This is not a result that is terminal to Arsenal’s Europa League chances, but Atletico Madrid have conceded nine times in 21 home games in all competitions this season. Presented with an open goal at their happy ending, the Gunners once again proved nobody specialises in disappointment quite like them. Draw snatched from the hands of victory that felt like defeat; Arsenal that.
There will not be many of these days left. Arsene Wenger’s first few years at Arsenal welcomed in a series of firsts: First foreign manager to win the English league title, first foreign manager to win the Double, first non-British Arsenal manager. Wenger was groundbreaking on and off the pitch, each milestone a tribute to his initial surge of greatness.
Now, firsts have become lasts. To say goodbye is to die a little, and Wenger’s Arsenal passing will come via a litany of farewells. Every time Wenger steps out of a dressing room and onto a touchline, another flurry of goodbyes rush to his side. Thursday marked his 217th European game in charge of Arsenal, but his last one at home. Each one until the final curtain lacks punch in isolation, but increases emotion cumulatively.
Wenger this week admitted that the timing of the announcement of his impending departure was not his choice, revealing that Arsenal displayed courage we never thought possible. If the timing was not optimal for Arsenal’s manager, he might be the only one. A season that threatened to ebb away like Wenger’s own goodwill suddenly gained instant impetus. ‘Doing it for Arsene’ has become the cause célèbre.
Arsenal played with a vibrancy in the first ten minutes that we have rarely seen over the last eight months. Hector Bellerin surged forward, Mesut Ozil flitted and fluttered and Danny Welbeck kept control of his limbs in a way that suddenly makes him look dangerous. While it’s tempting to put it all down to a greater certainty around the club – or at least a different version of uncertainty – this was a European semi-final first leg.
Unfortunately, if there was any opponent you wouldn’t invite to a party, it is Atletico Madrid. Forget taking off their shoes at the door, Diego Simeone’s side would rip down the bunting, urinate in the punch and squash the cake into the host’s face.
There can also be no better team in world football at defending with ten men. Atletico have kept 30 clean sheets in 52 matches in all competitions this season, boast one of the top five goalkeepers in the world in Jan Oblak, and one of the top five central defenders in Diego Godin too. You get the feeling that Simeone would give away his children before accepting the concession of a cheap goal.
They are also more streetwise than a crack team of lollipop ladies. From the moment Sime Vrsaljko earned two yellow cards in the first ten minutes, Atleti opened their black box of party tricks. Players rolled and winced after minimal contact and defenders double-checked with the officials where set pieces should be taken from. These are the strategies of opposition frustration. There are few who delight more in the dark arts.
In the first half, Arsenal were wasteful, as if unnerved by their own domination. Atletico have allowed an average of 11.7 shots on their own goal per La Liga match this season, but Arsenal passed that total in the 31st minute and had reached 15 by half-time. Only four were on target.
Yet for all Wenger’s flaws, he still has a calming team talk in him. Rather than playing at double speed in the style of a child left home alone for the first time and who wrecks the joint by lunchtime, Arsenal required composure. The key to overcoming a ten-man team is not necessarily to create more chances, but better ones. As Pep Guardiola will tell you (and as he has his Manchester City team demonstrate), the best chances are created by overlaps in the final third.
So it proved. When Nacho Monreal won the ball high up the pitch, Aaron Ramsey saw Jack Wilshere running free wide on the edge of the penalty area. If Wilshere’s cross was placed perfectly, so too was Alexandre Lacazette’s header. It often has to be to beat Oblak.
But the intrinsic problem with this farewell tour is that Arsenal are still Arsenal. There can be no better set of defining images of Wenger’s demise than four defenders somehow being outnumbered by one forward, Laurent Koscielny kicking the ball in his own face, David Ospina allowing the ball through his legs and Shkodran Mustafi tripping over his own feet in an attempt to block the shot. It would take some manpower and money, but build a statue of that.