There are games where even a defeat feels like a win. Then there are those where victory can’t quite overcome the feeling of losing out. On a rare occasion though, one gets to experience both these contradicting sentiments at the same time! Arsenal’s heroic effort against Milan will surely fall into that exceptional category.
The Gunners are out of the Champions League but have now won the last three games against Tottenham, Liverpool, and Milan with an aggregate score of 10-3! If that doesn’t spur this team on or make fans believe again, nothing will. On the other hand, after a 3-0 win in this game, one cannot help but wonder what the result would have been if Arsenal had performed at even half the required level in the first game. Some would surely think the telling difference was made by the quality of the pitch at Milan. At the end of all rationalization and analysis though, it’s hard not to feel this celebration could so easily have had greater substance to it with a place in the next round.
Anyway, let’s not focus on what could have been. There is a need to focus on the Premiership and this win was sumptuous enough to restore the wounded Gooner pride. The cost, in terms of injuries, will be known in coming days. As long as it’s not too heavy a price there can be no cause to complain about the recent performances, and every reason to look forward to the rest of the games in the League even if it’s just a fight for fourth of the possible date of St. Totteringham’s Day.
The game itself was predictable in some ways and surprising in some others. Everyone expected Arsenal to come flying off the blocks but the intensity and tempo that the Gunners produced in the first half was breathtaking. You could see Milan didn’t know what hit them. The early goal, from Arsenal’s only accurate cross of the game, helped immensely.
Those watching carefully would have noticed many interesting details. Arsenal did press the visitors intensely but it wasn’t a consistent effort through the half. In a way you could say the Gunners went hard at Milan, then collectively paused for breath by allowing visitors some time on the ball, and then went for the jugular once again. This pattern repeated all through the first half. As a result, Milan actually made more passes in the first half, and indeed in the entire game, but the Gunners had greater urgency and impact.
The thing with such cycles is that over time the side going gung-ho will lose energy and consequently their ability to threaten the opposition. Add the lack of options on the bench into the mix and it was no surprise to see the last Arsenal attempt on goal come as early as the 64th minute. For a side chasing the game, and especially after knocking off so much of the lead in the first half, that is the decisive stat.
It was a extraordinarily direct and un-Arsenal-like performance from the Gunners. It isn’t often that visitors at the Emirates attempt and complete over a hundred passes more than the hosts. The goals too came from non-regular sources, one from a corner and two from runs that started wide on the Right just inside the Milan half and forced mistakes in the box. While Arsenal do get a lot of assists from the Right side, there is usually a degree of finesse involved either via a through-ball, a clever cut-back, or such other piece of skill. In this game it was simply a result of direct running.
And therein also lay the problem. In the second half, Mesbah got really tight on Theo instead of dropping back. This reduced the opportunities for him to receive the ball and turn. Van Bommel too was quick to cut across and helped close a couple of runs down early. With that threat gone, Arsenal really didn’t look like they had any other options.
While I don’t wish to be critical of any player after such an effort, Gervinho did have a disappointing night where he was anonymous for large periods. The injury to Oxlade-Chamberlain also put greater pressure on the midfield but they too struggled to create any meaningful combinations. It’s hard to remember many moves where Arsenal’s passing actually cut Milan apart. Indeed, there were occasions when the Gunners wasted good openings after the players earned time and space in the opposition half through their synchronized pressing.
To take just one example, in the 16th minute Emanuelson was forced into making an erroneous back pass. Rosicky got the ball but played it too early for Van Persie who then returned it but it was behind Little Mozart. The attack fizzled out even though it was a scintillating 2-v-2 with acres of space on both sides.
There were many such moments when a greater degree of composure, which is Arsenal’s strength in most games, would have made all the difference. But I guess it’s not easy to play the game at this Basketball style intensity and maintain a level head at all times. It’s a con one has to accept with the pros of the style.
At the back I thought Arsenal were disciplined, committed, and focussed. Obviously, with such a direct style, and with a young lad playing in an unfamiliar role in midfield, the back four were not going to get sufficient protection. Considering that, they did superbly to hold a strong line and on many occasions got a desperate last gasp tackle, interception, or block in.
