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Last-chance saloon: Champions League or bust for Unai Emery at Arsenal next season – opinion

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Arsenal’s disastrous end to last season not only marked Unai Emery’s first campaign as a failure, but made his need for results all the greater in the year approaching.

And with the ill-effects of his side’s inability to qualify for the Champions League made crystal clear by their lack of transfer power this summer, such a repeat in the coming campaign may run the risk of his Gunners tenure reaching an early end.

But when their fate becomes sealed in May 2020, Emery will be two years deep into his Arsenal project. And having not made a firm case for the club to be a solid top-four outfit by stumbling to a fifth-place finish last season, merely qualifying through the Europa League would not be the signs of progress that would justify a contract renewal heading into his final 12 months.

Arsenal cannot fall into a habit of being content with such an achievement, even as it currently remains a sign of progress given the club’s continuing absence from the Champions League.

Not so long ago, achieving a top-four finish was not even considered worthy enough under Arsene Wenger – but the club’s prolonged non-participation at the highest tier of European football is starting to hurt the team.

Europa League success should not come as a surprise, with The Gunners going deep into the competition at both attempts in recent seasons.

League success, on the other hand, is arguably the club’s main priority. And without even the fallback of Champions League qualification to soften the blow of a failed title challenge (if any), Emery must display tangible signs of progress in the next campaign to show his side are moving in the right direction.

Scraping qualification last season – which looked to be well within Arsenal’s reach during the campaign – would have been deemed a success given the Spaniard’s short time to mould the club around his vision.

But after two years, scraping qualification this time around would represent a club that’s not really responding to the manager’s philosophy – which may leave the club with a difficult decision to make should the woes of the previous year repeat themselves.

Being just one win away from a Champions League spot suggests they are nearly there – and given how calamitous the away form and the late-season run-in proved to be last year, there are improvements to be made that are within the grasp of the Gunners boss. Their failure to beat 17th-placed Brighton was a damning indictment of a season of bafflingly inconsistent results.

So the league will not only be where Arsenal’s season will be won or lost – but also where Emery’s job will be on the line until a sign of distinct progress presents itself.

The Europa League can no longer be the manager’s saving grace next season. That ship has sailed and Arsenal aren’t on it, but 24 months down the line should see the club heading in a positive direction – on the manager’s head be it.

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