A slow, tentative Arsenal team visited Milan in Champions League knock-out play yesterday, and by god were their frailties exposed. Milan ended 4-o winners on the night, and that was a kind scoreline to the Londoners. Milan, far from the best squad they’ve ever had, abused Arsenal’s weak defense, and if Pato and Nocerino had been more composed it could have easily been six goals to the rossoneri.
Milan is not exactly impressive. They don’t seem that inspired in their build up play. Most times they try and bypass the midfield with a lob to Ibrahimovich, hoping the big Swede can bring the ball down and hold it until reinforcements arrive. Last night, it worked – a lot.Whenever he gets the ball it just feels confusing. He’s a big, weird looking, lanky guy with enormous feet. He’s fast, technical and can score, but none of it seems like it should ever happen because he’s just so strangely constructed. His weird little mustache and ponytail give the impression of a sideshow magician, and maybe that’s what he is, an oddly proportioned freak with just enough magic to befuddle defenders.
Ibra has taken flack over the years for his lack of scoring in Champions League play, and last night was no different, except he was playing a team with an incredibly porous defense who let him run the channels at will and spray passes all around the attacking third. He was supported by Boateng, who played well enough but never really seems fully in control of his body. When Boateng gets the ball you don’t think, “oh he’s going to unlock the defense this time.” Robinho was similarly uninspired, even though he put two goals past Szczęsny.
Still, Arsenal’s defense was just so poor. So, so poor. It didn’t matter that Milan aren’t a giant this year. The marking was poor, the high line they play just invites a ball over the top and a rush to goal (which they can’t handle),and then there’s Johan Djourou. This guy has no business being on the field. If he was a true talent, wouldn’t he have been in Africa with the rest of the Côte d’Ivoire team, losing to Zambia? No, he’s playing in the Champions League away to Milan – a team that has won seven European championships to Arsenal’s zero.
Milan’s defense never had to deal with any serious challenges. And Arsenal’s bread-and-butter – their wing play – was severely negated by both their lack of passion and the terrible condition of the pitch. Seriously, the field looked like a polo match had been played on it the day before. The wings, in particular, were chewed up. No coincidence perhaps that Milan play a compact diamond in the center of the field with very little wing play, while Arsenal spend most of their time advancing the ball up the wings. But yesterday I can’t even remember seeing Sagna or Gibbs bomb forward, and it wasn’t until the introduction of Oxlade-Chamberlain that Arsenal made their way down the left flank.
In the end, I never thought Arsenal were going to win that game, but I didn’t think they were going to be humiliated. But they were, and by a Milan team that is just not very good. Arsenal will probably win 2-0 in London, but it won’t be enough. Considering Milan went out at this stage of the competition the last three years, they were lucky to meet such a week side in the round of sixteen.
Arsenal travel to Borussia Dortmund to kick off the Champions League group stage tonight. Facing the German champions after a challenging start to the season and a crucial if somewhat underwhelming 1-0 win at the Emirates against Swansea City on Saturday is a tough task, but that’s the scenario. Of principle importance, the team quadrupled its points total in the league. No use wishing what else might have been.
On Saturday, Per Mertesacker and Mikel Arteta made their first starts at the Emirates and put in solid performances for players who have had close to zero playing time with their teammates. Yossi Benayoun came on as a sub for his first performance in an Arsenal shirt as well. All put in solid shifts and with Ju-Young Park and Andre Santos warming up on the sidelines at various points, the new boys were in full effect.
(Meaningless to the team, but tremendously meaningful to me, it was my first visit to the Emirates, as well. The third row seat, right next to the Arsenal bench, pretty much ruled. More on which later.)
For the goal, Arshavin pounced on a freak goalkeeper error and slotted in a great goal from a tough angle. People will point to Vorm’s mistake, but the mercurial Russian came through before half-time with a great strike, one which proved to be the match winner. Arshavin has always had the talent, and on Saturday he came through when Arsenal needed him. It’s a good a time as any for a return to form, Andrey….
Meanwhile, Arteta showed poise under tough circumstances in his capacity as playmaker. Obviously Swansea does not have the reputation of a big name team, but they put up a fight with not inconsiderable pace. Keep in mind that Arteta was anticipating runs and weighting passes to players he can’t have trained with more than two or three times, as all the forwards had been on international duty since his deadline day signing. Mertesacker’s 6-foot 6 presence seemed massive, Koscielny played well and Szczęsny took total control of his area, with a few clinch saves. He truly seems like the man to keep the first ‘keeper place for years to come. He has all the self-confidence of pseudo-Gunner Bendtner but with the performances to back up the braggadocio. Chamakh came on and played well for the first time since nearly 10 months ago, and Coquelin also acquitted himself well.
