After Arsenal’s shock Europa League exit at the hands of Olympiacos last week, Dan Critchlow believes Mikel Arteta now has to use the FA Cup as an opportunity to lift spirits.
Arsenal face Portsmouth tonight, in the final competition they can actually win. The League Cup campaign is over, the European run cut short, and the Premier League title is mathematically impossible — not that it was a realistic possibility at any stage this season.
Instead, any lingering hopes of silverware lie with the competition no one has won more than the Gunners.
In a sense, winning the FA Cup wouldn’t change a huge amount at Arsenal. We saw from 2014 to 2017 that it’s perfectly possible to be hugely successful in the competition and still drift further behind your rivals in the league and in Europe.
It’s not as if the £6.795m prize money you get for winning the competition even comes close to the kind of cash Arsenal need to compete at the top.
Instead, it’s about putting a marker down for the Arteta era at the club. Arsenal need to prove they can win trophies again. They need to cast away the memories of the 4-1 against Chelsea in Baku, or the 3-0 League Cup final defeat to Manchester City. It doesn’t take long for the winning mentality at a club to disappear with a couple of results like those.
A cup run could also help motivate the squad and keep them ticking over for the league games. This weekend opened up a small window of hope in a top-four finish, with Chelsea, Spurs, Man United and Leicester all slipping to draws or defeats.
Arsenal are now eight points off a Champions League spot with a game in-hand and a decent set of fixtures coming up. If Man City don’t win the appeal against their European ban, fifth could be enough, bringing that target three points closer. There’s certainly a chance of a return to Europe’s premium competition, however slim it may be.
A run to Wembley would give the players something to work towards, the fans something to look forward to, and the board a little more money to work with.
The lack of a distraction from the Europa League helps that goal; Arsenal certainly aren’t going to worry about fixture congestion between now and May.
There’s an argument to be made that a similar FA Cup exit would cause more problems than it would solve though. Arteta has a huge squad at his disposal, with 26 formally-recognised senior players and Bukayo Saka effectively acting as a 27th. Of those, only Calum Chambers and Sead Kolasinac are missing right now.
If Arsenal only play one game a week for the rest of the season, with a maximum of 14 players featuring in each one, you’re making almost half the squad unhappy every matchday. Far from leaving the squad exhausted, a few cup games might actually help some players get a rare appearance on the pitch. At most, we’re talking about four extra matches, if Arteta’s side reach the final.
A run to Wembley would give the players something to work towards, the fans something to look forward to, the board a little more money to work with, and the club belief Arsenal can produce when it matters. For now, let’s just take things step-by-step, starting with tonight’s trip to Portsmouth.