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Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal Future should not be Decided by UCL Qualification

By Rob Worthington (Deputy Editor)

Speaking as a pundit on CBS Sports earlier this week, Thierry Henry asserted Arsenal’s season will be a “failure” if they don’t finish in the Top Four, and thus regain their place in the Champions League. Simply put, he is wrong.

This season has been about so much more than the league table. It has been about visible improvement on the pitch, which has been evident for quite some time now. As one would expect, this has translated to a favourable league position for Arsenal.

It is the club’s greatest opportunity to end their spell away from Europe’s elite competition since Unai Emery’s only full season in charge. Without the distraction of the Europa League, cup football, and significantly off-pitch chaos, Arsenal’s vision can be tunnelled directly at the Premier League.

Indeed, from where Arsenal are now, with 16 matches to play and a clear run at the fourth spot, it would be hugely disappointing if the Gunners were to miss out on Champions League qualification. And although it inevitably will by some, Arsenal’s season shouldn’t be viewed as a failure if they fall shy of fourth spot, and Mikel Arteta certainly shouldn’t be given his marching orders.

In these situations, it’s helpful to remind ourselves of pre-season aspirations. While of course the context of a successful first half of the season changes things, it must be remembered nobody expected Arsenal to be in this position at this point in the campaign prior to the 21/22 season’s beginning. On paper, Arsenal are not the fourth best team in the league. Mikel Arteta is currently overachieving.

Nevertheless, football is not played on paper. If it were, Manchester United’s points tally would currently be considerably higher, Spurs’ performance under top coach Antonio Conte would be of much better quality, and West Ham certainly wouldn’t be providing the genuine competition they currently are for a Top Four spot. It is this context which makes football so loveable. West Ham, nor the very young Arsenal squad, should be in contention for a Top Four finish. Yet, here we are, with these two teams arguably the favourites.

As I write this, I’m beginning to question whether I am right to assert that Arteta’s future shouldn’t be decided by Champions League qualification. But I’m going to stand by it. The direction the Spaniard has taken Arsenal in this season has been exciting. In anticipation of matches, regardless of the opponent, Arsenal fans are now filled with excitement rather than dread. And that is thanks to Mikel Arteta.

He has moulded a fantastic squad, which is one or two top signings away from being able to boast one of the best starting XIs in the league. All the while, as fans have been demanding for years, Arteta’s raised standards at Arsenal, with all the deadwood he inherited completely cleared out. He has built such a strong base, and he should be allowed to build upon it.

And one might question whether my standards are too low. Perhaps they are. But I am not ashamed to say I wanted Arsène Wenger to leave the club much sooner than he did. There was no direction under the Frenchman. It was all too comfortable. Achieving a Top Four finish would merely be a steppingstone for Mikel Arteta, whereas it was consistently Wenger’s target. Arteta wants to take Arsenal right to the top. There is currently a sense of direction at Arsenal which hasn’t been present for a very long time.

That’s not to say the rest of the season is a free pass. Mikel Arteta and his young squad must fight tooth and nail to achieve Champions League qualification this season. As aforementioned, it is an opportunity of gargantuan levels. It would be a transformative achievement and it absolutely should be the Arteta’s target. But if optimum effort is put in and Arsenal do miss out, it won’t be inexcusable.

One cannot escape the fact Arsenal possess a very young squad, the youngest in the Premier League, managed by a very young manager, again, the youngest in the league. Both the squad and the manager would learn so much if they were to miss out on their aim. Neither party would require further punishment.

It is a strange situation Arsenal are now in. During the first half of the season, the north London outfit’s underdog status appeared to be appreciated by those inside the club. Amid Manchester United’s dysfunctional squad glittering with superstars faltering and Spurs’ appointment of a superstar manager to manage a very average group of players, Arsenal quietly got on with their work, collecting three points frequently, and are thus viewed as favourites for a Top Four finish by many.

And as such, on the flip side, Mikel Arteta deserves great praise if he does guide his squad to that holy grail of Champions League qualification. However, his future does not hinder upon that, and he’ll likely still be a great success as Arsenal manager if his team’s appearance in Europe’s elite footballing competition is postponed just a little longer.

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