If someone had said 2 weeks ago that Arsenal would not only beat AC Milan over their two leg Europa League last 16 matchup, but absolutely outclass the resurgent Italian side for nearly all 180 minutes of game time, they might have been laughed out of whichever room they happened to be in. But that is exactly what happened, and the Gunners now advance to the quarter finals of a European competition for the first time in 7 years. Every player that played last Thursday at the San Siro gave the maximum effort, scoring 2 crucial away goals in the process while denying the hosts a goal of their own.
The return leg at the Emirates saw a much more urgent Milan side attempt to put pressure on the Gunners further up the pitch, and while it did not lead to dominating periods of play for Gennaro Gattuso’s men, it did finally result in a Milan goal on a wonder strike by Hakan Calhanoglu that beat David Ospina to the far post. However, the goal was but a brief respite for the visitors, as Arsenal’s midfield was the story of the match. Right back Hector Bellerin was the most active Gunner to open the match, but quickly the central midfield trio of Jack Wilshere, Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey asserted their control on the match, shredding the Milan press and combining with Henrikh Mhkitaryan and Mesut Ozil, who operated in free roles as creators in the final third. Any of them could have been named the man of the match, but only one player combined that attacking intent with a brilliant defensive performance that often included dropping all the way into the back line: Granit Xhaka.
The Swiss international has been one of the Gunners who obviously took his team’s embarrassing 4 match losing streak seriously, and he has been one of the best players on the pitch in each of their last 3 matches. The play that perfectly encapsulates his match happened in the 25th minute, where he followed his man into the box, almost nonchalantly turned and corralled the dangerous cross, picked his head up, and pinged a 35 years pass directly into the feet of Mesut Ozil, who scampered away, turning Xhaka’s interception into a threatening counter attack almost instantly. As he does when the Arsenal midfield is at its most effective, Xhaka was the eye of the storm, allowing Wilshere and Ramsey to run rampant through the midfield, while he simply kept the team ticking over, switching the tempo as necessary to spring his team into space. His goal, Arsenal’s second, came off of one of his explosive long range drives that Gianluigi Donnarumma couldn’t get a strong enough hand on to prevent from crossing the line. It was the dagger in the hearts of Gattuso’s Milan, who now trailed Arsenal 4-1 on aggregate and would find the lead insurmountable.
Xhaka has undoubtedly had his struggles since joining Arsenal in the summer of 2016, his relative lack of pace and poor discipline enraged fans who had expected their £35 million signing to become the next Patrick Vieira at the heart of the midfield. His game is not that of a traditional defensive midfielder, or even deep lying playmaker, but rather a combination of both with elements of a box to box central midfielder thrown in for good measure. This lack of a defined best position has led some to worry that he is a “master of none” and that he will never truly be great in this current Arsenal system. However, this does not take into account the mentality and work ethic of the player in question. Xhaka has dealt with a constant barrage of criticism from fans and the derisions of pundits from the safety of their television studios, but he just keeps fighting. He is the first Gunner in to have his teammates’ backs in a scuffle, and his intelligence has been lauded by each of his managers in his professional career. He is a mainstay in Arsene Wenger’s team sheet, playing more minutes than any other Arsenal midfielder this season. He continues to get better, and on Thursday night at the Emirates, he was as good as there was, and is your Arsenal Man of the Match.