Arsenal: What now after shock Europa League exit?
Can the Gunners still finish the season on a high? And how could their Europa League exit impact their summer plans?
By Nick Wright and Oliver Yew
Last Updated: 28/02/20 10:02pm
Arsenal were sent crashing out of the Europa League in agonising fashion by Olympiakos on Thursday night, so what now for their season?
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang's acrobatic strike in extra time seemed to have secured Arsenal's place in the last 16, but the Emirates Stadium was silenced when Youssef El Arabi scored a 119th-minute winner to send Olympiakos through on away goals.
It represents a major blow to Arsenal's hopes of qualifying for next season's Champions League, which could in turn have wider repercussions.
After an otherwise encouraging start to Mikel Arteta's tenure, we look at where this setback leaves Arsenal - and where they go next...
Focus on the FA Cup?
The Europa League was not just viewed as a possible route into the Champions League, it was also a realistic opportunity to win silverware. In his post-match press conference at the Emirates Stadium on Thursday night, Arteta described it as "a very beautiful competition to try to win".
Instead, their only remaining hope of lifting a trophy this season is the FA Cup. Arsenal reached the fifth round of the competition thanks to narrow victories over Leeds and Bournemouth, and the next hurdle comes on Monday night at Fratton Park, where they face Portsmouth.
They will, of course, be strong favourites against the League One side, and the competition has certainly provided memorable moments in the recent past, with Arsenal winning it three times between 2013 and 2017. Arteta was an Arsenal player for the first two of those successes, so knows what it takes to win the competition.
But even if Arsenal do dispatch Portsmouth - and it will not be easy in such hostile surroundings - there will be far bigger challenges ahead. Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Leicester, Tottenham, Manchester United and Sheffield United are among the teams still left in the competition. In terms of the strength of the opposition, the Europa League arguably represented an easier target.
Continued top-four fight in Premier League
Arteta is sure to take the FA Cup seriously, but, while Arsenal have considerable ground to make up, there is plenty to play for in the Premier League too. Fourth-placed Chelsea are seven points above them but not out of reach, while Manchester City's European ban means a fifth-placed finish may yet be enough to secure Champions League qualification too.
Arsenal might be helped by the fact that the teams above them - from eighth-placed Wolves to third-placed Leicester - have problems of their own, but they will still need to find a level of consistency that has eluded them all season if they are to start climbing up the table.
Arsenal are yet to win three consecutive Premier League games in this campaign. But having beaten Newcastle and Everton in their last two, the opportunity is there to change that when they host struggling West Ham on March 7. Do that, and their prospects might start to look a little brighter.
Sort out the contract question marks
Can Arsenal get Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to sign a new deal? That's one of the biggest questions that needs answering before the summer.
The Gunners' talisman, who has 20 goals to his name so far this season, has less than 18 months left on his current deal at the Emirates Stadium and Arsenal will be desperate to get their captain to extend his stay at the club.
However, if there is any doubt then they will have to make a very tough decision on the Premier League's joint-top goal scorer in order to avoid a similar scenario to the one that saw Aaron Ramsey move to Juventus on a free transfer last summer.
The club has a very good idea of how he wants to develop things. They are in constant communication with players' agents and they know the plan better than I do. I completely trust them on that
Mikel Arteta on Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang
Last May, managing director Vinai Venkatesham said: "We need to be really disciplined when we are dealing with senior players who are not towards the end of their careers. So that means we have to start making the difficult decisions when they have two years left on the contracts. We're either going to renew those contracts or we're going to be selling them."
With Mesut Ozil, Shkodran Mustafi, David Luiz and Sokratis Papastathopoulos also entering the last 18 months of their contracts and Alexandre Lacazette's deal expiring in the summer of 2022, we'll see if Arsenal are going to be true to their word.
Another player entering the final 18 months of his contract is Bukayo Saka. The 18-year-old has enjoyed a breakthrough season with the Gunners and is a key part of the future of the club alongside the likes of Gabriel Martinelli, Joe Willock, Reiss Nelson and Emile Smith Rowe, who is on loan at Huddersfield.
