Sunday 22 July 2018

Odds against Arsenal being able to silence constant noise

Arsene Wenger and Robert Pires look on as Arsenal’s players go through their paces during training yesterday. Photo: John Walton/PA Wire
Arsene Wenger and Robert Pires look on as Arsenal’s players go through their paces during training yesterday. Photo: John Walton/PA Wire

Jonathan Liew in Madrid

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Arsenal is a football club, but it's also a noise. A conductorless orchestra of shouts and whispers, of bulletins and sermons, of talk and talk and talk and more talk.

Atletico Madrid manager Diego Simeone during the training session at the Ciudad Deportiva Atlético de Madrid, Madrid. Photo: Adam Davy/PA Wire
Atletico Madrid manager Diego Simeone during the training session at the Ciudad Deportiva Atlético de Madrid, Madrid. Photo: Adam Davy/PA Wire

Sometimes, the talking gets so relentless that it's easy to fool yourself they're one and the same thing, that the talking is Arsenal, and Arsenal the talking.

Sometimes - and especially at times like this - a club can wallow in its past, and fixate on its future, to the extent that it risks taking one eye off the present.

This is never a good idea when you're about to play Atletico Madrid.

So, past and future can wait for now. The present assignment is quite daunting enough: a team without a single point away from home in 2018, needing to score against a side who haven't conceded at home in any competition for four months.

If the late deflation of Arsenal's 1-1 draw at the Emirates last week was the inevitable consequence of a team unduly prone to lapses in concentration, then the time for such lapses has surely passed.

In order to emerge triumphant at the Wanda Metropolitano tonight, Arsenal will need to be perfect.

In the face of a hostile home crowd, and a 24-hour cacophony of chatter, Arsenal need to cut out the background noise, turn down the volume, until the only voices they can hear are their own.

Regression

The fact that Arsenal are such clear second favourites, that there is so little faith within the English game that they can pull off a famous upset, says as much about Arsenal's regression under Wenger as it does about Atletico's rise under Diego Simeone.

It wasn't always like this, of course. The great Wenger teams cut a great swathe through the continent, and they did it however they needed to.

Whether it was through thrilling attacking football (the thrilling 5-1 demolition of Inter Milan at the San Siro), composed dominance (the stunning schooling of Real Madrid at the Bernabeu in 2006) or pure grit (the agonising goalless draw in Villarreal that secured their only Champions League final to date), the Arsenal sides of old knew how to get results in these sorts of games. You wonder whether they still do.

But there we go again, fetishising the past.

Let's return to Atletico, and that breathtaking home record, which, for maximum effect, it helps to list in full: 1-0, 2-0, 1-1, 1-1, 0-0, 2-1 (carnage!), 1-0, 2-0, 1-1, 3-0, 1-0, 2-0, 4-0, 3-0, 1-0, 3-0, 0-0.

Just four goals conceded at home all season in the league, nine in all competitions.

And Arsenal will, at least, take heart from Atletico's occasional lapses in other competitions this season: the 2-1 defeat to Sevilla in the Copa del Rey, a sloppy 1-1 draw against 10-man Qarabag in the Champions League, and a late burglary by Chelsea back in September.

Cup football is a different beast, of course. But, if you offered Arsenal one goal right now, they'd probably take it.

Can we learn anything from the nine goals Atletico did concede at home?

First of all, you need to be prepared to stick at it: five of the nine came in the last 10 minutes.

In terms of build-up, six came from crosses, one from a penalty, one from a hashed clearance and one - against Sevilla - after a sort of weird head tennis in midfield.

Conclusion: you don't really pass your way through Atletico Madrid. You don't counter them. You hardly ever score from distance against them. All you can do, really, is defend well, build some pressure, keep the crosses coming in, and hope.

The sharp-eyed among you will have noticed that this isn't really the way Arsenal play.

Ironically, it's another of those games where they could really have used Olivier Giroud.

In his absence, Alex Lacazette will be given the toughest, most bruising job on the pitch: going head-to-head with Atletico's defence, waiting patiently for the few chances that come his way.

Henrikh Mkhitaryan is in contention to start. If he does, in tandem with Mesut Ozil and Danny Welbeck and Aaron Ramsey, he must ensure that Arsenal's precision in the final third is clinical.

Above all, Arsenal will need to show up. This may be one of the toughest fixtures in world football and if they come through it, neither Marseille nor Salzburg will scare them in the final in Lyon.

Victory would give meaning and shape to the rest of their season, a sense of energy and urgency, a storyline and a target.

Defeat would dampen the mood ahead of Wenger's last home game against Burnley on Sunday, rendering the planned presentation and festivities an exercise in pure nostalgia.

Famous

"As if it matters how a man fell!" goes the famous quote from 'The Lion In Winter'.

"When the fall is all that's left," comes the reply, "it matters a great deal."

Wenger himself must know that, if he gets through this, then he has the chance to end his career not in a dingy press conference room at Huddersfield after finishing sixth, but in the country of his birth, drenched in tickertape and champagne, his beloved club back in the Champions League, the circle complete. But, then, there we go again, fixating on the future.

As the red-clad multitudes of north London descend on the capital of Spain, fearful and proud and excited and wistful all at the same time, perhaps as ever, we should leave the final words to Wenger himself.

"The past gives regrets," he said once. "The future uncertainties. The only moment of possible happiness is the present."

And last night, he said: "A man must give his maximum commitment and energy as long as he is somewhere.

"Until the last day, I will focus on Arsenal. I want to finish this love story well. The next game is always the most important in life.

"This influences the future of my club. It's a very, very big game for us." (© Independent News Service)

Atletico Madrid v Arsenal, Live, BT Sport 2, 8.05

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