The Champions League is back and it’s returned with a special fixture. Milan V Arsenal is arguably the cream of the second round ties. Aging giants in the process of transforming themselves to prove they aren’t just heroes from the past meet a resurgent, fairly youthful side that is still looking to make its mark at the highest level.
In theory, this should be a straightforward win for Arsenal. Milan have only won 4 of their last 19 games in the Champions League. A couple of those victories came in the group phase at home this season against BATE Borisov and ViKtoria Plzen. The other two came in the group phase last season at home and away to AJ Auxerre. Nothing really special there. The hosts have also been knocked out at this stage by English sides on the past three occasions they’ve played in the competition. That includes the 07/08 loss against Arsenal, who also happen to have a 100 percent record at the San Siro.
In contrast, Arsenal came very close to knocking Barcelona out last season and topped their group with a game to spare this time around. They also beat Udinese, who aren’t that far away from Milan in the Serie A table, home and away in the qualifying phase earlier in the season.
Massimiliano Allegri’s side are also coming into this fixture on the back of just one win in four, and that too a rather unconvincing one over Udinese that came on the back of a couple of late counter-attacks with the League leaders failing to create much of note otherwise.
Arsenal, on the other hand, seem to have turned the poor start to the year around with two different but massive wins.
In real life though, such details don’t always matter. The Italian giants have a wealth of experience at their disposal with many players well-qualified to write textbooks on various tactical and technical aspects of the game. They have strikers capable of pouncing on any mistakes from the opposition and scoring in the blink of an eye. Defensively, they remain as resilient as ever.
Tactically, this is likely to be an intense midfield battle. Both sides have players who can keep the ball and move it around. Both will also be vary of the other’s attacking threats. We might see a cat-and-mouse game where the midfields stick close to the defence and bide their time.
It will be interesting to see the personnel Allegri picks in his starting eleven. Their midfield diamond could crowd out the Arsenal trio if they get it right, and this could lead to chances for their strikers, probably Ibrahimovic and Robinho.
But that narrow-ish midfield could also leave room for Arsenal’s pacy wide players who can make life hard for any full-back who doesn’t get enough support from his teammates. I expect Milan to start cautiously and play a conservative game in the opening 45. After they suss Arsenal out, and if the scores are level, the hosts could look at introducing an additional attacker or two. The most favourable result for the home side is a 1-0 (or 2-0) win and I’ll be surprised if they go for anything else.
That doesn’t mean they can’t score more, or less for that matter. A lot will also depend on the way Arsenal approach this game. I would like to see the pragmatic and dogged style that worked for the Gunners in the group phase against the likes of Dortmund and Marseille. Wenger’s men can keep a clean sheet if they don’t make very basic errors or get caught in panic mode when put under pressure, especially late in the game.
Essentially, the midfield must not be too ambitious and the players should be comfortable in making numerous safe passes in the central third with the hope of creating some space for the wingers. Full-backs could overlap but it would be unwise to leave the central defenders alone against the two strikers. Song will have to remain deeper and curb the Songinho instincts. Arteta too will have to put in his usual, solid defensive shift. This might be the most high profile game of his career thus far and the Spaniard’s performance can be the clincher for Arsenal, not in terms of breathtaking flair but from a control and composure point of view.
I don’t expect too many surprises in the starting line-up. Wenger has already said that he will put Vermaelen back in the middle, a role the Belgian prefers. Sagna is a guaranteed starter, unless there’s a mishap right before the kick-off. So Wenger just has to pick the right permutation at full-back. He could start Gibbs at left-back but the youngster hasn’t had any match practice for a long time so that would be a huge risk in my opinion. Wenger could also pick Coquelin at left-back. The French lad has impressed in the limited time he’s got but that position is really unknown to him and he will make mistakes there, no doubt.
The other options are to pick either Coquelin or Djourou at right-back and move Sagna to the left. But that option weakens both flanks to an extent.
I’d go with Coquelin at left-back. Milan’s tricky and quick players – Robinho, El Shaarawy, and Pato – are all right-footed so they probably won’t trouble Le Coq as much while cutting in from the Right flank.
Szczesny – Sagna, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Coquelin – Song, Rosicky, Arteta – Walcott, RvP, Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Some would suggest picking a more experienced and creative player like Arshavin for this game. Wenger might also go with Ramsey if he thinks the youngster’s had a good, refreshing break and is closer to his best. The Welshman will definitely offer a greater work rate than Little Mozart who will provide better technical and incisive qualities.
Arsenal central defenders will have to be extremely vigilant against Milan’s strikers. Both Koscielny and Vermaelen are aggressive defenders and could be in trouble against the movement and strength of Ibra or the runs of Robinho.
Wenger’s choice of positional play will also have an impact on this game. If the Gunners push high up the pitch and press the opponents in their half, it could leave vast spaces for them to exploit on the break. But dropping deep and inviting a dominant, lethal striker like Ibrahimovic into one’s penalty box isn’t a clever approach by any means.
Arsene and his players will have to find a balance. Arsenal would do well to play a compact game just inside their own half. Milan don’t really have the pace to get in behind with ease. But they do have players capable of finding exceptional balls in behind. The Gunners will have to track the runs diligently or they could end up chasing the game against a side that is well and truly capable of holding on to a lead, or even increasing it from a counter-attack.
The visitors’ biggest threat will come from the pace out wide and the form of Van Persie. Oxlade-Chamberlain hasn’t always shown he knows what the right positions to take or the correct decisions to make are. This will be the youngster’s biggest tactical test to date, if he is picked in the starting line-up.
Walcott has the opportunity to prove his doubters wrong once again. But don’t expect too much from him. If the midfield does indeed adopt a cautious style, Theo will get little support and will be fighting an uphill battle against a well-drilled defence.
Ultimately, such games, when both sides play well, aren’t about too many chances or thrilling end-to-end football. They’re about holding fort till you find the opportunity to deliver a knockout blow. Arsenal can do it if they produce the perfect game. Will they? Well, you tell me!Follow @goonerdesi