London – For Arsène Wenger, the boot is on the other foot – well, almost. The Arsenal manager flagged up a trend at the end of last season when he noted that Chelsea and Leicester City, the two most recent Premier League champions, were unencumbered by the demands of European football during their triumphant campaigns.
“Because the league is so physically difficult, maybe it is very difficult to cope with both,” Wenger said. “We will see how Chelsea respond next season.”
Arsenal’s league campaign ended in frustration when they finished fifth, meaning they missed out on Champions League qualification for the first time since 1997. But at least they had freed themselves up for a clear run at the domestic title. Not quite.
One of the keys to Arsenal’s season will be how they contend with the Europa League, with the unique Thursday-Sunday scheduling that it entails. Will Wenger rest his first-choice players to have them firing for the more serious business of the league? Yes, he suggested. That would be the plan.
“I will always play a team that has a good chance to win the next game,” Wenger said. “In the Europa League, if we can afford sometimes to rest some players, we will do it. But we have to adapt to the level of the competition and see, first, what kind of group we play in.”
Wenger had earlier been asked how he felt before a season with no Champions League football. “For us, it is a good opportunity to focus completely on the Premier League,” he replied.
The manager has signposted his intentions and it may be a popular move to give some of the club’s younger players – such as Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Reiss Nelson and Joe Willock – an opportunity in the Europa League. Wenger intends to sell a clutch of players, including Calum Chambers, Mathieu Debuchy, Carl Jenkinson, Kieran Gibbs and Lucas Pérez, but his squad will remain extremely deep.
Wenger offered further insight into his feelings towards the Europa League when he said the winners ought not to be granted entry into the Champions League. He even revealed he had voted against the proposal, which came into force in the 2014-15 season. To him, a big club should not view the Europa League as a kind of insurance policy in terms of Champions League qualification.
“You cannot go into the season and think that,” Wenger said. “I was always against it [the Europa League winners qualifying for the Champions League] because, at some stage, it can influence the championship. If a team is in a position in April where they have more chance to win the Europa League, they can let some games go in the championship and not completely focus on the regularity of the competition.
“Apart from Manchester United last season, who won the Europa League [having started in the competition], all the years before it was always a team who was kicked out of the Champions League [that won it]. That’s why, when we voted in Geneva [for the route into the Champions League], I was always against it.”
Wenger’s numbers do not bear scrutiny. Since the format of the Europa League – then the Uefa Cup – was changed in 1999-2000, only seven clubs have lifted the trophy after dropping down from the Champions League. Arsenal almost won it in that first season, after entering through the Champions League, only to lose the final to Galatasaray on penalties.
Wenger’s team finished last season 18 points adrift of Chelsea but they showed in the FA Cup final they could get the better of them over 90 minutes. “Last year, Chelsea did not play in the European Cup and, certainly, they were a bit more consistent in the Premier League,” Wenger said. “In the final, we have shown that the gap was not as high, maybe. I expect Chelsea to fight for the championship again and for us, when we have made 75 points, as we did last season, the target is to get 10 points more. With 10 points more, you are in there.”
Wenger is still there, in situ at the Emirates Stadium after all of the uncertainty over his contract renewal last season, and he is gripped by that eternal optimism. “I am sorry I am still here,” he said, with a smile. “I can understand that you want to kill me but, at the moment, I survive.”
The Guardian Sport