When the final whistle blew on Thursday night, I found myself angrily switching off the TV and going into a proper Anelka-esque sulk. The sulk continued over the entire next day, and it’s still too soon to either watch the highlights of the game or to read a match report or even talk about it to anyone. Atletico had somehow made this a perfect night for themselves, and Arsenal had it all to do.
We had them on the ropes for the entire game, they were down to 10 men for 80 minutes. We had 28 shots, and Oblak was forced to make 7 saves, of which 2 were absolute world-class. How on earth did that match end with us having to go to the Wanda Metropolitano and do what nobody has done there for close on 17 hours now – score a goal?
It’s a bit ironic that the last time we played like this and still didn’t get the result, it was against Manchester United, who we now face on Sunday before we have a go at Diego Simeone’s side once more. Arsene’s final visit to Old Trafford with us is going to be a tricky one and Thursday’s result leaves him with quite the dilemma. Does he play a strong squad and risk injuries or fatigue before the trip to Madrid? Or does he play a weaker side and risk getting a battering which could damage morale?
We should probably rest Lacazette, Ramsey, Ozil, Welbeck and Koscielny, if not others, who will be desperately needed if we are to get a result in the Europa League. We could still have a half-decent side on the pitch against Mourinho’s team, with Aubameyang up top, but this is where the injury to Mohamed Elneny and decision to sell Theo Walcott are going to come back to bite us.
Of course, what may really come back to bite us is the decision to sell Olivier Giroud in January. Sure, that was what unlocked the Aubameyang transfer, but was it really worth it in this window, given his ineligibility for the Europa League? Because what we really needed as the game wore on and the Atletico rearguard resolutely defended wave after wave of Arsenal attacks, was a big centre-forward to bully them into submission. Lacazette may have got his goal via a header, but he was always going to be second best to Godin and co in the air, and our best chances of the night were created through crosses, which we just weren’t able to direct past Jan Oblak, who had a fantastic night.
Giroud, however, would have been able to put some of those away. Or maybe the threat of him in the air would have led Atletico to try to stop those crosses into the box more proactively, which could have opened up more space. Either which way, we needed a Plan B striker last night, and we had nothing on the bench to throw at Atletico.
This is not to say that we played badly. We were definitely the better team on the night, and if it hadn’t been for Vrsjalko’s red card, we might well have had more presentable chances to score (as Atletico wouldn’t have sat back quite so much). But by failing to score more and not having an option to go for a winner, we left ourselves vulnerable to conceding even just one goal, one mistake, one random twist of fate. And that’s exactly what happened for Griezmann’s goal, with Koscielny hooking the ball right into the French forward’s face and presenting him with the opportunity to score.
Maybe Ospina could have done better (leaving open the What Ifs re Petr Cech), maybe Mustafi should not have fallen over like a sack of potatoes. But you know there’s always this kind of risk in football, and you have to be prepared for it. Whether that means scoring more goals from the start, or having an option to get a winner after conceding, you have to have the tools to do that, and we didn’t on Thursday night.
The advantage, perhaps, of this misfortune, is that when we go to Madrid next Thursday, we don’t have the option of sitting back and trying to defend a slender lead, which would have been tempting if we’d got the 1-0 win.
Now, we have to go there and play on the front foot, and push for the win, and that means a much more aggressive side. Given how well organised the Atletico defence is, I think we’re going to need to play a system that allows us to have two strikers permanently threatening them in the centre of the park. If we go with the 4-3-3, it’ll give them enough breathing room to keep us at arm’s length, which doesn’t help our case very much.
Atletico play a dogged 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 with two in midfield, and so we shouldn’t be afraid of getting outnumbered there, which means we can genuinely go for a system with two central midfielders. A 4-4-2 would be nice to see, but the problem is that this still makes us reliant on crosses into the box which are meat and drink for Simeone’s grizzled defence. What we need is two strikers up front, options to provide width, and midfielders pressing forward to arrive in the box and cause some havoc.
Which is why I think we should go with a 3-1-4-2 formation if we are to have a chance of winning this. This would allow Ramsey and Ozil the ability to link up with Welbeck and Lacazette in the final third, give us width with Kolasinac and Bellerin out wide (Monreal should play in the back 3 and step up into that left side like we saw him do to good effect earlier in the season) and also allow our two strikers to engage in some interplay and maybe get past the Atletico defence.
This is a do or die match for Arsenal and our hopes of making it to the Champions League next season – and to give Arsene Wenger the send-off he deserves. However it ends, it should be played with bravery and on the front foot, and we can hold our heads high.