Into the Calderón: I think we have to start with Arsène Wenger stepping down at season’s end. Can you sum up the feelings of The Short Fuse staff and community regarding Wenger’s imminent departure?
The Short Fuse: Arsène Wenger was more than a manager — he was Arsenal. Everything in place at the club now is because of him — he revolutionized training, diet and fitness regimens when he first came in, banning alcohol and fried food and instituting customized training/nutrition plans for each player. If that sounds familiar, it’s because every club does it now, but that’s all because Wenger did it first.
On pitch, you all know the story — wildly successful in his first decade, not so much in his second, at least on the trophy front. But 20 consecutive seasons in the Champions League is a streak no other English team — not Ferguson’s Manchester United, not Liverpool, not Chelsea — can even come close to claiming, and it’s a streak for which he got very little respect despite it being really, really hard to do. People mocked him for his “fourth place trophy” ambition being his ceiling, but other teams would kill for that sort of consistency.
Apart from that, Wenger is the only manager that literally a generation of Arsenal fans have ever known. We are stepping into some seriously uncharted waters here, and while we all (TSF and wider fanbase alike) realize that a change had to happen for the club to take a step forward, we also realize we have no idea what happens next and whether that step forward will be preceded by a step sideways or backwards.
ItC: Has this season been any fun to follow and write about on a near-daily basis?
TSF: Not really. This season is playing out exactly like the last three — decent early start with some promising results, followed by getting beat down pretty good by the better teams in the league and a few surprising-not-surprising losses to relegation candidates.
One of the hardest things about being an Arsenal fan lately is the exact sameness of it all, and that in a nutshell is why a lot of us are actually glad there’s a new boss next year, despite the aforementioned fear of taking a step back. I wouldn’t say we’ve run out of things to say at this point, it’s more like we’ve run out of interesting/creative ways to say “this team isn’t very good relative to expectations” and run out of a desire to even try to rosterbate what a better Arsenal would look like.
ItC: On to this tie. Were you alright with the draw or would you rather have seen Atlético in a single match instead.
TSF: I’m one of those “if you want to be the best you gotta beat the best” people, so I don’t particularly care — since the knockouts started, we’ve always known that there was an Atleti-sized monolith standing in the way of Arsenal winning this competition. I suppose a one-off would be a better chance, but a two-legged semi is a better test, if that makes sense. Either way, this will easily be the biggest test Arsenal have faced in the Europa League, and with the added incentive of sending Wenger off a winner, I’m really looking forward to this tie.
ItC: Wenger has confirmed that Henrikh Mkhitaryan will miss the first leg, and it seems Mesut Özil is touch and go. Just how big a loss is the Armenian for Thursday’s match?
TSF: Pretty big, honestly. Arsenal are not a one-man team at all, but Mkhitaryan’s loss is a big one — he’s developed as a really good option to break down defenders, and unlike a lot of Arsenal midfielders, he isn’t afraid to shoot. Without Mkhi there, Arsenal generally has to rely on Özil to do that breaking down, which is not his forte. And if Özil doesn’t play, well, the two most able defense-breakers in the midfield won’t be there, which could make things pretty tricky for Arsenal.
ItC: Alexandre Lacazette was heavily linked with Atlético prior to his move to the Emirates. Has he come good in your opinion?
TSF: He hasn’t really lit the league on fire, but I don’t think he was supposed to. After a bit of a rough start, in which Wenger for some reason refused to play him for 90 minutes for several games, Laca has really settled into the squad quite well and has taken over the French-goal-machine mantle from the departed Olivier Giroud. Laca’s really good at being where he needs to be, but he’s not really a poacher — while he makes really good runs and ends up in the right place at the right time a lot, he doesn’t just hang out in the box like he’s waiting for a bus.
ItC: What do Arsenal need to do to advance to the final?
TSF: It’s more about what they need to not do: switch off defensively. I haven’t done any analysis of this, but I have a sneaking suspicion that Arsenal have given up more dumb goals than any team in the Premier League this season. For whatever reason, Arsenal defenders are very prone to having those single-second moments of inattention which end up being deadly when the other team pounces on them. It’s happened a ton this year against much lesser teams than Atlético Madrid, so if Arsenal want to advance, they have to put in 180 solid minutes of defending, not 175.
ItC: What’s your scoreline prediction over the two legs?
TSF: I am notoriously, legendarily bad at these, so take it with the grain of salt it deserves. I honestly think Arsenal can win at home, even though it’ll be tight, and if they can somehow manage to keep Atlético out of the net they can go to Madrid and have a puncher’s chance at sneaking an away goal that will see them advance to the final.
But they’ll probably go to the Wanda Metropolitano and get slaughtered. I’ll say 4-2 Atleti, as much as it kills me to do so — I think even with the emotional boost of wanting to send Wenger off with that elusive European trophy, the task for this particular Arsenal squad is probably too much of a reach.