It was supposed to be Arsene Wenger’s night. The scene was set, a European semi-final under the lights and our first in 9 years. The supporters came out in their numbers following the announcement the boss would be leaving in the summer and at least temporarily things seemed noticeably more harmonious. The club provided each supporter with a red or silver flag depending on which block you were seated in, an attempt to enhance the atmosphere and it must be said the place looked awesome as the teams made their way out onto the field.
Things started positively and the Gunners couldn’t believe their luck when Sime Vrsaljko was shown a second yellow card just 8 minutes after picking up his first. Atletico Madrid were down to ten men and Diego Simeone’s reaction to the decision saw him sent to the stands. German Burgos, his militant assistant was fortunate not to be dismissed himself considering he was found almost ten yards inside the touchline during his protests.
Jan Oblak was in impressive form, the Slovenian goalkeeper pulled off a host of impressive saves and further enhanced his growing reputation as one of Europe’s finest stoppers. Eventually, the deadlock was broken when Alexandre Lacazette hung in the air for what seemed an age before diverting Jack Wilshere’s cross downwards and into the right hand corner.
Arsene Wenger’s side continued to dictate the play but only managed to carve out a handful of clear chances in the second half. With every passing minute Atletico’s defence took another step deeper and their fullbacks another step inside creating a deep and narrow block that seemed virtually impossible to penetrate.
Down to ten men, away from home and confident of overcoming a one goal deficit in Madrid – Simeone’s men reached for the continental textbook of time wasting. Every free kick seemed to take an age, throw ins would be taken 5 or 10 yards further forward and the home crowd began to grow frustrated.
With just over 80 minutes played I would have said that was Arsenal’s best performances of the season. Yes, Atletico were down to ten men from very early on and that would have proved a handicap however I’m not sure Vrsaljko’s dismissal altered their game plan all that much.
Despite looking defensively sound for the most part a Laurent Koscielny error gifted Antoine Griezmann with a glorious opportunity 8 minutes from time. The Gunners captain in his attempt to hook the ball back over his shoulder and out of the danger area seemed to kick it into his face and the ricochet fell kindly for his compatriot. David Ospina was able to block the strikers initial effort but couldn’t have done much about the second. Add to that the fact Shkodran Mustafi slipped having managed to get himself back on the line and this was a real sickener.
Atletico had their precious away goal, it was a real smash and grab and the La Liga outfit now have the advantage going into the second leg next Thursday.
Arsene Wenger has come in for some harsh criticism following this disappointing result but in my view he’s not to blame for what occurred on the 82nd minute. His team was set up correctly, dominated the game having 20 attempts at goal and over 70% of the possession. The Gunners simply weren’t clinical enough and ultimately an individual error from one of their most experienced campaigners has cost them dearly.
Atletico made all three of the substitutions available to them whereas Arsenal didn’t make a single change. However, the Gunners were in full control and in all honesty there wasn’t much in terms of attacking talent to call upon with just Alex Iwobi and Eddie Nketiah on the bench. Those who have criticized the Arsenal boss for failing to make a substitution are being overly critical and those mutterings have generally come from his biggest critics. Any excuse to have a pop!
Dismissed and sent to the stands but the animated Argentine could have been watching from Timbuktu and his players still would have carried out his instructions perfectly – That’s how well this team are drilled.
The introduction of Gabi in the second half allowed Atletico to grab a foothold in the middle of the park having been overrun in that area for long periods of the game.
Such was the defensive solidity shown by the Spanish side its easy to forget they were down to ten men so early on and for the most part Thomas Partey filled in excellently at right back. A midfielder by trade the Ghanaian found things difficult particularly in the second half when Arsenal began probing with more frequency down the left hand side.
Simeone to his credit, all be it after they had already conceded identified it as a problem area for his side and brought on former Manchester City defender Stefan Savic, a natural defender to sturdy things up.
Despite the disappointment and the advantage Atletico gained having scored that crucial away goal this tie is far from over. Arsenal are just as threatening in an attacking capacity but it’s clear we aren’t anywhere near as streetwise. To blame Wenger seems harsh but the frustration on show is a consequence of poor defending for as long as one can remember and therefore totally understandable.
I’m not angry, I’m not surprised just very disappointed. We are Arsenal, we were never going to do it the easy way. COYG