Arsenal legend Lauren has warned the club must win the Europa League to take the first steps back to former glories.
Gunners manager Mikel Arteta faces Villarreal in Thursday’s semi-final and goes head-to-head with former boss Unai Emery in Arsenal’s biggest game of the season.
Arsenal are stranded in the unfamiliar territory of mid-table with the club at a crossroads with gifted young players but, according to Lauren, it is vital they get back into the Champions League.
Lauren, a member of Arsenal’s all-conquering Invincibles team, is convinced they can beat Villarreal but believes it is vital they go on to win the trophy as a passport back to join Europe’s elite.
“The table says that Arsenal are a long way behind,” said Lauren. “But I think the team in some periods, they play brilliant games, play very good football and have some outstanding young players.
“Bukayo Saka is absolutely brilliant, Emile Smith-Rowe can play any position, he plays it simple, makes the right pass at the right moment. Bukayo doesn’t rush his game.
“But those two players and the other young players need other big players to fulfil their potential and they need the team to progress.
“If they want to catch up, they have to make a real effort to build in the long term with more top players. You can’t compete with Manchester City, Chelsea, if you want to win the league you have to fight with the same weapons.
“You can’t win the league against City when they have De Bruyne, Sterling, Gabriel Jesus, Gundogan, they’ve got so many top players in their squad. You have to build and try to catch them.
“You need to play the Champions League every single year, that will give you the tools and ability to attract those players in order to win the league. Honestly, we are one step behind Manchester City, Chelsea or even Liverpool. Unless you have the tools, then you can’t win the league.”
Lauren enjoyed glorious success during his seven years at Arsenal, winning the Double, two Premier League titles, the FA Cup three times and yet he laughs at the sniping towards Arsene Wenger for claiming finishing in the top four was like winning a trophy.
“Now we understand when people were criticising Arsene Wenger for only reaching the Champions League,” said Lauren. “But he did it every single year and you would then get back the tools you need to compete with the top clubs and remain a top club.”
But in all his time at the club, Lauren did not enjoy any European success. He was injured in the run to the 2006 Champions League final and still harbours major regrets.
“I would have swapped all my 50 odd games played in the Champions League just to play in the final. In my time at the club, we didn’t get past the quarter final. I couldn’t believe it,” he said.
“We beat Chelsea in the league, in the cup, every game. Then we lost in the Champions League. Unbelievable. We had the best team in the league but I always say you need experience to win the Champions League. Any lapse in concentration and you’re out.”
Lauren is now a pundit for La Liga TV, has been doing his coaching badges in Spain and will complete his UEFA Pro Licence next and may move into management in the future but for now sees it as a chance to understand the game better.
Yet he still cannot understand why Emery did not succeed at Arsenal. “Emery is a very good coach, did brilliantly with Sevilla so I was surprised it didn’t work,” he said.
“He is so focused on detail, maybe some players would get fed-up watching so many videos and my impression from the outside is that players don’t always want that.
“You also need communication with players and the language is so important. You need one-to-one talks with players and that is an issue. It has to be. But there are normally many issues rather than just one.
“You have the perfect example with Gary Neville. He has all my respect – fantastic player, great competitor and talks so well – but he couldn’t communicate with players at Valencia and it didn’t work.
“Villarreal are so well organised. Dani Parejo in the middle of the park, Gerard Moreno is very good – you can play him as a No9, wide – and the two centre backs, Pau Torres and Raul Albiol, are very strong. But if Arsenal are at their best and the players are fit, I think they will win.”
Lauren remembers fondly his team mates from Arsenal and always believed that Patrick Vieira would move into management while he understands why Thierry Henry is so passionate about helping the club back to glory after his links to a potential takeover.
Lauren added: “Henry is a real winner. He is so committed about everything. We would play cards on the bus and he wanted to win. He brought a little game in the dressing room called ‘pull it and pop it’ and he always wanted to win. He became the top scorer because of that mentality.
“I never expected Freddie Ljungberg to become a manager – he was more into fashion! I always thought Patrick Vieira would become a manager. A great leader. He has the personality to lead the dressing room. But you couldn’t fail to learn from that dressing room.”