As to the negatives, the second half was nervy and the crowd was jumpier than a virgin at a rodeo. (Sadly, I think I just stole that line from a long-ago episode of the Golden Girls. In fact, I know I did.) Like it or not, the Arsenal knows better than almost anyone how to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. One never felt the game was locked up, and were it not for Szczęsny’s fantastic save 6 minutes from full time, it could easily have been a draw. Swansea doesn’t have the big name players, but they counterattacked with the quickness on several occasions. With a lesser man than Scszney in goal, they could very well have left the Emirates with a point. I, for one, am incredibly relieved they did not.
Van Persie had a less than stellar game. I had bet £10 on him to score first and £10 to score anytime in the match–it seemed like easy money, like taking candy from a baby–but such was not to be the case. He comported himself like a leader, though. With Walcott also having an off match, he looked isolated and squandered a few chances, but knowing his quality, knowing that he and Arteta will continue to form an understanding and knowing that Gervinho will soon (as in tonight) return in all his forward-bombing speediness augurs well. Frimpong looked tough–he’s a bruiser–but he too often gave away the ball carelessly, erasing all the hard work. The Ghanaian Mr. T will continue to improve, though.
Will Arsenal win tonight, or manage to take a point? Tough to call, as Dortmund are no chumps. A point, to my mind, would be more than acceptable, as Dortmund will very likely earn one of the top two spots and advance to the knockout rounds. Clubs encircled 19-year-old attacking midfielder Mario Götze like a pack of hyenas over the transfer window, but Dortmund was loathe to lose one of the top prospects in world football. The team has some dangerous players. Remember, these are the German champions, with one of the most solid home records and defenses around, having conceded only 8 goals last season. Not to belabor painful recent memories, but Arsenal conceded 8 in one game just over 2 weeks ago. This bears no further repeating, as it’s fully in the mind of the players and supporters. Time to replace it with fresh memories of winning ways.
Interesting factoid, a certain Tomáš Rosický (out with injury) scored two for Dortmund against Arsenal in the home 2-1 match in 2002 when they last met, surely a deciding factor on Wenger’s choice to snap him up in 2006.
Now is about looking forward. Now is about rebuilding and rediscovering the culture of winning and scrapping it out every single game, whether against mammoths or minnows. Ultimately, the Swansea match was about three points, and the points were secured. Arsenal no longer languish at the bottom of the league table. Should it have been 2-0, 2-1, 3-0, 3-1, 4-0, 7-0? Sure would have been nice (since I had £1 bets on the first five of those scorelines), but 3 points, even if a bit ugly, is all you can ask, especially in light August’s craptacular start.
If you want a sure win every time, with goals aplenty, support Barcelona (or one of the Manchesters). I am happy that Fabregas has returned to his wily ways and electric displays, but I support the Arsenal, so that is not a choice. And I despise all three of those teams, despite some of the incredible players on the payrolls. Of the 4 teams, only one is actually more than a club. (Hint: not the one that calls itself such as it nickles and dimes clubs into submission, yapping on and on about Barcelona DNA, perceived player grief and avenging the “kidnapping” of one of La Masia’s finest. Then, when they finally get their way, making the player himself pay part of his way, they brag about the great deal they got on said player, say Francesc Fabregas Soler, and how, no doubt about it, he was totally worth the asking price. More, even. They knowingly took money out of Cesc’s pocket. Keep it classy, Barcelona!)
Arsenal need to qualify for the knockout stages on merit. Putting in a solid performance against Dortmund would be a huge step towards that goal and a huge step towards cementing the team as a fully operational Death Star (I mean, “team”), new players fully integrated and folded into the mix. Gervinho and Song will be back. Arteta will make his first Champions League performance since his youth years at PSG and Rangers, and I imagine the 29-year old will work his ass off. It’s always good to have your own German giant when facing off against a team of such, so Mertesacker will provide a huge amount of presence and experience, and perhaps Santos or Park will make their Arsenal debuts. Seeing Mertesacker from close-up was sobering. He is a truly massive player. I have much faith he will become an equally enormous component to set pieces, both in defense and in headers in at the other end of the pitch.
Wenger misses out (nonsense UEFA ban), as do Wilshere, Rosický, Diaby, Ramsey and Vermaelen, but Arsenal have the firepower and the growing defensive solidity to compete. They just need the confidence, the mental focus and just maybe a pinch of luck. At the end of the day, the best team will win. Hopefully, the win over Swansea was the beginning of the much-vaunted turnaround, the “real” beginning to the season. But one game does not a season make. And even a victory against Dortmund will not put all the demons to rest, with a tough away fixture at Blackburn this weekend. As they say, though, you can only play the team in front of you, and though that team is no slouch, neither is Arsenal. Come on you Gunners. May tonight see the Arsenal rise to the occasion and Arteta taste the first of many future Champions League victories with his new team.
Expected starting XI:
Sagna Mertesacker Koscielny Gibbs
Arteta Song Benayoun
Walcott van Persie Gervinho
(Young guns Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Francis Coquelin, Ryo Myaichi and Carl Jenkinson did not travel to Germany this time around, but all the experienced new signings made the 18-man squad.)