Rather than the start of a perfect send-off, this was really a perfect illustration of why Diego Simeone has made Atletico Madrid masters of two-legged knock-out football and why Arsene Wenger is now considered so far behind. It is why he’s leaving. It was that canny, this 1-1 Europa League semi-final first leg draw that calculated.
Atletico overcame a 10-minute second booking for Sime Vrsaljko, an immediate red card for Simeone, a vibrant Arsenal atmosphere for Wenger and even an Arsenal lead to still – still – claim the advantage. The electric Antoine Griezmann aptly bided his time to finally come alive late on, his silence-causing away goal cancelling out Alex Lacazette’s storming header.
That is the great frustration for Arsenal, to add to the great task now at hand.
They had looked to rise to the occasion of Wenger’s last European home game, and to the challenge. They had been the better side against a side who have proved themselves so much better in Europe. They had claimed the lead. They were in control.
Now they absolutely have to score against a side who are probably the best on the continent at keeping a clean sheet at home.
They’ll need something resembling the first hour from this game, and so much more.
First there was the sound. Amid an electric atmosphere at the stadium built for Wenger, and undeniably powered by the will to give him an appropriate send-off, the players initially responded in similar fashion. Arsenal were all over Atletico in the early stages, and this was not down to Simeone’s willingness to defiantly sit back away from home – at least not yet. That would come.
From the start, though, Arsenal were driving them back and finding space. Almost too much space. Lacazette was found for a volley only to waste it, and then found for a header only for the exceptional Jan Oblak to save it.
Then, however, came the fury. In the face of such an onslaught, Atletico attempted to stifle Arsenal using one of their most effective gameplans: gloriously cynical aggression, and snide game-breaking tackles. It didn’t stop them feeling hard done by, though. Having been booked in the first minute for a foul on Jack Wilshere, Vrsaljko then went in a little late on Lacazette and was sent off so early.
It infuriated Simeone, to the point he so complained to referee Clement Turpin that he quickly followed his full-back off.
The stage was more than set. The game was firing.
Except, against any other side in the world, this situation would surely have been the ultimate advantage. The opposition were down to 10 men, and with no manager to guide them.
Against Atletico, though, it was the ultimate challenge. The Spanish side relish this. Arsenal would have to find a way to open a side whose manager ensures they thrive on a sense of injustice and defiance; who has them so defensively drilled during the week his presence on the day doesn’t matter, and who have no problem sitting back so deep.
Even if Arsenal got that far, there was the challenge of beating Oblak.
He wasn’t the only Atletico player going down, either. The home crowd began to get frustrated at perceived diving, but that’s all part of the playbook.
But they weren’t sitting that deep, with David Ospina forced to rival Oblak for quality of save, getting down to beat away an Antoine Griezmann effort.
Arsenal just had to keep the electrical charge, especially against this kind of European experience.
And it wasn’t long until they began to really lean on that experience, and lean on the ropes. Cometh the hour, cometh back the man and the man and the man… as Atletico brought almost every player back around their goal, utterly assured of their ability to defend. Then again, they’ve been in this situation with 10 men against Barcelona and Real Madrid plenty of times.
Arsenal don’t possess anything close to their quality, but they did possess something else on the night.
It was then that something happened that went against experience, and expectation. With Atletico inviting Arsenal to try crosses, and Jose Maria Gimenez and Diego Godin meeting every one of them while Lacazette was getting nowhere, you would never have expected the French striker to score in the air.
That was precisely what he did, albeit making the run to Lucas Hernandez’s side and getting above him.
The great beauty of this gritty Atletico, though, is that they don’t get down. It is why they so regularly do so well in European competition, why their great rivals Real are the only side to eliminate them in the knockout stages in the last half-decade. They keep fully trusting the plan. They don’t panic.
That was shown when Arsenal kept up the pressure after the Lacazette goal, but it didn’t lead anything other than panic at the other end. Gimenez launched the ball up for Griezmann, with Mustafi out of position and Laurent Koscielny suddenly caught. He stretched to try and clear the ball, but Arsenal were stretched too far. Griezmann scored.
The second leg, absolutely having to score against this team, might be a challenge too far. There’s no better side at spoiling the game, and the party.