Arsenal enjoying Europa League experience as Wenger looks to youth
No doubt there were Arsenal fans who viewed the fifth place finish and subsequent entry into the Europa League as something of a demotion. To be fair, it's hard to make a case that it's not. In terms of prestige, reputation, prize money and all the rest, it's clear the Champions League is the top shelf tournament.
What's also clear, and it has been clear for some time after seven successive exits at the round of 16 stage, is that it's a competition Arsenal have no chance of winning at this moment in time. It's all very well taking part, but the repetitive tedium of being knocked out at the same point year after year after year drives people towards indifference.
It means that the Europa League, even if it's not what everyone wants, at least provides something new and different. New opposition, different kick-off times, and when it comes to the kind of teams Arsene Wenger selects for these games, there are new and different faces in there too.
Not least because the schedule demands it. Arsenal's upcoming Premier League game against Brighton on Sunday comes fewer than 72 hours after their 4-2 win over BATE Borisov in Belarus on Thursday night, meaning the Arsenal manager has to use the full depth of his squad.
His team selection for that game saw him field experienced heads Per Mertesacker, Jack Wilshere, Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott, but there were young players in key positions too. They had 17-year-old Reiss Nelson at right wing-back, and 20-year-old Ainsley Maitland-Niles on the other side. Joe Willock, 18, was handed his full debut in central midfield, and he put in a very impressive and encouraging display.
There are those who will dismiss it simply because of the reputation of the opposition, but BATE have played in the Champions League for five of the last eight seasons. They're not one of the Europe's leading lights, but nor are they total pushovers as wins against Roma and Bayern Munich illustrate
One of Wenger's great strengths in his many years as Arsenal manager is his willingness to give youth a chance. In recent years that hasn't been quite as prevalent, perhaps because of a lack of emerging talent, but also an inability to find the opportunity to give them the chances they need. The almost relentless pressure he's been under to achieve results mean it's more difficult to take the risks involved with playing inexperienced young men.
The Europa League allows him to do that, particularly in the group stage. The fact that some view it as beneath a club like Arsenal alleviates some of the pressure, but with that also comes a kind of freedom.
To see Willock and Nelson take their fledgling steps makes it enjoyable to watch and when they're bolstered by the kind of experience that can make the vital contributions -- like Giroud's 100th Arsenal goal -- it's hard not to feel somewhat reinvigorated watching the games. It's not just more the same, rinse and repeat.
The club's inability to make progress in the Champions League requires them to readjust their targets. What is the point in bemoaning the lack of participation in a tournament you can't win when you find yourself in one that you can?
The Europa League may not be the priority, and Wenger has made it clear that doing as well as possible in the Premier League is the primary objective this season, but it remains a competition that could provide silverware this season. Arsenal haven't won a European trophy since 1994, that famous 1-0 Cup Winners Cup victory over Parma, so are in no position to be snobby about the possibility of winning the second of the two on offer.
As the tournament goes on, and as the final draws closer, you can be sure Wenger will have plenty to think about in terms of his team selections. The smattering of youth may become smaller, the experienced contingent will grow larger, but for now the group stages allow him to blend his squad to good effect, and so far the performances and results have been very enjoyable.
Andrew Mangan is one of ESPN FC's Arsenal bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter: @arseblog.