Since his arrival in 1996, he has been credited with transforming “boring Arsenal” from an ugly, pragmatic side into a team that played with an eloquence to match his own spoken style. “Football should be an art” read a banner in the stands as he took to the touchlines for his final European night at the Emirates. His commitment to his vision of how football should be played was the foundation on which he built some of the Premier League’s greatest teams, most effectively encapsulated by 2003-04’s star-studded “Invincibles”.
The frailties of Wenger’s dogmatic style
But, during the many less sunny patches in his long reign, this same idea has often been churlishly offered up as an excuse for the team’s still spacious trophy cabinets. The refusal of other teams to match Arsenal’s elegant short-passing game has been treated as poor sportsmanship bordering on outright cheating, a lowbrow form of football which Arsenal refused to stoop to. Last night, his side encountered a team of Judo masters, hurling the full weight of their attack on top of them only to have it skilfully turned against them. They demonstrated not just the frailties of Wenger’s dogmatic style, but the underappreciated finesse of true defensive football.
Thursday night’s Europa League semi-final against Atlético Madrid represented Wenger’s last chance to claim his first European trophy. To get there, he would have to break down the most formidable defensive side in Europe: a team who had conceded only 18 goals in their entire La Liga campaign this season. After Sime Vrsaljko was given his marching orders in the ninth minute, the stage was definitively set for a battle of tactical extremes: Arsenal’s free-flowing attack versus Atlético’s impregnable defence. Dutch “Total Football” versus Italian “Catenaccio”. A classic showdown between competing football philosophies.
When a team claims only 28% of the possession in a match yet emerges with a draw and a vital away goal, it’s tempting to describe them as having stolen a point from the game’s rightful victors. Last night, that was simply not the case: for all their possession, all their pressure, all their chances, Arsenal were ultimately outplayed.
Antoine Griezmann was the lone wanderer in Arsenal’s half
The Atlético backline was a sight to be hold, moving with the intricacy and near telepathic understanding of the world’s best attacking sides. Uruguayan defensive duo Diego Godín and José María Giménez were rock solid once again, combining to form a stone wall which even Arsenal’s endless onslaught struggled to erode. The midfield drew back to support their depleted rearguard, Teye Thomas providing robust cover in Vrsaljko’s absence. By the second period, Antoine Griezmann was the lone wanderer in Arsenal’s half. Even after conceding, they continued to hunker down inside their own territory, fortifying and fending off their opponent’s relentless advances. The few times something did slip through, Jan Oblak was alert and agile: providing one of the game’s highlights with a fingertip save from Aaron Ramsey’s header.
In fact, after going a goal down, Simeone made the decision to sacrifice a striker and a winger in favour of defender Stefan Savic and veteran defensive midfielder Gabi. Far from running scared, the Atlético manager made the bold decision to abandon any serious pursuit of an away goal in favour of sticking to his strategy. While it’s easy to deride those choices as “parking the bus”, in the context it was one of the most daring things he could do. He trusted his team to see out the game without falling further behind and he trusted their ability to overcome their opponents next week in Spain. A lesser manager might have panicked and hurled on Diego Costa and Fernando Torres but Simeone remained calm. It wasn’t caution or cowardice, it was pure conviction.
When Atlético’s goal arrived out of the very middle of nowhere, it only served to highlight the value of their defensive virtues. Once again, Wenger saw a dominant display ruined by frailty at the back. His full back dangled too deep to play Griezmann onside, one centre-half was shrugged off by the diminutive Frenchman and the other went skidding across the grass as he scrambled back to protect the goal.
“They couldn’t score with a combination, they could only score with a long ball” Wenger claimed after the game. That the “only” way they could score was the only way they were interested in trying or that it was part of a strategy as precise and well-executed as his own once again seemed lost on Arsenal’s professor. For him, their has only ever been one “right” way to play. It’s common for old heads to mock that which they don’t fully understand and it’s unlikely that Simeone’s style will ever gain Wenger’s seal of approval. Of course, if his plan triumphs again next week, it is even more unlikely that he will care.