On Thursday night, at the strange and unfamiliar time of 8:05 p.m. BST, Arsenal’s demotion on the European stage will become reality when they kick off their opening game of the Europa League group stage at home to FC Koln.
The last time Arsenal played at this level at the outset of a season, Arsene Wenger hadn’t yet won his first trophy at Highbury and Reiss Nelson, a player generating great expectation ahead of his likely arrival on the continental scene, hadn’t been born. One has to go all the way back to Sept. 30, 1997, in fact. What’s more, it was not a match to recall fondly.
After a 1-0 defeat away from home in the first leg of the UEFA Cup first-round match with PAOK, Arsenal went ahead through Dennis Bergkamp only to see Zisis Vryzas score with four minutes remaining and knock Arsenal out.
Tony Adams — then a magnificent club captain rather than a sideline critic — identified a silver lining though, in an interview with The Independent: “I viewed losing to Salonika just the way I did losing to Wrexham in the first round of the FA Cup in 1992. If you are going to get knocked out, you are better off doing it early on so you can concentrate on the other trophies.”
It was prophetic. Arsenal won two of the three remaining trophies that season as Wenger claimed the double in his first full season in charge. There may be an important lesson there for the manager and Arsenal 20 years on.
At the outset of their latest European challenge, no one is suggesting Arsenal throw their campaign. But they can treat it with the reverence it deserves; which is to say, placing it on a par with the League Cup and playing a mixture of reserves and youngsters and effectively placing process above outcome.
It could be useful as a platform on which to develop young talents and give much-needed match practice to others, but results should not be paramount. Indeed, they could prove an obstacle to more important endeavours.
Football is quick to evolve and, in the 20 years since the PAOK defeat, the game has changed irrevocably. The team which started at Highbury that night was essentially that which delivered the double: David Seaman, Lee Dixon, Adams, Steve Bould, Nigel Winterburn, Ray Parlour, Emmanuel Petit, Patrick Vieira, Marc Overmars, Dennis Bergkamp and Ian Wright.
Now, in an age of bloated squads, increased academy investment and carefully calibrated rotation, Wenger can afford to be more flexible. And he must.
After all, the past two champions of England — Chelsea and Leicester City — have paraded to the title unencumbered by European football. Arsenal should bury the Europa League to the very back of their priorities, for now at least.
If a reserve side can make it out of a group that also includes Koln, BATE Borisov and Crvena Zvezda — and they should — then a further calculation will come about whether to try and win the competition and get back into the Champions League via that route, as Manchester United did last season.
But if business is being taken care of in the league, then that motivation shouldn’t be a factor in any case. The initial signs from Wenger are fairly encouraging, with Petr Cech, Alexandre Lacazette, Danny Welbeck, Mesut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey all rested. Nelson could be a young face on display while fringe players such as Olivier Giroud and Jack Wilshere could have a chance to sharpen up. One could even go further and give all regular first-teamers the night off.
Twenty years ago, that loss to PAOK, even at a very early stage of the season, was attributed to fatigue. Then-assistant Pat Rice explained: “We’ve been looking hard to try to give the boys a few days off, but so far it has been impossible.”
It is already clear that reasserting themselves in the Premier League will be a huge task for Arsenal this season. The last thing they need is a big distraction on Thursday nights to suck time, effort and energy out of the team, with only a very small chance of eventual reward. There should only be one focus this season and the Europa League is not it.
Tom is one of ESPN FC’s Arsenal bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @tomEurosport