As we all know, in football, a team’s state of mind is arguably as important as the team’s technical ability. It often happens that teams that are, on paper, very strong, end up underperforming because the ambience around the team is just not right. Real Madrid, for example: after having dominated the European scene for the past five years, this season they have looked a shadow of their former self (albeit they seem to have snapped out of it). Given the squad is no worse than it has been in recent times, the cause of this is undoubtedly a lack of competitive hunger: a lackadaisical state of mind.
With this notion in mind, the tie against AC Milan could not have come at a worse time for Arsenal. The teams will approach the first leg in San Siro on March 8, with completely opposite morale. Arsenal’s last two matches were an astounding defeat to Ostersund at home, and a resounding thumping received from Manchester City at Wembley on Sunday. Going back another couple of games, we won in Sweden (a result so expected, it does little to boost morale), and another defeat in the North London Derby. All in all, the Arsenal camp is not a happy one. Of course there are still two matches before the Milan match and two wins, in particular on Thursday night at home to City, would go a long way to achieving the right morale to face the all-important Europa League tie. However obtaining six points appears to be realistic only in my ever-deluded optimistic fan mindset, given the form displayed by Guardiola’s side, and the lack thereof displayed by Arsenal away from the Emirates this season where, amongst others, we lost to Swansea and Watford.
On the other hand, the Rossoneri are flying high. They are no longer the European giants they once were, but they have not looked so good in years, despite starting their season woefully.
All anyone could talk about this summer in Italy was Milan’s transfer dealings. This was finally the first transfer window where the new owners could operate and they did not disappoint, at least in terms of money spent: €194 million to sign eleven new players. Practically a new team. What nobody paid much attention to in the summer, was the time it would take to gel together such a new team, with such high expectations. And the results were horrible. So much so, that by the time November finished, league leaders Napoli had practically doubled their point tally in Serie A.
But then everything changed when the new Chinese owners sacked Montella to appoint club legend Gennaro ‘Ringhio’ Gattuso at the helm of the team. If nothing else, they hoped Ringhio (meaning bark or growl) could bring some passion to the team and get them playing with their hearts. His first match in charge ended with one of the highlights of the Serie A season when, rock-bottom Benevento, scored an equalising goal in stoppage time with none other than their goalkeeper. So, to myself and many others, it looked like nothing much would change under Gattuso.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. AC Milan are now flying and many are now claiming they could still reach a top four finish, a feat that looked no more than a mirage in November. They have won the last five in all competitions, without conceding a single goal. However, just like for Arsenal, they still have to play two tough matches before next Thursday’s clash in the Europa League. Two very difficult matches, away to in-form Lazio in the Coppa Italia, and the derby with city-rivals Inter at the weekend. Two positive results could raise morale even more, but defeat, particularly in the derby, could take some wind out of their sails just in time for when they meet us.
However, if the match were played today, there would be no doubt about who would be approaching it best.
What has most surprised me about Milan’s resurgence under Gattuso however, is the tactical know-how displayed by the young manager. A know-how he had not shown in his previous appointment at Serie B side Pisa. Milan now play a much more attractive and quicker brand of attacking football than they did under Montella. They’ve gone back to a four man backline, featuring highlight summer signing Leonardo Bonucci as well as Swiss International Ricardo Rodriguez on the left. Lucas Biglia is the brain of the team, in his position right in front of the defence, and another summer signing Franck Kessie provides the muscle in the midfield. A player who increasingly reminds me of the old Yaya Toure. Finally, Gattuso has managed to find Hakan Calhanoglu a role where he can perform at his best, something Montella was never able to do. He now plays wide on the left in the front three completed by former Liverpool man Suso on the right and twenty year-old Italian forward Patrick Cutrone, who on his first full season as a professional, has already managed fourteen goals. Arsenal can definitely expect a high pace, especially at home as I doubt Gattuso will much care for two-leg mind games and he will want to win at home.
As much as I have spent most of this article praising Milan, there is no doubt Arsenal is, on paper, the better side. Milan does not have the quality that Arsenal possess but my biggest doubt remains in whether our defence can do the job. Milan’s front three are a handful, and young Cutrone, despite his age, will look to bully our centre halves. If our players are up for a fight (a big if), they should have the experience to curtail his threat. Arsenal should aim to press high and not give Biglia time on the ball. He is very good at making the team tick when afforded time but under pressure he struggles quite evidently. Secondly, we should try and limit Suso’s influence on the game. He is no doubt the star man in the lineup and will always seek to cut back on his left foot and pick a pass. Going forward, this would have been the ideal game for Aubameyang. Milan’s backline tends to play quite high and is not particularly speedy. Whoever will take Aubameyang’s place up top should look to always run behind, because in doing so he’ll always cause problems.
Arsenal have put themselves in a situation where winning the Europa League is almost essential. Another season out of the Champions League risks shrinking the club’s status on the international stage. I believe that Milan might well be the toughest challenge along with Atletico Madrid left in the competition and beating them would go a long way towards finally winning a first European trophy since 1994. Terrible draw for us but you need to beat all teams in the competition to win it. Bring them on!