Do you like those what comes next kind of puzzles? Try this one.
0-2:5-2 | 1-0:1-2 | 4-0: ?
Tough one, eh!? Okay let’s make it easy. Here are the multiple choice options.
A) Miracle ; B) Pride restored but little else ; C) Complete Disaster ; D) Meh, bring on Newcastle
You know what, it’s still a tough one for me.
From a purely rational point of view, it’s tough to see Arsenal scoring 4 or more. They’ve done it in the last two home games in the League but this season’s Milan side is a different kettle of fish. Furthermore, the Gunners have only scored 7 goals in the seven Champions League games thus far (excluding the playoff). Throw the injuries into the mix alongside Milan’s defensive nous and formidable counter-attacking talents, and it’s really tough to imagine option A working out.
Some fans would, therefore, want to pick the last choice. Forget the result and get through this game without further injuries. Newcastle is more important. I have, on numerous occasions in the past, mentioned that Arsenal should drop out of the Cup competitions. So I don’t really have anything against such a scenario but Wenger is patently not willing to give up. It’s understandable that the coach and his players will at least want to play for pride, even if it’s not the most clever of choices.
Seems like I’ve used my 50-50 lifeline and narrowed it down to either B or C as the more realistic choices.
Most people, including the bookies, expect Arsenal to win this one. A large majority of fans, in my opinion, will be happy with a win. At least that way the Gunners will bow out with a degree of dignity. It will also sustain the positive momentum that the recent results have generated.
Then there is the threatening possibility of a complete disaster and it’s twofold. Without sufficient midfield cover, the defence could easily be exposed against world class attacking players who’ve already proved their abilities in the first leg. Arsenal could actually end up losing this one. Not only will it be disappointing on the night, such an adverse result could affect the morale of the squad for the final stretch of the season.
More than the result though, it’s the risk of losing even more players to soul-destroying injuries that has me worried. The challenge for fourth will be virtually impossible if the Gunners were to, God Forbid , lose Vermaelen or RvP for a few weeks.
Depending on your disposition then; you could either pray for a miracle, hope for a determined effort and a confidence-enhancing win, sweat over the catastrophic possibilities, or just forget about football till the weekend.
I am on the fence between B and C, which is a rather prickly place to be. It’s hard to explain but I can see it going both ways. Here are some of the options and likely patterns that come to mind.
1) Let The Ox Carry The Weight
Wenger has said that in the future Oxlade-Chamberlain could be a central midfielder. Injuries to virtually everyone who can play that role present Arsene this opportunity to try the youngster in that position.
The team could take something like the shape drawn above. The wide players will tuck in as often as possible allowing the full-backs to push on. Rosicky and Song would sit in front of the defence and keep the game ticking. The young Ox would have the biggest creative responsibilities – he would have to move between the lines, often receiving the ball with his back to the goal and then turning to bring other attackers into play, taking on defensive players when he has to, and making runs into the wide areas when the space opens up.
I won’t be surprised if this is a choice many fans find exciting but it doesn’t completely convince me. At the moment AOC is a talented youngster who thrives when he gets space to run with the ball and take opposition defenders on. But he hasn’t really shown an awareness of space that is needed for such a role. Often one can see he is caught ball-watching rather than reading the play and putting himself in a threatening position where he can receive the ball. Wider areas are not patrolled as heavily and he can get away with it even if his positioning is a bit off. Centrally, especially against this Milan side, he will be under tremendous pressure. Not only that, if he loses the ball in the middle of the Milan half it could easily expose the defenders to a rapid counter.
In such a case, Arsenal will also have three very similar direct players on the pitch who are all capable of losing the ball through a poor touch, a misplaced pass, or an ill-advised dribble attempt. Milan are a very competent technical unit, to put it mildly, and losing that battle could force Arsenal into chasing the ball more often than they’d like.
So such a choice is a big risk and could potentially be disastrous. But if Arsene takes this as a nothing to lose game and can provide limited but succinct instructions to the lad we could be in for an interesting game. He has skill on the ball and is quick. AOC is also energetic and largely fearless. He won’t be overawed by the occasion and could really unsettle Milan if he can sort his positioning and decision making out and/or gets a bit of luck.
Other players will have to carry their share of the burden no doubt. Song and Rosicky are the kind of players who can spread the ball around. The full-backs will have to go up and down the flank tirelessly and deliver balls into the box with a greater consistency and purpose. Theo and Gervinho will have to be on top of their games, constantly looking for runs down the inside channels or diagonally across the box. Van Persie just has to be himself.
2) Chamakh Attack
Sadly, these days that term is likely to evoke a chuckle from the opposition rather than a furrowed brow. The Moroccan has been out of form and out of favour. But he provides a different dynamic to the side, one that no other squad member can.
