The Gunners travel to Fratton Park to take on Portsmouth in the FA Cup fifth round on Monday in a crucial match for the club’s fortunes next season
When Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s shot flew the wrong side of the post in the dying seconds of Arsenal’s defeat to Olympiacos on Thursday night, Mikel Arteta spun around in disbelief with his hands clutching his face.
It is impossible to know exactly what he was thinking when time seemed to stand still at the Emirates, but there must be a strong possibility that his plans for the summer will have popped into his head.
Arteta knew that winning the Europa League was Arsenal’s best chance of qualifying for the Champions League, a situation that would transform what the Spaniard would have been able to do in the summer in terms of reshaping his squad.
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But when Aubameyang’s hurried effort sliced agonisingly wide of the post, the chances of Arsenal landing the financial windfall that the Champions League would bring all but vanished for another year.
There is still a slight possibility via the Premier League, but even with fifth place potentially being enough for a route back into Europe’s premier competition next season, the odds of Arteta’s side going on a run good enough to challenge the likes of Chelsea, Tottenham, Manchester United and Wolves look pretty slim.
And so while those inside the Emirates were focused on Aubameyang in those final few seconds on Thursday evening, you would not have blamed Arteta for letting his mind focus on matters a few months down the line.
The job he has on his hands in north London is huge and without Champions League football, Arteta is going to have to work with one hand tied behind his back.
The problems he will face were laid bare when Arsenal announced the club’s financial results for 2018-19 less than 24 hours after the full-time whistle had been blown against Olympiacos.
A loss after tax of £27.1 million ($34.8m) was revealed, the club’s first overall loss since 2002.
“Our player trading profit for this financial year was limited and this combined with a second consecutive season of Europa League football has meant the club recorded its first overall loss since 2002,” commented chairman Sir Chips Keswick.
“For 2019-20 we will see increased commercial revenues from Adidas and our renewed deal with Emirates but another season outside the Champions League will continue to apply pressure to our financial results.”
Those figures show exactly where Arsenal are right now and how much the club is suffering without Champions League football.
Money is going to be extremely limited for Arteta this summer and that is hardly ideal given the clear plans he has in his head when it comes to reshaping his squad.
It is looking more and more likely that players will have to be sold to fund any major deals and the Spaniard accepts that difficult decisions will have to be made.
“The damage caused by the club not being in the Champions League for the third season is really big,” said Arsenal’s head coach.
“Financially the impact is enormous because the structure of this club is built to be in the Champions League and you can sustain that for one year or two, but then after you have to start making decisions.
“It will be difficult but this is the situation we are in now. We’re in that situation because we haven’t performed as well as the other top four clubs have been doing.”
The reality for Arsenal now is that if the Champions League is off the table for another season, it is vital that the club at least manages to secure Europa League football once again.
It may not bring in the riches the Champions League does, but it still provides a much-needed revenue stream which could strengthen a squad that is in desperate need of a rebuild.
Failure to even qualify for the Europa League in the 2020-21 campaign would not only have a big impact on the transfer budget for the summer, but it would also see the financial gap grow wider between Arsenal and the teams finishing in the Champions League spots.
The Gunners pocketed around €21.7m (£19m/$24.4m) for this season’s failed Europa League campaign and whilst that is a minimal return for a club whose business model and wage structure is based on Champions League revenues, they are in no position to turn their noses up at it.
Arsenal currently sit 10th in the Premier League, however, and although only five points separates them from fifth, it is far from guaranteed they will put a run of results together that are good enough to finish in one of the Europa League spots on offer.
And that is why the FA Cup – with the winners guaranteed a Europa League spot – takes on such significance. Arteta’s side head to Portsmouth on Monday night for a fifth round clash that is now hugely important.
Win and they will be just one game from a Wembley semi-final, but lose – and the fall-out so swiftly on the heels of the Olympiacos result does not bear thinking about.
This is a must-win game for Arsenal at Fratton Park so the players cannot afford to go into it still feeling sorry for themselves.
“It’s a trophy that we very much link with our history,” Arteta – who won the competition twice with Arsenal as a player – said ahead of the game.
“We want to continue to be attached to that knowing that in Portsmouth, it will be tough.”
And tough it will be. Portsmouth are unbeaten in 18 games at home and have won their last seven in a row, keeping eight clean sheets in their last 14 games on the south coast.
They may be a League One side, but Arsenal will have to be at their best to get past Kenny Jackett’s in-form outfit.
So a post-Olympiacos hangover is not an option. It is not just the Gunners’ season which rests on a good result at Fratton Park, the outcome could also ultimately have a major impact on the type of business that can be done in the summer.