The Gunners threw away the lead with a defensive blunder in the closing minutes to draw 1-1 with Atletico Madrid in the first leg of their semifinal tie in the Europa League. Arsenal will have a lot of regrets after Thursday’s game: the Colchoneros aren’t that often outplayed.
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The Spanish side was vulnerable on crosses and spent the second half under siege. Simeone was apparently happy to trail by just one goal as he made defensive substitutions after Lacazette’s opening goal, replacing Gameiro with Gabi in the 65th and Correa with Savic in the 75th. The lack of attacking options on the Arsenal bench was a relief for the Atletico defense. Mkhitaryan is still recovering from a knee injury while Aubameyang is not eligible. Wenger made no substitution, thinking that Nketiah and Iwobi could not bring anything to the team.
What can we expect for the second leg in Madrid? Obviously, there’s no way the Gunners can be as dominant as they were at the Emirates stadium where they enjoyed 76% of ball possession and had 28 shots to just 6 for Atletico. Scoring a goal would be quite a feat: the Colchoneros have kept a lot of clean sheets at the Wanda Metropolitano stadium this season. On the bright side, the Gunners have a good record in the knockout phase with a 2-2 draw in Moscow, a 2-0 win in Milan and a 3-0 win in Ostersund.
- Vrsaljko’s ejection was justified
The Atletico rightback earned a booking in the second minute after killing a counterattack with a cynical foul on Wilshere. Then Vrsaljko received a second yellow card for a nasty stamp on Lacazette’s ankle in the 10th. That was just his second foul of the game, but each foul definitely deserved a yellow card.
Simeone was infuriated when Bellerin got no booking in the 13th for sticking a foot between a player’s legs to flick the ball. That was an awkward challenge from Bellerin but nothing as cynical or violent as Vrsaljko’s fouls. In a show of petulance, Simeone punched the air with his fists. The referee interpreted that behavior as dissent and sent Simeone off. In that kind of situation, maybe a verbal warning to the Argentine manager would have been enough.
- The Gunners proved incredibly wasteful
Arsenal should have scored more goals on Thursday. Oblak is a world-class goalkeeper but he only made 2 outstanding saves. He palmed away a close-range header from Lacazette in the seventh minute and tipped around the post another header from Ramsey in the 87th. The rest was just routine saves. Arsenal’s shooting accuracy was poor: of their 28 shots, 13 were off target, 7 got blocked and only 8 were on target, according to whoscored.com. The main culprits were Lacazette (2 of 8 shots on target), Ramsey (3 of 8), Xhaka (0 of 4) and Ozil (0 of 2).
Lacazette should have opened the scoring in the sixth minute when he met a cross from Welbeck for a bouncing volley that clipped the post. He also headed a cross over the bar in the 16th and glanced a corner wide in the 69th. Other chances included a low strike from Welbeck that Oblak saved with his foot in the 18th, a miskicked effort from Koscielny in the 21st, a volley from Monreal that sailed wide in the 31st and a header from Ramsey straight at Oblak in stoppage time.
- Lacazette is a different beast in European games
Knowing that the Europa League final will be played in Lyon, his hometown, Lacazette was highly motivated against Atletico. Lacazette opened the scoring in the 61st by outjumping Godin and Hernandez to head a cross from Wilshere into the far corner. He led all players with 5 aerial duels won and showed some great work-rate by winning 3 tackles and making 5 key passes. Thursday’s game confirmed that Lacazette is better tailored for European football because it is less physical than the Premier League and there isn’t such a strong emphasis on aerial duels. You would never see Lacazette win so many aerial duels in the Premier League.
- A defensive cock-up every week
The Colchoneros’ equalizer reminded the fans why Arsenal won’t finish in the Top 4 of the Premier League: the Gunners can’t defend. There’s a cock-up every week. Last week it was Mustafi, the week before it was Cech, and last night it was Koscielny. In the 82nd, Griezmann chased a long ball from the Atletico defense, got the better of Koscielny, was denied by Ospina but fired the rebound into the roof of the net.
At the start of the play, Welbeck made the mistake of isolating himself. The nearest teammate, Ramsey, was 30 yards behind Welbeck. Instead of taking on 2 defenders, Welbeck should have waited for more support and played a simple pass to Ramsey. When Welbeck lost possession, it was a comfortable 3v1 situation for the Arsenal defense. Because Monreal and Mustafi played Griezmann onside, that quickly turned into a 1v1 situation. Koscielny had an opportunity to kick the ball out of play but he gambled and tried to chip the ball over Griezmann. That was poor decision-making. The ball bounced off Griezmann’s head and into the path of the Atletico striker, sudddenly clean through on goal.
Down to 10 men for 80 minutes, the Colchoneros gave Arsenal a lesson in defending. The Gunners struggled to find space in a compact Atletico defense. In fact, they couldn’t even produce any through ball. The Spanish side’s only glaring weakness seemed to be in the air.
- Questions for the Arsenal midfield
The Arsenal midfield will need to work harder in the second leg. The Colchoneros exposed our midfielders a couple of times. Griezmann was able to test Ospina with a half-volley in the 33rd because no one patrolled the edge of the box. Then Partey easily dribbled past Ramsey, Xhaka and Wilshere in the 37th to feed Griezmann, whose snapshot was parried by Ospina.
Ramsey will have to cut his turnover rate for the second leg. He led all players with 7 turnovers, compared to 1 for Xhaka and 0 for Wilshere, according to whoscored.com. Another concern is the midfield’s poor interception skills. Ramsey, Wilshere and Xhaka combined to make 0 interception compared to 14 for Partey, Koke and Saul Niguez. The Gunners have been obviously missing Elneny’s mobility. They will have to find a solution for the second leg.