I also thought Ibrahimovic and Robinho were atrocious for large parts of the game. They saw a lot of the ball – Robinho was fourth highest in terms of successful passes (47/55) and Ibra wasn’t far behind with (36/49). To put that into perspective, Koscielny made the most successful passes for Arsenal but he only managed 38/46. Those are very high number for attacking players. – but were extremely ineffective. A lot of their movement seemed lethargic and disjointed. Even their attempts at the final pass or finish were substandard.
At the end both sides will look back and see a number of missed opportunities. Not only the obvious ones like Van Persie’s chip that was saved or Nocerino’s tap-in that went straight at Szczesny, but also a fair few moments when a better pass/choice in the final third could have been decisive.
Szczesny: Once again his decision making was very good and did make a couple of quality saves. Only one mistake in the whole game when he played a lazy pass to Song that gave Ibra a great chance to score.
Sagna: Attempted the most passes for Arsenal. Worked hard on the flank but couldn’t really make a meaningful attacking contribution. Was fairly effective in defence as he got his positioning and decision making right on most occasions. He also won all 3 aerial duels and 2/3 tackles.
Koscielny: Completed the most passes for the Gunners. A very good run across the face of goal to get rid of his marker, was a bit lucky with the finish as it went down to his shoulder and then in. Made 5 interceptions and was generally in the right areas defensively.
Vermaelen: He too had a very efficient game at the back. Also made a couple of vital tackles and threw his body on the line when he had to.
Gibbs: His run and attempted cross won the corner that led to the first goal but I thought the youngster’s general understanding with Gervinho was not that good and Arsenal were not a threat down the left for most of the game. Did get into good defensive positions and made a number of vital clearances.
I thought the back line was fairly steady and that resulted in a number of offsides. The central defenders, with a lot of help from Song and AOC, also ensured the visitors rarely got a shot on goal down the middle. This automatically reduced the goal threat. The line also fell very deep when Milan had a chance to cross which meant a number of their crosses ended up straight at Szczesny. The full-backs did well and didn’t let their man cut inside into threatening positions that often.
Song: Only attempted 42 passes, usually makes that many in a half or at max an hour. That was more a reflection on Arsenal’s approach than his ability. At times though, he could have done with more composure. Played part of the game as a box-to-box midfielder with a number of sprints and the other part as an extra defender. Made 3 interceptions and was successful with all 3 tackles but was also forced into committing a number of fouls.
Rosicky: Took his goal really well. He only had a small portion of the goal to aim at and placed it in the corner deftly. Was the main driving force and was always looking for attacking opportunities. Made the most number of passes for the Gunners in the final third.
Oxlade-Chamberlain: The youngster was often the deepest of the three midfielders but used his energy well to make timely defensive contributions. Was also forceful when he got the ball. Picked up a good assist for the first goal and won the penalty for the third.
The midfielders were more like link players. They weren’t looking to sustain possession as much but were constantly trying to get the ball forward. Their direct approach was effective when Milan were caught off-guard and when they had the physical stamina to press. But over time the visitors took up a better shape and the Arsenal midfield tired. This was one area where I thought the Gunners could have done better and maybe having a guy like Arteta for this game could have made a big difference.
Walcott: Theo made a good run for the second goal, the intensity of which forced an error from the usually reliable Thiago Silva. He also put in some good balls from the Right but they didn’t find a teammate. Would have preferred to see him on the shoulder of the last defender more often but Arsenal needed bodies behind when they lost possession as the midfield wasn’t that strong defensively.
RvP: Took his penalty well. Hit the target with all four of his efforts. Could have done better with that chip but I thought he was expecting Abbiati to dive to his left. The Keeper did well to keep his eye on the ball till the last moment. These things happen. Once again ran all over the pitch and covered the most ground.
Gervinho: Made a couple of handy tackles deep in the Arsenal half on the Left and had one good attempt at goal but wasn’t as involved as one would have liked.
The front three were isolated and rarely worked any combinations. There was a lot of running and a couple of goals resulted from such runs but overall it wasn’t a cohesive effort.
Subs: Chamakh and Park didn’t really get any service. Arsenal really missed a midfielder but I would have preferred introducing Jenkinson and pushing Vermaelen, Koscielny, or even Sagna into the midfield. That way the Gunners would have had a greater chance of holding on to the ball late in the game.
Wenger: Full marks for motivation. Picked as strong a team as he could. Maybe there is an argument against losing control late in the game but his choices were really limited.Follow @goonerdesi