The 2019 Europa League Final: Arsenal’s Boycott & Chelsea’s Cognitive Dissonance

So Arsenal did end up boycotting the match, in the end. If it weren’t for what we already know about them, we’d expect the heads of UEFA to have woken up this morning thinking, “Well, that was… weird.” The 2019 Europa League Final between Arsenal and Chelsea turned out to be a muted affair in more ways than one. It was muted in that neither of the finalists managed to sell anywhere near their full allocation of tickets for the match, which was already low at a meagre 6,000 each. It was muted in that the reported crowd inside Baku’s Olympic Stadium was 51,370 (and may well not even have been that many present, considering the number of sponsors and complimentary tickets that were likely given out), at most three-quarters full, all watching a pitch that was a short bus ride from the stands.

It was muted in that something unpleasant hung in the air as a result of the Henrikh Mkhitaryan affair. This match really felt as though it brought the amoral, slimy side of football into the limelight in a way that somehow hasn’t quite happened before. It wouldn’t be surprising to learn that the scales have fallen from a few eyes, over the last couple of weeks. The 2019 Europa League final will not be remembered for Chelsea’s handsome win. The 2019 Europa League final will be remembered as being the cup final played in the patently unsuitable city, to which one of the players couldn’t travel out of fears for his own safety, which ended up being played in a three-quarter full (likely less) stadium being watched by a television audience watching from a camera angle best described as “vertiginous.”

To be absolutely clear, I don’t agree with the idea that UEFA finals should simply be shuffled around Europe’s biggest cities on rotation, and I don’t agree that finals should be moved closer to the nations playing in them. Hosting these matches is heading, in its own tiny way, into being a scaled-down version of what hosting the Olympic games means to a city or country, or what hosting the Superbowl means to a city in the USA, and the decision to hold this year’s Europa League final in Baku was made in September 2017. What I do fervently disagree with, though, is hosting it in a city, wherever that city is, that is as ill-prepared to host the crowds that would want to attend such a match as Baku seems to have been.

There have been horror stories over the last couple of weeks about people who’d booked hotel rooms in Baku a while ago, only to find their booking being cancelled and “their” reservations being relisted at ten times the cost. There weren’t enough flights there. And it is widely known that this factored into part of the reason why so few tickets were allocated to each team in the first place. All of this conflated into the rows of empty seats for the final, so many that they couldn’t be quietly masked by the television cameras. All of this contributed to the slightly strange atmosphere that hung over it all.

If there’s any feeling to particularly emanate from this match now, though, it’s a collective sigh of relief that it’s all over. The lethargy seemed everywhere, last night. In the stands. On the pitch. On social media. Sure enough, Arsenal supporters had plenty of energy to take out on their supine team after the match, but overall there was just hint of the feeling that last night we were all watching some form of dystopian future football in which there’s no need for a crowd because TV money pays for everything, and in which even the game itself almost doesn’t seem to matter any more in comparison with The Spectacle.

The match certainly didn’t seem to particularly matter to Arsenal. The Mkihitaryan affair may well have sapped a little of their desire to compete. Team-mates do tend to stick together over external matters such as this. But their end of season form has to also be considered. Arsenal drew one and lost four of their final seven matches of the season. It felt as though Unai Emery – admittedly a Europa League specialist – was focusing on this route into the Champions League, almost at the expense of taking fourth place in the Premier League. They could have done that. They should have done that.

Doing so would also have put them back above Tottenham Hotspur in the final league table for the first time in three years. None of those five winless matches came against top six opposition. They were beaten by Everton, Crystal Palace, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Leicester City. One win from those four matches would have seen them finish in third place in the table, the top-placed London team and returnees to the Champions League. If they’d beaten Brighton by three goals in their last home match rather than drawing with them, they’d have finished second on goals scored.

The margins are narrow, but Arsenal collapsed over the course of the last month of the season, none of which bodes well for next time around without significant surgery being performed upon the first team squad. And whilst there’s obviously no financial crisis at Arsenal, losing out on a Champions League place does leave them at a disadvantage to their top six opponents. It’s been estimated that missing out on a place in next year’s Champions League cost Arsenal £40m. Multiply that by two, and we can see the extent to which they are losing out. Arsenal made £142m in Premier League television and prize money last season, by the way.

Chelsea, meanwhile, retain their signature move of being able to hoover up the occasional trophy whilst doing a damn good impression of having an existential crisis. Roman Abramovich is now effectively an absentee landlord, whose attendance in Baku was the first for a Chelsea match in over than a year after he failed to renew his investor visa amid a British government investigation into that particular type of visa. Plans for the construction of a new stadium were pulled, whilst the club now also has a transfer embargo for the next two windows after being found to have breached Financial Fair Play rules, though this is to be appealed.

And then there’s the Maurizio Sarri situation. The Chelsea manager is reportedly a target for Juventus, and with his style of football not having won over hearts and minds at Stamford Bridge, it’s not difficult to imagine him leaving. Eden Hazard, their most prized playing asset, is almost certain to leave, almost certainly for Madrid, and this has been pretty much common knowledge. Yet for all that, Chelsea finished in third place in the Premier League and won a European trophy this season. They sure are difficult to please at Stamford Bridge. Sarri, though, ended the night with his first major trophy as a manager.

Unai Emery, meanwhile, has to face the fallout from last night’s debacle. The biggest irony is that for forty-five minutes Arsenal probably shaded it, though this didn’t say very much for Chelsea’s performance either. Football matches, however, don’t last for forty-five minutes and the ease with which Chelsea cut through their defence in the space of twenty-three second half minutes indicated that Arsenal’s entire defensive unit needs to be repurposed or, preferably, put out to pasture and replaced completely.

The players have to accept at least some degree of culpability, here. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Mesut Ozil were anonymous. Granit Xhaka was Granit Xhaka. True enough, Alex Iwobi’s goal, which pulled the score back to three-one and offered a momentary glimmer of hope to Arsenal with twenty minutes to play, was the best of the night, but the subsequent celebrations rang hollow when Eden Hazard restored Chelsea’s three goal advantage three minutes later. Chelsea thoroughly deserved the win, but they faced very little opposition in Baku.