Sometimes, it is better to leave home to rediscover your comfort zone. That is exactly what happened to Arsenal on Thursday, as their trip to Milan for the first leg of their last 16 Europa League match resulted in a surprisingly positive result. The Gunners have little choice but to win the competition to realise their ambitions for next season, and their emphatic 2-0 lead over Gennaro Gattuso’s AC Milan has shown a team that is focused on the task at hand. The traveling support made themselves heard in a raucous San Siro, particularly after Arsenal took the lead, but it will be up to them to show the same passion when the two teams meet again at the Emirates Stadium a week from now.
In The Driver’s Seat
Few, even the most ardently optimistic Arsenal supporters, were predicting the Gunners would go into Milan and come away with the win, but that is exactly what happened. Not only did the team appear to rediscover a bit of its attacking confidence, with the off-ball movement and combination play finally displaying the usual Arsenal flair, but they did so against a team that has been on a tear since the start of 2018. Gennaro Gattuso had his Milan side unbeaten in the last 13 matches, and Arsene Wenger’s year has been nowhere near as successful, recently culminating in the Gunners’ first 4 game losing streak since 2002 (incidentally when some of Wenger’s most vocal former player critics were still at the club themselves).
The feelings of the majority of European football supporters heading into the first leg were perfectly encapsulated by the comments by Milan Director of Football, Massimiliano Mirabelli, who was quoted as saying he was sorry for Arsenal, mockingly suggesting that he is sure they would have liked to have kept going in Europe, pointing to his supreme confidence in his team to advance past the Gunners with relative ease. It was unsurprising that the majority of English fans enjoyed his assessment, but also disconcerting that many Gooners seemed unable to rebut his comments. It is impossible to say for certain what goes through players’ heads, but it would be a shock if Mirabelli’s sneering assertion was not a galvanising force in a dressing room full of struggling, but proud men. With a 2 goal lead after the first leg, both of which were scored away from home, the Gunners find themselves 90 minutes from the quarterfinals of the all-important Europa League.
A Display of Intent and (Perhaps) Support?
Fans had been waiting for 3 matches to finally see an urgent response from this Arsenal team to their recent struggles, but finally it came on Thursday at the San Siro against a red hot Rossoneri. The Gunners were brilliant for much of the first half, looking sharper in their buildup and combination play than they have since the Everton match in the Premier League a month ago. Arsenal are now so unlikely to crack the top 4 in England, the Europa League quite possibly represents their only hope to make it back into the Champions League next season, and to a man, they looked like they have every intention of doing so.
The players looked visibly motivated and organised in defence, forcing the favoured hosts into wayward, low percentage long balls into their attackers as the midfield swarmed the ball and compressed space more effectively than they have all season long. Gattuso was left pleading with his side from the touch line to create more width, stretching out the Arsenal defence to create those overload situations they have struggled with so much recently, but to no avail. Sead Kolasinac (who was the more marauding of the two fullbacks in Hector Bellerin’s absence), Aaron Ramsey, Granit Xhaka and Jack Wilshere brought their boxing gloves with them and were ready to match, and even beat, the intensity of their Milanese hosts. Recently, fans have begun to wonder whether or not Arsene Wenger has lost the dressing room, but a performance like the one on Thursday proves, whether or not it was for themselves, the manager, or a combination of the two, this team is still very much engaged and ready to fight on.
No Frontline Striker, No Problem
From a practical standpoint, the Gunners could scarcely have had a worse time to have both of their top strikers (and record transfer purchases) Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang unavailable to play, but Danny Welbeck made up for their absence with his immense work rate, if not his clinical finishing, in Thursday’s first leg victory. In truth, all 3 have been subjected to criticism in their time (however brief, as in the case of Aubameyang) with the club, but few supporters would have hoped to see Welbeck start if either of his teammates were available.
The former Manchester United man does not possess a good first touch or a clinical eye for goal, but he adds a dynamic physical presence up top that the Gunners seem to lack from the attacking. His defensive work rate is unmatched by the other strikers in the squad, and his willingness to drift wide and pull defenders with him is particularly effective in unlocking Aaron Ramsey’s attacking influence. Welbeck is a selfless team player, and it showed on Thursday as he often found himself tracking back deep into the Arsenal end to help preserve the clean sheet, No supporter should be fooled into thinking he will be preferred long-term to either Lacazette or Aubameyang, but he was absolutely vital to the first leg victory in Italy
Playmakers Make Plays
With the possible exception of the Gunners’ embarrassing defensive woes of late, few players have come under as much criticism for their recent struggles as the teams’ stable of creative attacking midfielders. In particular, Mesut Ozil and Henrikh Mhkitaryan have come under fire for their inability to find space and inspiration on the bull during their recent 4 game slide. However, with the season on the line in Milan, both players rose to the occasion magnificently.
Mhkitaryan, who scored the first goal, looked more like the confident and instinctual creator that fans got a glimpse of a month ago against Everton. His goal was a confidently taken blast coming in off of the left flank that took a deflection before beating a bewildered Gianluigi Donnarumma and finding the back of the net. His goal came off of a Mesut Ozil assist, but the German saved his best pass for Aaron Ramsey’s goal, in which he waited a beat before slipping a gorgeous pass in behind the defence for the Welshman to run on to. He burned Donnarumma badly, before practically walking the ball into the net, but it was all made possible but Ozil’s inch-perfect pass. The German was efficient with the ball and active in the attacking end, reminding supporters just how good he can be when he is fully engaged. Fans have been alarmed recently not only because of the defence (which has been an Achilles heel for years with this team) but because of how disjointed and non-threatening the attack has been, and getting Ozil and Mhkitaryan back on track is an all-important step in the team finding their for, once again.
Herculean Effort Has Consequences
If there was any doubt about how hard the Arsenal players worked for their 2-0 aggregate lead in Milan, one had only to look at their exhausted faces and cramping limbs during the last 10 minutes to know for sure. The Gunners might have played their best team win all season, certainly since their 2-0 victory over Tottenham in the league, and their hard work and compact midfield forced the hosts to hoof the ball long in desperation, even as time was ticking away. The Milan fans likely expected that the Arsenal attack could score, but they probably didn’t expect to see a defensive performance that would not be out of place during the golden age of defence in Serie A.
However this effort came with a cost, as the Gunners lost at least one key player for the near-future in their fight for a result. Sead Kolasinac, who looked like the thunderously effective player he was to open the season, went down with an apparent leg injury, joining fellow left back Nacho Monreal in the treatment room. Calum Chambers also appeared to have an issue with cramping, or perhaps worse, in the closing stages of the match, seeing him replaced by Mohammed Elneny for the remaining time. With Hector Bellerin also dealing with a knee problem, the Gunners could face a bit of a defensive crisis in their next match, unless one of their fullbacks returns to fitness in time. The team may have built up their fragile confidence in Italy, but some problems will remain once they return home to London and assess the damage.