If you haven’t heard, there’s yet another big showdown between #4 Liverpool and #5 Arsenal on Friday night. Ahead of the match, we check in with Paul, manager from The Short Fuse to see what’s up with the Europa League (oh how we don’t miss you), the #WengerOut movement, and Arsenal losing all of their biggest stars on free transfers (or possibly not).
The Liverpool Offside: Hi, Paul. Welcome to TLO Towers. Sorry, we can’t validate your parking. So, what's up in the Europa League?
The Short Fuse: Arsenal did what I often do at my job - they took the group stages as seriously as they needed to be taken and not one bit more. They refused to see it as anything resembling a serious challenge, and they played a lineup that reflected that. There were at least three games where I looked at the Arsenal bench and thought "I have never seen that name before" - and I follow the club pretty closely! That strategy actually paid off very well - they clinched knockout stage progression with two group games left, and backed into winning the group despite losing their only match of the group stages on the penultimate match day. All while playing a few starters, a bunch of bench depth, and giving a couple kids their senior team debut. All in all, it's exactly how you'd have wanted the group stage to go before the season started.
They advance as group winners, and will face Swedish side Östersund in the first knockout round.
TLO: You should be fine. Östersund is no FC Midtjylland, after all. Speaking of Europe’s second best competition, the demands of the Europa League (all 152 rounds) dictate that a challenger will, inevitably, have to choose between Europa League glory (?) and league ambitions, as Liverpool had to do in 2016, and United had to do last year. What should Arsenal's strategy be in choosing between these two competitions, in your opinion?
TSF: Well, the league is unwinnable this year - not that Arsenal were ever serious contenders to do so, but the rampant form of Manchester City means that there are realistically three Champions League slots to play for. Given that, and given that those three spots are being strongly contested by probably five teams (United, Arsenal, Spurs, Liverpool, Chelsea), I would like to see Arsenal go all in on the Europa League. Partly because I actually like the Europa League - it'll be cool to not lose to Bayern for once, and to see some new teams - but mostly because winning things is fun.
Part of me, though, is bracing for the IT'S ONLY THE EUROPA LEAGUE backlash should Arsenal win, because Arsenal, almost alone among big teams, are regularly beaten up by the media and fans for doing the exact same things other big teams do. Or. more accurately, for NOT doing things other big teams do - namely, winning trophies while maintaining a healthy financial edge over most teams, or somehow winning the wrong things. All while curating a Champions League appearance streak that most English teams would have killed for, by the way. The level of consistent excellence Arsenal has maintained in Wenger's time at the club is second only to that of Alex Ferguson's, but their recent downturn in form relative to their past has people's knives out in a way that kind of astounds me. People (including a large portion of Arsenal's own fan base) now look for reasons to dislike Arsene and Arsenal instead of actually enjoying the team they purport to love, and that makes me sad.
TLO: From a Liverpool perspective, we would have loved winning the Europa league two seasons ago, and it was infuriating to watch United accomplish the feat that we fell 45 minutes short of. So, yeah, good luck (whilst recognizing the damned if you do, damned if you don’t reality of being an Arsenal supporter, it must be exhausting)!
On the topic of being an Arsenal fan, I might be a bit behind on my Arsenal Fan TV, fam, but the #WengerOut crowd seems to have died down a bit. Have fans united behind the long-serving manager, or is he just a few poor results from another crisis?
TSF: Oh, never fear - they have not died down at all. What has died down is the overall level of Arsenal's online/social media/vocal fandom, on both sides - this season is playing out almost exactly as the last three have, in broad strokes and in specifics, and at this point there's almost literally nothing new to say about it. Arsene's inflexible, Arsene doesn't have a tactics bone in his body, Arsene doesn't substitute right, Kroenke's a terrible owner, it's all been said a million times over the last few seasons, and people are just weary of it all, and have kinda checked out unless something big happens. I was a rabid Wenger defender for a long time, until two years ago, and now I just want him to move on, because the club needs a breath of fresh air. Give him a statue bigger than Thierry Henry's out front, name a stand for him, give him all the accolades he rightly deserves, but it's past time for he and the club to part ways.
TLO: Great, remind me to stock up on popcorn and start watching more Arsenal Fan TV. Anyway, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain seems to be flourishing under Herr Klopp. I know, we're surprised too. What was holding him back under Wenger (besides the obvious and tragic lack of Klopp hugs)?
TSF: Honestly, I will believe "Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain seems to be flourishing" when it lasts more than not quite half a season's worth of games. We as Arsenal fans have started down this road with him so many times, only to see the car break down and spontaneously burst into flames as the wheels fall off, that I refuse to believe that the trip will actually happen this time. In his career, he has made 147 Premier League appearances and he has 10 goals; that's a very similar rate to the one goal in 15 appearances he's racked up for Liverpool. I mean, I don't wish him to fail; I just think that he kinda is who he is at this point.
TLO: We look forward to proving you wrong. Are Arsenal planning on strengthening in January? What are the most pressing areas of need?
TSF: POETRY CORNER!
TLO: Dear Fowler, what have I done?
TSF: So much depends
if he stays
Or if he goes
There are a bunch of X factors this January. It appears that Özil might be staying, but Alexis is reportedly eyeing an exit to Manchester City. If that happens, that becomes a pressing area of need. If that doesn't happen, Arsene is generally not one to dive headfirst into January transactions - there are exceptions, but he mostly prefers to deal in the summer, so I wouldn't expect anything major.
TLO: Looking ahead to Friday, Arsenal have scored quite a few big late goals. Liverpool have conceded quite a few big late goals. Liverpool are definitely conceding a late goal, right?
TSF: Arsenal playing at home? I definitely wouldn't rule it out. Which leads me to...
TLO: Hey there! I’m leading this conversation, which is definitely happening in real time at the real and glorious TLO Towers, and not over an email chain! Eh-hem...Prediction?
TSF: Arsenal actually decide to contest this game, unlike the reverse fixture, and hold on for a nervy 3-2 win. I should note here that I am desperately poor at predictions, so nothing I say will actually happen, but still.
TLO: Great, we hope your prediction does not come true. Best of luck the rest of the way in, especially when navigating all 385 rounds of the Europa League.
The “reverse fixture,” where I answer Paul’s questions, can be found on The Short Fuse. You can find Paul on Twitter with his handle: @misterpdb.