Neil Humphreys: FA Cup or bust for Arsenal
Without cash from European competitions, Arteta won't be able to compete
Arsenal needed an embarrassing defeat to reassess the club's place in the English football hierarchy.
The Gunners are not in the English football hierarchy. Their 1-0 defeat at Aston Villa yesterday morning (Singapore time) was a bucket of cold realism in starry-eyed faces.
Mikel Arteta is a bright, young manager and a graduate of the Pep Guardiola school of fast, possession-based football, but his pedigree won't pay Arsenal's bills if they fail to reach the Europa League, via victory in the FA Cup final.
At the very least, the Villa loss clarified matters. Whatever happens on Sunday - the final day of the English Premier League season - the Gunners can finish no higher than eighth in the table - their worst finish since 1995.
The last time Arsenal were this mediocre, Oasis were singing about wonderwalls. No wonder their disillusioned supporters are beginning to look back in anger. Yesterday, some of them paid for a plane to fly over Villa Park with a banner that read "Back Arteta, Kroenke Out".
The sentiment is both perceptive and prescient. Arteta is the right manager for Arsenal, but perhaps at the wrong time, particularly if he misses out on Europa League qualification.
The lesser competition may be the poor country cousin to the Champions League, but beggars can't be choosers in the case of the cash-strapped Gunners.
Last year's run to the Europa League final earned the club around £34 million (S$59.9m). Their latest accounts revealed a pre-tax loss of £27.1 million.
Compared to their rivals, these are trivial sums but the Gunners are shopping at the pasar malam whilst trying to retain expensive trinkets.
Having scored 25 goals in all competitions, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang expects a new deal in the region of £250,000-a-week.
His form deserves it. Real Madrid, Barcelona and Inter Milan have all indicated their willingness to pay it.
But Arsenal's finances are precarious.
A hefty wage bill in a costly, empty stadium was not the financial structure that American owner Stan Kroenke had in mind when he bought the club. Social distancing measures are hurting the Gunners more than most.
While the two Manchester clubs, Liverpool and Chelsea have all acknowledged the need to reinforce once this protracted season ends; Arteta is being asked to operate within the slimmest of margins.
The Spaniard reportedly has three budgets on offer - one with Champions League football, one with Europa League football and one with neither. The latter budget doesn't bear thinking about.
Even if the interminable Mesut Oezil saga comes to an ignoble end and the German agrees to remove his phone number-sized salary from the books, Arteta is left with an average squad and a sub-standard budget.
Presumably, his parsimonious owners are backing Arteta to pull off a coaching miracle by turning water into wine - or Lucas Torreira into a coherent holding midfielder.
At Villa Park, a relegation-threatened side overran Torreira. He was booked, berated by David Luiz and substituted at half-time to spare further anguish.
The Uruguayan's struggles and Arsenal's insipid performance were a more accurate barometer of the club's standing - and the sizeable gap between them and the top four - than the two recent victories.
Beating Liverpool and Manchester City in successive matches led to an inevitable giddiness, with Arteta declaring that any transfer target would consider joining Arsenal an attractive proposition.
They wouldn't if they saw the Villa defeat. And the prospect of joining a fallen giant on a shoestring budget with no European football may prove less appealing than a prostate exam, even with Arteta at the helm.
Arsenal's last three results and their haphazard form betray a promising manager occasionally making the absolute most of his best XI, but mostly toiling with a bloated, below-par squad.
After the heady FA Cup win against Manchester City, Arteta made six changes for Villa. And yet, he really only succeeded in proving that Sead Kolasinac, David Luiz and Rob Holding are not quite a back three to terrify the top four.
While the likes of Torreira, Granit Xhaka and Cedric Soares don't really offer the quality that they sorely need.
Arsenal missed a creative fulcrum at Villa, a link man between the lines. Ironically, the only one they have - Oezil - looks set to leave, which epitomises a club with a confused identity.
With the ambitious Arteta in charge, the Gunners will always think big. But they won't spend big.
And if they miss out on Europe, their world may shrink even further.