Tonight’s Europa League semi-final first leg between Arsenal and Atletico Madrid brings together two teams and clubs who are mirror opposites in many ways — including the personalities and philosophies of managers Arsene Wenger and Diego Simeone.
Arsenal have long prided themselves on being the most distinguished club in England — from the marble halls at their previous ground Highbury, through to the current Emirates Stadium era during which the club’s long-term security has been more important than results on the pitch.
Meanwhile, Atletico have basically been a financial basket case for much of their existence, almost going bankrupt when relegated in 2000, and wheeling and dealing to balance the books even when having sustained success in recent years under Simeone.
There is a similarity in that the Europa League is not where either of these teams planned to be — with both club’s business models and sense of themselves revolving around competing in and winning the Champions League.
Arsenal’s reality has been quite different since they last reached the Champions League final in 2006. Their recent European competition experience has usually ended in humbling defeat in the first meeting with a real contender like Bayern Munich or Barcelona.
In contrast, Simeone’s men have regularly punched above their weight — knocking out Barca [twice] and Bayern in the latter stages of the Champions League in recent seasons, although each time coming up frustratingly short against their richer neighbours Real in the 2014 and 2016 deciders.
This recent record, more than recent form or relative squad strengths, makes Atletico big favourites to progress to this year’s Europa League final, despite Arsenal being a much richer club.
The official figures have the Londoners as Uefa’s seventh richest club by revenue [€477m] compared to the Madrilenos’ 14th [€229m]. Arsenal’s annual wage bill of €263m is also almost double Atletico’s €137m.
During six seasons under Simeone, Atletico’s net transfer spend has been basically zero, with much of the extra revenue generated on the pitch going to either pay off past debts or fund a controversial move to their new Wanda Metropolitano stadium.
Despite this, the team climbed to second position in Uefa’s official club rankings before the start of 2017/18, seven places above Arsenal.
Most recently financial issues at the club forced sales of Belgium international Yannick Carrasco and Argentine playmaker Nico Gaitan to China just last February when it was impossible for Simeone to bring in any replacements, meaning he may have to name three youth teamers on the bench tonight.
Meanwhile, Arsenal have loosened the purse-strings in recent years. In January Wenger did see Alexis Sanchez leave, but got Henrikh Mkhitaryan in exchange, while also spending €63.75m on top international striker Pierre Emerick Aubameyang [even though he is cup-tied for the Europa League].
All this fits with an idea, floated this week by ex-Manchester United defender Gary Neville among others, that Simeone is now the “ideal candidate” to start a new era at Arsenal from next season.
The argument is that the intense Argentine would be able to better organise and motivate a group of players allowed too much latitude by Wenger in recent years.
The winning mentality that has been instilled in emerging stars under Simeone’s guidance, from Diego Costa to Antoine Griezmann, has indeed been impressive, although there are serious doubts over whether ‘El Cholo’ would be able to repeat his achievements outside of the specific peculiarities of a club he represented twice as a player.
Certainly it is difficult to imagine Simeone saying, as Wenger did last weekend, that “sport is about something bigger than just winning or losing” and talking about the importance of passing on good manners to children around the world.
When ‘El Cholo’ does reflect he prefers to speak of how his team’s aggressive determination to overcome their betters is an example to the downtrodden everywhere.
Tonight’s first leg, and the return next Thursday, now provides Wenger with a chance to show he is not the out of touch old fogey of sceptical media and angry fan caricatures.
But the two games also give Simeone another opportunity to see up close how the other half lives, and for his team to rise to the occasion and give another bloody nose to the elite.
After a slow start to the season following speculation over a move to Manchester United last summer, Griezmann has hit form since the turn of the year. Ireland’s Euro 2016 assassin has 17 goals in 21 games so far in 2018.
Box-to-box midfielder who loves a goal on the big occasion. Although just 23 he has already scored spectacular Champions League knockout strikes against Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Leicester.
The Croatia international right-back has not always been an automatic pick for Atletico, but in recent months his drives forward down the wing and accurate crossing have been vital.
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