The Champions League may have stolen the headlines on Wednesday, as 2 titans of the European scene and 2 Cinderella teams clashed in their respective semifinal first legs, but Thursday still held a treat for the footballing world as Arsenal and Atletico Madrid squared off at the Emirates Stadium. The Gunners took the pitch with the weight of their beloved manager’s dream of a swan song on their shoulders, but their battle-hardened opponent had little time for emotional send-offs. Diego Simeone’s team are one of the most unified and hardest working in Europe, and they did no damage to their reputation as they withstood an onslaught of Arsenal attacks and an early red card to capture the first leg draw, 1-1 at the Emirates. The Gunners will now have to go and steal a victory in Madrid if they hope to advance to the final, no small feat for a team that has struggled mightily away from home this season.
An Actual Atmosphere At The Emirates
As the players emerged from the tunnel for last night’s match, they were treated to a sight not seen at the Emirates Stadium much in the last decade: a tremendous atmosphere. The stands were rocking with the excitement of a European semifinal, red and silver flags were waving and full-throated singing washed over the pitch. The scene was far removed from the apathy and empty seats that had come to define this season in the eyes of many frustrated fans before the Wenger announcement last Friday.
For the Frenchman, the scenes last night had to have felt good. The biggest mistake his detractors make is to discount his competitive fire and desire to do right by the supporters in the stands. His comments in the aftermath of his departure announcement last week have suggested that the anger and the dwindling crowds have hurt him deeply these last few seasons. A proper European night, against a top side with 60,000 elated fans packed to the rafters is a moment fit for Arsenal Football Club, and for one more night, Arsene Wenger got to give that to all of us.
Early Drama Sets the Stage
The opening minutes of the match were a frantic affair, as both teams seemed to feed off of the energy of the occasion. The Gunners seemed to have a slight upper hand in their probing attacks, with Danny Welbeck and Aaron Ramsey particularly active early on. However, the complexion of the match changed entirely in the 10th minute when Sime Vrsaljko, who was already on a yellow from an earlier rash challenge, got himself sent off for another ill-advised, studs up challenge. He was given his marching orders by French referee Clement Turpin, who showed tremendous bravery in taking such a bold decision so early in the already buzzing Emirates crowd turned positively raucous at the prospect of 80 minutes of man-advantaged football.
Moments later, an enraged Diego Simeone was sent to the stands following another foul called against his side, but the manager’s passion seemed to remain on the pitch with his players. After a settling in period where Arsenal virtually had their way with the dazed Atleti team, the 10 men left on the pitch for “El Cholo” were able to regroup and find their defensive rhythm. The Gunners had their chances to score in the 80 minutes that followed, but they could not breakthrough after Alexandre Lacazette was able to score in the 61st minute to give his team the narrow and, as would later happen, surmountable lead.
Gunners Run Into A World Class Goalkeeper, Well-Drilled Defence
Twice this season, Arsenal have run into goalkeepers who are able to perform at such a level, they almost single-handedly stole a match from an increasingly frustrated Gunners’ attack. It was the case earlier this season against Manchester United when David DeGea made 15 en route to a 3-1 United victory, and it was again last night as Jan Oblak made at least 2 saves that would have been goals against 99% of the world’s goalkeepers. His defence, down a man from Vrsaljko’s poorly timed sending off, was absolutely brilliant in their gutsy defence of his goal, forcing the Gunners to misfire on 20 of their 28 shot attempts, but Oblak was still called upon to make huge saves against Alexandre Lacazette and Aaron Ramsey that could have changed the complexion of the reverse fixture completely.
Diego Simeone is one of the most revered defensive minds in football, and his fiery nature rubs indelibly off on his team. His 4-4-2 formation may be the opposite of the haute tactical formations these days, but it gives his team an advantage when going down a man. As Atletico typically defend in 2 banks of 4 with 2 strikers offering situational pressing or support, Vrsaljko’s red card forced minimal changes to their organisation, as they merely reshuffled to maintain those banks but with only 1 striker left up top. Atletico put on a masterclass of how to defend a man down, and unfortunately it was a very passionate and motivated Arsenal side that were on hand to witness it.
Undone By The Long Ball…Again
How many times can a team allow themselves to be beaten by the most elementary attacking move in football. After going down a man, the “route 1” long ball was about the only way Atletico Madrid would be able to create chances against such an aggressively attacking Arsenal side, and it was the one thing Wenger’s men could not allow to beat them. Laurent Koscielny played a very good match, and the defender did all but one thing right last night, but his one mistake may ultimately undo the Gunners’ European campaign this season.
As the Arsenal centre backs started to creep further forward into attacking positions in the second half, Simeone was caught on camera urgently trying to get a set of instructions down to the touch line. Kevin Gameiro was withdrawn from the match for another midfielder, Gabi, and Antoine Griezmann was moved to the lone forward role. This move proved to be a stroke of genius, as the superstar was able to turn a prayer of a long ball into a dangerous 1 on 1 situation with Koscielny. The Arsenal man went for the ball, aggressively trying to clear the ball long, only to have it deflect off of Griezmann and right back into his path. The striker then got round David Ospina and fired his shot off Mustafi and into the roof of the net to give Atletico the draw and massive away goal, to say nothing of the mental edge they will carry into the next leg after surviving the onslaught.
Leaving It All To Do In Madrid
Despite the 1-1 draw on Thursday night, the mood in and around the Emirates Stadium was closer to that of a loss for the Gunners. The headlines will focus on how Arsenal failed to capitalise on playing most of the match against 10 men, but the Gunners poured everything into their performance and were unlucky to concede. Now the team must put the disappointing first leg in the rear view mirror and focus on next Thursday, where they will have to play a full-strength Atleti, buoyed by their escape from North London with the score knotted at 1.
The anguish was plain to see on the faces of the players following Griezmann’s goal, as they had truly thrown everything they had at the Spanish giants. Diego Simeone celebrated his team holding the Gunners to 1 goal on 28 shots as though they had won. The Gunners will now have to overcome their torrid away form this season if they are to advance to the Final and give Arsene Wenger a proper send-off with European silverware. The Wanda Metropolitano will be rocking next Thursday, and advancement will require the best team performance of the season.