for European qualification through finishing well in the domestic league.

Picking up just 14 points from their opening 14 games have ensured that the north London side have been playing catch up to the top six since Christmas.

Despite improved performances and results since then, Mikel Arteta's side remain seven points away from Liverpool in sixth place. With just seven games to go, and injuries to key players, making up the difference would seem unlikely.

That leaves the Europa League as Arsenal's only way back to the Champions League, and a place back amongst Europe's elite clubs. Having been out of the competition since the 2016/17 season, when they were knocked out by Bayern Munich in the round of 16.

It is difficult to see Arsenal seriously competing in the Champions League next season, but the funding alone from reaching the competition would allow Arteta and Edu Gaspar to overhaul the squad and continue their rebuild.

If Arsenal were to qualify for the semi-finals tomorrow night, they would be just three games away from a return to the Champions League.

Being on the "easier" side of the draw, the Gunners would face either Unai Emery's Villareal or Dinamo Zagreb, who knocked Tottenham Hotspur out of the competition (Villareal hold a slender 1-0 advantage going into the second leg in Spain).

Prevail in the semi-final, and they would find themselves in a final against one of Manchester United, Roma, Granada or Ajax. Not easy by any means, but certainly achievable.

Winning the Europa League would mean that despite some awful league form, Arsenal would have won three trophies in Mikel Arteta's 18 months in charge, and would once again be back with the European elite.

The Economic Impact

The financial difference between the European competitions (and, indeed, no European competition) is vast.

According to Football.London, Arsenal earned €3.42m for their six group stage wins, plus an extra €1.5m for winning the group and qualifying for the last 16 (€1m and €500,000 respectively).

Qualifying for the quarter-final earnt the Gunners a further €1.5m, and an additional €2.4m theirs if they make it through to the semi-final. Winning the competition would grant Arteta's side another €8m, reaching a total of €16m for the entire competition.

This pales in comparison to the figures available in the Champions League. According to Simon Phillips (@siphillipssport), Chelsea made €10.8m for their four group stage wins, plus a further €47m for reaching the semi-finals of the competition this season.

Despite winning fewer games, the west London side have raked in nearly €60m in competition fees, almost 6x their north London counterparts income were they to reach the semi-final stage.

Evidently, not all of this would be spent on transfer fees, however a good chunk would certainly be freed up for arrivals.

Were Arsenal to go out tomorrow night, not only would they be unable to receive the potential tournament-winning prize money, but they would be stuck in the same second tier economic cycle, earning far less than the clubs which they are aiming to compete with domestically.

Add to that the reduced prize money for a lower finish in the Premier League this season, and the economic downturn of the Coronavirus pandemic, and the Gunners may once again be scraping the proverbial barrel for transfer fees.

 

Does Defeat spell the end for Arteta?

Were the Gunners to exit the competition tomorrow evening, an inquest would be inevitable.

While a poor league season would be papered over by European success, failure would lay the issues bare. There would be no discernible improvement on last seasons 8th place and FA Cup win, with the Gunners seemingly going backwards despite fighting talk.

Arteta's side are improved in almost every measurable metric from that of last season, but football is a results business, and those continue to elude the squad.

Would Arteta's job be on the line? It seems unlikely. There appears to be a good relationship between the Spanish boss and the Kroenke's, and the American owners have, for the time being, brought into the idea of a longer rebuild.

However, his line of credit with the fans would be nearing its end for many. Whilst some are willing to be patient, others demand improvements immediately, and level the accusation that Arteta is failing to play to his squad's strengths or get the best out of key players.

No matter which camp fans are in, defeat to Slavia Prague would be painful, and highlight just how far Arsenal have fallen in recent years.

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