Reports suggest Arsenal have stepped up their attempts to tie down Saka but only time will tell if he will extend his stay at the Emirates as another big decision looms for the club's hierarchy.
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Make a call on Ozil's future
How do you solve a problem like Mesut Ozil?
Arteta has placed the playmaker at the forefront of his plans this season, making him one of only three players to start each of his first eight Premier League games in charge. But while his work-rate has improved, his attacking output remains low.
So far this season, he has contributed only one goal and one assist in 17 Premier League appearances, and his numbers for shots and chances created are still way down on previous campaigns.
Ozil did find the net in the recent win over Newcastle, ending a 10-month barren run, but on Thursday night at the Emirates, he took another step backwards. Ozil played the full 120 minutes, but, in a crowded field, he was arguably Arsenal's poorest performer.
That's especially problematic when his £350,000-per-week wages make him one of the highest-paid players in the Premier League, and if Arsenal do miss out on the financial rewards of Champions League qualification for another season, that lucrative contract will weigh heavier than ever.
Together with the club's hierarchy, then, Arteta will have to decide whether he still believes he can get the 31-year-old back to his best, or whether to try to move him on in the summer and free up space on the wage bill for new recruits.
What about the rest of the squad?
"With me, they have a clean slate. I told them that. You're not going to be judged on things you've done in the past, whether they are negative or positive."
They were the words of Arteta ahead of his first match in charge of the Gunners at Bournemouth back in December and he has been true to his word. An example of that has been the re-emergence of Shkodran Mustafi, who has put in a number of improved performances at the heart of the Arsenal defence.
There are still plenty of question marks over a number of players in Arteta's squad. Reports in the national newspapers have suggested the Spaniard is planning a huge summer overhaul of his squad, but who could make way?
Despite his recent good form, Mustafi was continually linked with a move away from the Emirates Stadium last summer and again in January. Granit Xhaka, who lost the captaincy earlier in the season, is another who appears to have found his mojo once again after seeking a move away from the club, but could he look for an exit again in the summer?
Matteo Guendouzi is a player with huge potential but concerns about his attitude could force the Gunners to cash in, while decisions will have to be made regarding on-loan stars Dani Ceballos, Cedric Soares and Pablo Mari (the latter two are yet to play) and the likes of Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Mohamed Elneny and Konstantinos Mavropanos, who are on loan at Roma, Besiktas and Nurnberg respectively.
The futures of Sead Kolasinac and Papastathopoulos could also be up for debate but what is certain is that Arteta will now be starting to form strong opinions on his players and he will continue to do so for the remainder of the season as he decides who he wants with him for the ride as he attempts to return Arsenal to the top table of English and European football.
Start planning for the summer now
It was always going to be difficult for Arteta to turn the tide at Arsenal immediately, considering the position Unai Emery had left the club in.
Before Thursday night's defeat to Olympiakos - their first since December 29 - recent performances had created a sense of optimism among Arsenal fans that the club's fortunes were finally changing. However, the Gunners' dramatic Europa League exit will serve as a timely reminder of the huge task facing Arteta at the Emirates Stadium.
Despite the recent positive displays, Arsenal are not where Arteta wants them to be. His first job will be to try to lift his players for the remainder of the season, but attention must also turn to his first summer at the club, when he will be able to revamp his squad and implement even more change.
Arsenal will be boosted by the arrival of centre-back William Saliba from Saint-Etienne, and Arteta has already said that the club have begun planning other deals.
"We have to plan, and we need to know the direction we want to head in, and we need to bear in mind different scenarios," he said earlier this month. "I have to tell the club what we need, where we think we can improve and where we want to end up. If we all end with the same thing, we put a plan together to try and execute it and make the process as short as possible."
That planning process has just become even more important, especially if their spending power is potentially affected by another season out of the Champions League. All eyes will then be on head of football Raul Sanllehi and technical director Edu as they look to bring those plans to fruition.