Alex Keble highlights the tactical strategy Arsene Wenger can use to beat Atletico Madrid in the first leg of the Europa League semi-final, and predicts an Arsenal victory at 31/20.
The announcement that Arsene Wenger will leave Arsenal at the end of the season has loaded this week's Europa League match against Atletico Madrid with extra meaning. Not only would lifting the trophy, and thus taking Arsenal back into the Champions League, be the perfect send-off for Wenger, it would also be a great way for the Frenchman to hit back at his doubters – both inside and outside the club.
Reports suggest Wenger jumped before he was pushed.
Most neutrals are sceptical about Arsenal's chances of beating Diego Simeone's side, but the Spaniards are definitely beatable. Atletico have lost three and drawn one of their last four away matches, while Arsenal – desperate to perform for their outgoing manager – are on a run of six consecutive wins at the Emirates.
A solid first-leg win could be enough to get them to the final. Here's how they can do it:
Pepper the Atletico box with crosses from deep
Simeone's famously ruthless defensive shape means Arsenal will struggle badly if they try to play through the middle of the pitch. Atletico compress the space superbly, staying tight and narrow to prevent opponents from building gradually towards goals.
However, in their last five away games Atleti have conceded an alarming six goals from crosses from out wide, condemning them to consecutive defeats that have allowed rivals Real Madrid to close the gap in La Liga. On almost every occasion the goal has come from a cross in front of the two defensive lines, generally 25 yards from goal and curled to the back post.
Usually Atletico are very good at pressing the wide men in twos, but they appear to have dropped off as their confidence wanes. Consequently Mesut Ozil and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, likely to play on the wings in a 4-3-3 on Thursday, can expect success if they whip the ball in early.
Between them, Ozil and Mkhitaryan attempt 6.6 crosses (from open play) per match, suggesting they will be willing to look for Alexandre Lacazette. However, success with this tactic depends on both players resisting the urge to cut inside and attempt the narrow passing triangles Wenger has favoured for 22 years. To do so would be to play directly into Atletico's hands.
Release Bellerin to get in behind Hernandez
The only other way to break down Atleti's brick wall is to go around it. Felipe Luis's injury has made left-back a problem area for the Spanish side, with young Lucas Hernandez likely to deputise at the Emirates. Bellerin has the pace, and the energy, to move beyond Hernandez and cut low balls into the penalty area.
Tellingly, Hernandez completes fewer tackles (3.4 per match) than Luis (4.2 per match) but commits almost twice as many fouls per game (1.2 compared with 0.7). Hernandez is vulnerable if isolated, and so Wenger must give licence to his right-back to attack the spaces behind the 22-year-old Frenchman.
It might be a risky strategy given Atletico's speed on the counter, but it's vital Arsenal take a big lead to the Wanda. The spanner in the works here is that Simeone could play a 3-4-3 formation at the Emirates, as he did in their 0-0 draw against Real Betis last weekend. Such a formation would provide extra cover behind the wing-back (making it harder to get Bellerin into the game), but conversely would potentially make it easier to cross from deep.
Control Atleti's counters by staying tight to Griezmann
Diego Costa is unlikely to recover from injury in time – which is excellent news considering how frequently he bullied the Gunners defence in a Chelsea shirt – but that does not weaken Atletico's counter-attacking threat. They mostly launch breakaways down the flanks, with Antoine Griezmann dropping into the channels to help initiate the move.
Mohamed Elneny's injury leaves Wenger with just Granit Xhaka in the holding role, not something the Swiss international has done well since moving to London. Arsenal will only successfully contain the visitors if Xhaka stays deeper than usual and tight to Griezmann, following him into the channel if necessary.
Another useful way to counteract Atletico is to ensure only one Arsenal full-back goes forward at a time, making a back three when in possession. If Wenger can get his midfielders to play with greater caution that usual, and instruct Nacho Monreal to sit as a third centre-back, Arsenal should largely be able to keep Atletico penned in.
Back Arsenal to beat Atletico Madrid at 31/20 (Sportsbook)
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