Arsenal’s Premier League season is, for all intents and purposes, over. After five league losses since the turn of the year, the Gunners find themselves stranded behind the pack in sixth place instead of battling it out among the Premier League elite for a spot in the top four. The table tells the story: 33 points behind leaders Manchester City and 13 points behind fourth-place Tottenham, Arsenal have virtually nothing to play for in their remaining eight league matches. It is a peculiar, if not disheartening situation.
Arsene Wenger’s hopes of salvaging something from the worst season of his 21-year tenure now lie in the Europa League, a competition that offers both a chance to win his first European trophy and a route into next season’s Champions League. Still, the Frenchman must manage his squad for eight essentially meaningless domestic games, a task which presents both risk and opportunity. Here are some factors Wenger should consider as he leads his side through the ‘dead rubbers’ that make up the rest of the Premier League season.
Keep Key Europa League Players Fresh
It should serve as a wakeup call that the Europa League has, at this point, become more important to Arsenal than the Premier League. The club have no time to scoff at the stature of the competition, however, as it represents their best shot to get back into Europe’s elite tournament.
The Gunners are now in the quarterfinals after beating a strong AC Milan side 5–1 on aggregate—an outcome that few expected considering the way Arsenal had been playing. The 2-0 win at the San Siro was one of Arsenal’s strongest performances of the season, with the back four’s uncharacteristically resolute defending giving the entire team a platform to play with freedom and confidence.
Arsene Wenger will use that performance as a template for next month’s quarterfinal tie against CSKA Moscow. As Arsenal’s season rests on beating the Russian outfit over two legs, Wenger should keep key players fresh by limiting their minutes in the league. The fixture sandwiched between the two legs—Southampton at home—should see some rotation, with the likes of Laurent Koscielny, Aaron Ramsey, and perhaps even Hector Bellerin and Mesut Özil getting the day off.
Give the youngsters a chance
One of the highlights of Arsenal’s dismal season has been the particularly exciting crop of young players breaking into the first team. Ainsley Maitland-Niles hasn’t looked out of place when slotting in at left-back—a position he’s not used to playing—while Reiss Nelson, Eddie Nketiah, and Joe Willock have all impressed when given minutes in the Europa League and Carabao Cup.
The low-pressure, dead rubber league games provide an ideal setting for Arsenal’s young talents to gain valuable first team minutes. As the Gunners tend to play their best football when the pressure is off, the youngsters will slot into a free-flowing, positive Arsenal side rather than a calamitous train wreck, ultimately aiding their development.
One player in particular who fans would like to see more of is Reiss Nelson. Despite shining in the preseason tour of Asia last summer with his silky touches and mazy dribbles, the winger has played just 18 league minutes this season. With Alex Iwobi flattering to deceive at right-wing, it could be time to see what Nelson is truly capable of by giving him an extended run in the first team. What’s more, the 18-year-old’s contract expires next summer, and it would be a shame if the club’s brightest prospect in years was to leave because he wasn’t given a proper chance.
Ainsley Maitland-Niles is another who would benefit from increased playing time in the Premier League. Impressing at left-back a handful of times this season with composure that belies his age and remarkable recovery speed, Maitland-Niles has deserved a chance to play in central midfield, his preferred position. Moving to the defense, Rob Holding or Calum Chambers could slot in while Laurent Koscielny is rested, with both in need of minutes to regain confidence.
The opportunity is there for Arsenal’s next generation to be integrated into the first team. Of all people, Arsene Wenger should be the first to recognize it.
Don’t let the results slide
Although the rest of Arsenal’s Premier League season is technically pointless, the results will still influence the atmosphere around the club and the fan sentiment. While there may be no tangible consequences to defeat, a heavy loss at Old Trafford or a home upset to West Ham would add to the club’s malaise and bring more empty seats.
No man is more aware of that than Arsene Wenger, who in the past has described each and every defeat as “a scar on my heart.” The Frenchman will want to win his remaining games regardless of their importance as he looks to bring the feel-good factor back to the club. More importantly, Arsenal’s Premier League duties aren’t completely disconnected from their Europa League campaign: a series of losses could send them back into a negative spiral, while a run of form would build momentum that translates to Europe.
The Premier League season may be over, but Arsenal arguably have more to play for than ever. In a bid to end his worst-ever season on a high and potentially save his job, Arsene Wenger will have to manage his squad with care and canny between now and the end of May.
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