A Tale of Two Teams
As Arsenal head into the first leg of their last 16 Europa League Match with AC Milan, their form is almost diametrically opposed to their opponents. The Gunners have lost 4 games in a row for the first time since 2002, and they travel to Milan this week to face a team unbeaten in their last 13 matches. Former player and current Milan manager Gennaro Gattuso was widely derided when he first took the role with the club following Vincenzo Montella’s struggles at the helm, but nobody is laughing anymore. He may have seemed a knee jerk reaction at the time, and a cheap reference back to Milan’s glory days, but he has his team playing at their highest level in years, and Arsene Wenger will have his work cut out for him to lead his team to a result in Italy.
Former Players Weigh In
That Arsene Wenger is not a unifying force among Arsenal fans these days is not much of a secret, but the Gunners most recent struggles have seen former players start to pile on as well. From Thierry Henry’s post-match derision following the Carabao Cup Final or Lee Dixon speaking on the night of the AGM, it appears that even some of the Frenchman’s most loyal supporters are ready for a change at the helm of the club. Fans have been divided over this response, with some claiming that Wenger’s former players speaking out are the “canary in the coal mine” signaling the end of his reign, while others will point out Wenger’s role in extending those players’ careers with his innovative ideas upon his arrival in England. No matter which opinion you hold, it is now abundantly clear that a clearly communicated decision on Wenger’s future will be required this summer.
A Healthy State
Following Arsenal’s recent release of the financial report for H1 of their fiscal year, shareholders and some fans will be relieved to see that despite the financial handicap that missing out on Champions League football, the club are still in an exceptionally healthy financial state. Their before tax profit nearly doubled to £25 million, despite a £40 million decrease in operating profit (largely due to their decreased revenue in Europe this season). The club was forced to make up for this deficit with an increased focus on raising money from player sales, including Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Gabriel Paulista, but despite this have also broken their own transfer record in each of the last two transfer windows.
Money is never a popular topic among fans, many of whom look at one number (the club’s cash balance in its operating account) and assume the club are not spending as much as they can to compete. However, the dominating success of clubs like Manchester City, Juventus and Paris Saint Germain in their respective leagues continues to show how imperative financial muscle is to success in today’s modern football climate. On that front, it cannot be overstated how much Arsenal have helped to secure their long term future as a competitor in the Premier League despite running entirely as a self-financed operation.
Lacazette Not Yet Ready
Striker Alexandre Lacazette has been busy rehabbing his knee since having an arthroscopic procedure done in mid-February, but despite progressing quicker than Arsene Wenger had anticipated (the estimate was initially 4-6 weeks out), he still will not be ready for the first leg of the Europa League last 16 match with Milan. With Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang cup-tied from his time with Dortmund, this will leave Danny Welbeck as the man likely to lead the line for the Gunners against Gattuso’s Milan. For a club struggling mightily with consistent goal production since the turn of the calendar year, and bereft of confidence, this is not good news. In fact, the Gunners’ leading contributor to goals in 2018 is currently left back Nacho Monreal, who has even missed games through injury during that time. Lacazette will hopefully be back in time for the second leg at the Emirate Stadium, but it is imperative that Arsenal manager to hold serve in Milan to keep them within striking distance.
The Last Hope
Since Arsenal first drew Milan in the Europa League 2 weeks ago, the Gunners have seen their slim chances at making it back into the Champions League via a top 4 league finish all but evaporate. This has made the Europa League that much more important for Wenger’s men, who must now win the competition to make it back to the more prestigious and lucrative Champions League. The struggles have also sapped supporters of their confidence in European success, and a quick read of the mood on social media suggests a resignation to the inevitable defeat. History would suggest that Arsene Wenger is at his best when his back is against the Wall, often pulling miraculous runs of form from his players to save seasons that look lost. However, doubts have emerged about the mental fortitude of this present group of players, and they must provide a strong rebuttal to those questions with their performance against Milan if they are to advance.