I sigh because despite our opponents on the night Atletico Madrid being down to ten men, despite having lots of the possession, despite creating plenty of chances, despite an amazing atmosphere in the ground (I’ll ignore the horrific flags we were given – think post marathon foil they give you, or a red bag your mum lays down by the front door after you’ve come back from a game as a kid and you’re told to strip off your Sunday league kit on a wet April morning) we found ourselves with an absolute Everest to climb next week away in Madrid. All because of a moment of stupid defending that has been our Achilles heel all season. And therefore should probably come as no surprise to any Arsenal fan.
And I’m afraid I am struggling to see how we overcome it in the cold light of day.
Arsène sprung few surprises given who was available to him and Jack came in for the injured Elneny, whilst Özil returned to the team and for the opening exchanges whilst it was 11v11 we had the better of it. Lacazette hitting the post gave hope, plus the players seemed to respond to the roaring home support, which all pointed to some positivity on a lovely Wednesday evening.
Then the sending off came and you knew Arsenal would control the rest of the game. It was just a matter of whether we had enough going forward and concentration defensively not to switch off. And in that first half – a couple of scary moments when Ospina had the ball at his feet (man do we need a new ‘keeper in the summer) we controlled the ball, created chances, but just couldn’t get it on target and even when we did, Oblak – what a ‘keeper he is by the way – was there with some stunning saves – two in each half stand out where he was at full stretch.
Second half felt like more of the same and when Lacazette scored with still plenty of time on the clock, it felt like the players sensed something could be had in terms of more goals. But there’s a few things that they didn’t account for.
Firstly, Atletico Madrid are very, very disciplined at the back. They let Arsenal have the ball in wide positions and put cross after cross in for their compact defence to deal with. And they did. They headed away ball after ball and made some impressive last ditch tackles. It’s amazing how much more beneficial it is to your team when you have a capable back line, eh?
Secondly, they are masters of the dark arts, and they really are absolute perfectionists at that. Time wasting, sly kicks, diving, imaginary cards, more time wasting. They have absolutely everything in their locker and I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that next week they will deploy them. They even have super villain himself Diego Costa to do his unholy best in the return leg. Only with a home crowd roaring on they’ll most likely get a load more decisions, even more than they got tonight, I’d wager.
Thirdly, Arsenal have an extremely soft underbelly and the current defence is always an accident waiting to happen. Atletico didn’t have a sniff all game and yet what we saw was one ball over the top that undid us. Koscielny was calamitous with his attempted clearance, Mustafi fell over trying to cover, and Madrid got their precious away goal with their only shot in the game. It was keystone cops stuff from a defensive line that has been horrendous all season and on the one major time in which they had to deliver – because they had little else to do all night – they were found wanting.
And that, my friends, I fear is that. Because Atletico don’t concede at home. And we concede anywhere. And from any kind of position. And at all times. Defensively we are an accident waiting to happen and whilst Madrid can shut up shop, we couldn’t in a million years and without Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan in our attack – assuming the latter is injured – we’re unlikely to have enough to unlock them.
I’m sorry that today’s blog seems so down, but when that red card was shown there was relief everywhere that we needed to make this count, and as usual we haven’t. We created plenty of chances – 28 attempts in all – but when you come away from a home leg with that many and you still have only one goal to show for it, it doesn’t bode well for part II.
Of course there’s hope, of course this Arsenal team are capable of something special away, but I just feel like of all of the teams in Europe Atletico are the ones most suited to seeing out a second leg. Which is why I am pretty down this morning.
I wanted the fairytale ending to the season for us and for Arsène. I wanted him to finally break his European trophy drought. I wanted us to have a shot at Champions League football next season. But we haven’t addressed defensive frailties all season and this is what happens when you bury your head in the sand on one of the most crucial parts of the game – the art of defending.
Next week we’ll go there with blind hope, but the optimism after that first 20 minutes will not be there for most of us. After that United game at home this season in which we played them off the park I was gutted. It hit me hard because despite dominating a team we still shot ourselves in the foot. The same feels like it’s happened to us last night.
Which is why this morning I ‘sigh’.