LONDON — There often comes a time when European competition becomes more important than domestic, and Arsenal have certainly reached that point. The same goes for Manchester City, especially since Pep Guardiola sees Champions League success as the ultimate validation of his methods. But they can focus on their Round of 16 match against Borussia Monchengladbach and have virtually no worries in the Premier League after the easy 1-0 win over the Gunners at the Emirates Stadium, giving them a ten-point lead at the top of the standings.

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Mikel Arteta, for his part, has no such gear. Arsenal’s eleventh defeat in the league leaves them just 11 points clear of the top four, meaning qualification for the Champions League – a key objective in financial and footballing terms – is likely to be achieved through European competition.

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Of course it will be a challenge to win a European competition in the second division, but last season’s success in the FA Cup final showed that Arteta can prepare the team for the knockout rounds. Rather, it is a managerial skill that he is more likely to have developed than managing his team, a point of criticism that first emerged when Southampton knocked Arsenal out of the FA Cup in January.

Despite this, it is safe to say that Arsenal would have been beaten on Sunday, whichever team Arteta chose.

City extended their amazing run of 18 consecutive wins in all competitions with a victory that was never in doubt after Raheem Sterling’s 77-second goal. Guardiola’s eleven were already active with the ball and Riyad Mahrez deserves praise for his accuracy on the right, but it was an indictment of the Arsenal defence that Sterling, just 5’11” tall, was able to emerge unopposed and fire a header past goalkeeper Bernd Leno.

Arsenal were too tired to put up a real fight against Man City as the match schedule became increasingly exhausting. At this stage they should be at their best for European competition. John Walton/Pa Images via Getty Images

The Gunners regrouped on an early attack, but City weakened after that and happily controlled the game with conservative ball possession. From start to finish, both teams played as if they knew the final score and were preparing for what was to come.

For Arsenal, this is by far the most important game of the season so far. The final Europa League match against Benfica took place seconds after the first leg, which ended in 1-1. Arteta has proposed an unchanged line-up for this match compared to the last one against Leeds United. It is the first time in his tenure that the Spaniard has done so and it is an understandable decision given the attacking fluency they showed against Marcelo Bielsa’s team. But even with five team changes, the pop effect was palpable here.

Bucayo Saka did his best to propel the hosts’ attack and combined well with Kieran Tierney on the left, but both looked tired towards the end, especially Tierney. Hector Bellerin, in his eighth consecutive appearance, was not at his best in some respects. Emil Smith Rowe got a break at least every 18 minutes except the final 18. Martin Odegaard, on loan from Real Madrid, started his third consecutive game but did not make the impact Arteta had hoped for.

The same goes for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, whose three appearances in seven days sum up his current inconsistency: hat-trick against Leeds, then waste against Benfica, then anonymity against City. He had just 19 hits in the whole match, the smallest of the players who played 90 minutes, followed closely by Nicolas Pepe (22), whose amazing 73-minute performance underlined how important it is for Arsenal to spend the money at their disposal wisely as they try to compete with much more financially powerful teams. At £72 million, Pepe was worth more than any other player on the pitch, but he was probably the most peripheral player.

With our schedule, it’s very demanding. We have no time to recover, very little time to prepare for the match, Artema said after Sunday’s defeat. Against City, for example, we couldn’t prepare the game on the pitch because we didn’t have enough time. But we have to get used to it.

The need for Arsenal to do the right thing in the transfer market is compounded by other financial constraints facing the club – such as first-team salaries being cut and 55 non-player positions being downsized – but without the income from European football, the situation would be even worse. The complexity is not far off, but the team ranked fifth and the winner of the FA Cup will participate in the Europa League next season, while the team ranked sixth will qualify for the first Conference Europa League.

Arsenal are six points behind defending champion Liverpool in sixth place. This is not an insurmountable obstacle, but if the last few days have hinted at anything, it is that Arsenal may have to prioritise from this point on.

Arsenal travel to Greece to take on Benfica on Wednesday and Leicester on Sunday, the trip starts at 12pm. It’s a gruelling schedule, complicated by the COVID-19 restrictions that necessitated Wednesday’s move to Athens, and presents Arteta with the same dilemma he faced this week: an important European match followed by a proper home game.

It’s hard because everyone wants to play and everyone wants to be available for every game, Arteta said. Everyone always tries to be available, which I appreciate. But many players are tired, they have played so many minutes and we don’t have enough players to replace them, unfortunately.

It is becoming increasingly clear that Arsenal do not have a team strong enough to compete on both fronts. So Arteta has some tough decisions to make.

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