Isn’t it strange how a one off game has the power to define a whole season. During the 2018/19 campaign, Arsenal weren’t much worse than Tottenham Hotspur or Chelsea - who both finished a few points above them in the Premier League - however, it almost felt ominous that Arsenal would find a way on to Europe’s top table via an unpopular back door, in the back end of Baku, Azerbaijan.
Given the distance travelled, given the slightly eerie atmosphere in the stadium, given the amount of empty seats and the lack of fans that were in the stadium from both clubs, perhaps it was inevitable that the game wouldn’t start with fierce intensity.
Predictable things that happened in the #EuropaLeague final:— Ben Haines (@benhainess) May 29, 2019
⚽️ Giroud came back to bite Arsenal
⚽️ Hazard bossed it then confirmed he's leaving
⚽️ Arsenal's weak mentality was exposed
⚽️ Arsenal's defence were poor
⚽️ A barely fit Kante still outruns everyone#ARSCHE
In a fairly drab first half it would most likely need something truly special to really light it up.
STEP FORWARD MESUT OZIL…I joke.
But if ever there would have been a time put that ‘He doesn’t do it in the big games’ chat to bed, it was then. Instead, he meandered off the pitch after about 70 minutes as Arsenal were falling apart.
What will perhaps make the aforementioned lack of effort sting a little more, is the fact that someone like Olivier Giroud - who could barely get a game for Arsenal - was one of the star men for the opposition.
Arsenal fans will allude to what happened off the pitch in the lead up to the final, most notably the diplomatic difficulties which led to Henrikh Mkhitaryan being unable to play, as the reason for the collapse. And while that had an obvious negative impact (see the above about Mesut Ozil, a player who wouldn't have started the game had Mkhitaryan been available), it's not the main reason for this huge collapse.
Most of the Arsenal fans we spoke to out in Azerbaijan were far more confident than the Chelsea fans. People said the extra incentive of playing for a place in the Champions League would be a difference maker.
But the same mentality problems that have plagued them over the last 10 years resurfaced the moment Chelsea went one up. On a night when Chelsea’s big players turned up, Arsenal’s wilted at the first opportunity.
In fact, Alex Iwobi, one of the more criticised players by the Arsenal fan base, was their brightest spark.
Could a win have completely changed the perception of Arsenal’s season? The perception of the player's mental fragility? The perception that the club falling further and further away from the top teams in England?
In a word - yes.
But they lost.
So the questions remain.
Arsenal haven't had a good season. The likes of Mesut Ozil haven't shrugged off the critiques of his effort levels. Arsenal are further away from the top four than ever.
And to make matters worse, without Champions League football, their summer transfer budgt is now a measly £40m. In today’s market, that probably gets you Olivier Giroud back. At best.
Spurs, Man United, Liverpool and City will all spend, and will all strengthen, and it’ll be harder than ever for Arsenal to keep up.
It was never going to be easy for Arsenal or Chelsea to bring their best to Azerbaijan, but Chelsea, for all the talk around their mentality and in-fighting were more steely, braver, more aggressive and handled the occasion far better than Arsenal in Baku.
For Arsenal, it’ll be another long summer of looking in the mirror, big words, big expectation for next year, followed by the 2019/20 Europa League draw.