With Chamakh in a central position, possibly occupying Thiago Silva for large periods, RvP could get a free role around the box. Arsenal will have a target man in the box and if Arsene can extract his ability to link play, the Gunners could create combinations that trouble Milan.
Chamakh could use his aerial and physical abilities to be a goal threat, he could also drop out of the box occasionally to open space for the wide players and Van Persie to run into. RvP, Song, and Rosicky have the ability to find these runs. Chamakh could also use his aerial ability for knock-ons and lay-offs.
Such a system would demand a greater defensive shift from the full-backs as it would be counterproductive to put a defensive burden on Van Persie. It can work with one of the wingers staying wide when the other one cuts in. This way Arsenal can get bodies in the box without getting in each other’s way. It would also allow space for one full-back to push forward while the other holds a more conservative position.
The problem here is that Arsenal just haven’t deployed these tactics often enough. It’s hard to see the players getting it right without regular use. In that case the man inside the box will not get the kind of service he wants. RvP might not get into goal-scoring positions as often as he should when Arsenal need 4 goals or more. Defensively too, this is a more open system as the full-backs, even when they’re being conservative, will not be able to offer cover in the central areas where Milan are likely to have more bodies.
Arsene could go for the unexpected here. The key for Le Boss, to put it in very simple terms, is to find the right balance between defence and attack. This involves getting the most out of his limited resources.
I am assuming Jenkinson is fit and ready for 90 minutes of full-throttle action. The unassuming youngster could just provide the perfect balance for the Gunners.
In this system, Arsenal will have three defenders against the two strikers that Milan usually use. That way they can provide cover and leave the midfielders with a relatively lesser defensive headache. Moreover, having two quick youngsters, who can think defensively, on the flank can work as an additional balancing measure as it would be easier for them to read the danger and drop back.
The front three will have to play right up against Milan’s back line but they will also have to be very intelligent with their movement. Van Persie can come deep more often in such a scenario as both the wide players will be in the inside channels and can cut across. They can also make runs between their respective full-backs and central defenders.
This approach is the most balanced one that I can think of. Most of the players will be in their natural roles or doing something very similar. Sagna is probably the only one who would have to put in a disciplined shift where he’d have to curb his instincts. But if anyone in this squad can, he can.
If Milan are sitting narrow and deep, or if they only have one striker, either Koscielny or Vermaelen can push up into the midfield. In fact, both can take turns depending on the shape of the opposition and the gaps on the pitch.
Once again the problem is that Arsenal haven’t used such an approach in the past. In theory it can all sound nice but one must also factor in the quality of the opposition and their ability to adapt their tactics. Milan have the ability to punish the Gunners with goals if the defensive play is out of sync. A change in system increases the probability of mistakes at the back due to lack of communication and/or contradicting choices being made by individuals at key moments.
Apart from the options discussed, Arsene could try some other tricks. For instance, he could play Park on the shoulder of the last defender. The Korean looks like a good finisher and some might say he will offer a bigger goal threat than Chamakh. Le Boss could also bring in a youngster like Ozyakup or Aneke but that is highly unlikely.
Wenger did mention that he is tempted by the option of playing AOC in the middle and also seems open to exploring other systems. Rosicky’s fitness will also have a say in the matter. But I don’t expect a major surprise as the options really are limited.
It will also be interesting to see the line-up and tactics that Max Allegri chooses. I will be surprised if he pushes his team high up. Looking for quick breaks, especially given their positional intelligence and ability to link at the top, seems like their best bet. But dropping too far back into their half could also be risky against this Arsenal side. They’ll also have to contend with a broader pitch than the one at home where the Gunners just couldn’t utilize the re-laid portion effectively. That means either his back four will be stretched or his midfielders will have to go wide. The diamond might not be the best shape in such a scenario. Allegri could, therefore, go for a 4-5-1/4-3-2-1.
Milan have some injury issues of their own. Seedorf and Boateng haven’t played since the win over Arsenal. Ambrosini is suspended. If these players are not available we might see a midfield three of Nocerino – Van Bommel – Emanuelson in front of the defence with Robinho and El Shaarawy on the flanks. Zlatan would lead the line on his own with the speedy wingers looking to join at every opportunity.
I am still undecided between options B and C but in either case this will be a hard fought game. So it seems best to leave you, not with a prediction, but with this quote attributed to Khalil Gibran.
Doubt is a pain too lonely to know that faith is his twin brother
PS: Over at EPL Index I did an analysis of some defensive variables. Did you know that all Premiership teams have a tackle success rate between 71 and 79 percent (not including the last weekend’s numbers)? Or that the number of interceptions per game doesn’t correlate with the defensive solidity (or weaknesses) that teams have displayed? I found the numbers surprising and interesting. It’s a members only post though, except the first few hundred words. In case you’re interested you can click here.
The charts in this post are made using the tool available on this11.comFollow @goonerdesi