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The Arsenal-Atlético paradox

Ahead of the Europa League semi-finals, it’s time for a little introspection.

Atletico Madrid v Real Betis - La Liga Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

Football purists are the fans I most respect, those who support their local team throughout their lives without ducking the bad times. Unfortunately for me, I was born at a time and place where I was a football fan nearly 10 years before my local club, Atlanta United, was established. As a result, I was an Arsenal fan, and since Radamel Falcao demolished Athletic Bilbao in the Europa League final, Atlético Madrid were on my radar, though my support did not begin for a few years later.

I won’t hide from it: I’m no purist. Now, however, I face the uncomfortable prospect of two teams I care quite a lot about facing in a European semi-final. Gulp.

From an Atlético perspective, the outlook would be good, as Arsenal are a side who struggle against teams who specialize in defending, as Atleti do. The overwhelming amount of attacking players Arsenal deploy in their lineups means often they commit too many men forward and leave their porous defense exposed. Diego Costa, should he recover in time, has an excellent record against Arsenal from his time with Chelsea — so much so that he rang in the death knell of Gabriel Paulista’s Arsenal career.

With a foot in both camps, I worry more for Arsenal than Atlético. It is certainly within the realms of possibility that the Gunners manage to drag Atleti into making it an open match if they get an early goal, but that seems unlikely. Arsenal have good defenders but are particularly poor in defense — even adding the world’s best defender to Arsenal’s team would not fix the problem. The reality is that Arsène Wenger — for better or worse — is going to set his team up to attack the opponent, which inherently makes the defense have to work harder and permits the other team good chances.

Against CSKA, Wenger showed that he was willing to deploy a back three when defending a lead, and against a much more threatening team he may roll with that set up to start. If that is the case, Antoine Griezmann in particular will have to be ice-cold when his chances come. It’s worth noting that Atleti struggled against another back three-playing English side in Chelsea this season.

Frankly, I was anticipating an Atlético-Arsenal final, which would have been the matchup of the two best teams left in the competition. Over two legs though, I think it should be a close contest between two very different teams. While los rojiblancos have strong players, the squad is quite small. Arsenal has a larger squad, mostly consisting of average players with some top players sprinkled in. Alexandre Lacazette will have a point to prove against the club he all but signed for in the summer prior to the transfer ban. On Colchonero Chat, I affirmed my commitment to non-commitment with who I will support, because it would be great for either team to reach the final being the favorite to lift the cup. I think Atleti will win, especially if they can keep out Arsenal’s attacking players. With all that said, best of luck to both sides, and I hope a club wearing red and white will lift the trophy in May.