Milan 4-0 Arsenal: Milan make their strength count and win comfortably

February 15, 2012

The starting line-ups

Milan thrashed Arsenal in an amazingly dominant performance.

Max Allegri went for the usual diamond in midfield. Clarence Seedorf started on the left but went off injured quickly, and was replaced by Urby Emanuelson. Philippe Mexes started at centre-back, rather than Alessandro Nesta.

Arsene Wenger picked two natural full-backs, with Kieran Gibbs fit enough to start, but not fit enough to complete the game. Tomas Rosicky was a surprising choice on the left of midfield.

As forecasted, this was a match between two completely different sides. Certainly not as forecasted, Milan maximised their areas of advantage to produce a ruthlessly efficient display.

Midfield battle

This battle was key. Milan had 4 v 3 in that zone, but Arsenal actually dominated possession – it was 55% at half time, and 57% at full time. In a way, this Arsenal’s first problem – the ideal gameplan seemed to be sitting back, soaking up pressure and breaking at speed. They shouldn’t have wanted to see lots of the ball. Surprisingly, despite a focus on attacking down the flanks this season, Arsenal were very slow with the ball and seemed happy to hold onto it for long periods with no direct threat.

Milan didn’t see much of the ball for long spells, but they used the midfield advantage to great effect when they did have it. There was no obvious Arsenal strategy when they were out of possession – one would have expected either (a) Song to push up and leave Kevin-Prince Boateng free, meaning Arsenal could get tight to Mark van Bommel, or more likely (b) Ramsey to drop back off van Bommel, meaning Alex Song could pick up Boateng and the players on the side of the Milan diamond would be occupied.

But neither approach was properly carried out in full – there was too much chasing in the midfield zone from Arsenal – none of the players really seemed to know their responsibilities, with the result that neither van Bommel nor Boateng were nullified effectively. Arsenal looked like 4-4-1-1 without the ball, with the wingers getting back into defensive positions and Ramsey slightly higher up, but they didn’t really need that extra support on the flanks.

Song generally picked up Boateng when Milan had the ball, but tried to push up higher than him when Arsenal had possession. That meant turnovers were a danger, and Boateng’s movement for the first goal came from an initial starting position well in advance of Song when Wojciech Szczesny cleared poorly. Boateng’s finish was excellent, and like against Barcelona he tended to move to the right of the attack, as Robinho was drifting wide to the left.

No Arsenal width

Milan’s strength in the centre was expected, but Arsenal were supposed to counter that with their pace down the flanks. This strategy was never put into place – the odd decision to start Rosicky indicated that Arsenal weren’t even pursuing that approach, let alone carrying it out successfully. Rosicky wasn’t particularly bad, but his tendency to come inside and slide balls towards van Persie made Arsenal increasingly narrow, which Milan were happy with. Robin van Persie found himself between a trio of Milan players and was isolated throughout the first half.

There was a brief incident in the second half when Rosicky got past Mexes, and had his shirt pulled, with the Frenchman more than happy to take a yellow card to slow an attack. That was the only time Arsenal really got past the defence, and it showed how uncomfortable Milan were with the quick threat in behind, adding to the confusion that Arsenal weren’t doing this more often.

Ramsey had a poor game, often making the wrong decisions on the break. His longer passes were also wayward, but at least he was often looking for diagonals to the flanks, which should have formed more of Arsenal’s gameplan. Theo Walcott was barely involved.


The final area of Milan strength was with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who Arsenal had no plan for. He seemed to surprise both Arsenal centre-backs in different ways – Thomas Vermaelen was outpaced by him, while Laurent Koscielny stood off when Ibrahimovic dropped towards the left of the pitch. As mentioned in the preview, Ibrahimovic plays more key passes that any other Milan player, and here he moved deep very well to slide balls through the defence, creating more chances than any other player on the pitch.

The fact that he moved to the left worked well, because it is Vermaelen, rather than Koscielny, who is the player more comfortable coming up the pitch to close down a striker. Koscielny naturally stands off, and gave the Swede too much space before going off injured. Having three different centre-back partnerships (Koscielny-Vermaelen, Djourou-Vermaelen, Djourou-Song) clearly didn’t help.


Wenger didn’t go with a width-based approach from the outset, and the decision at half time to take off Walcott underlined that. He pushed Thierry Henry upfront, and then lined up with an extremely narrow-looking midfield, with Ramsey right and Rosicky left in a 4-4-2. Whilst in theory this meant Arsenal might cope better defensively with bodies in the centre, this was an odd move if they were trying to get back in the game, which they clearly were.

The line-ups after Arsenal's half time change

Walcott had been poor on the ball, but he’s always going to be more suited to a wide role than Ramsey, who naturally came inside, as Rosicky continued to do on the other flank. That meant that, with two upfront and four narrow in the middle, Arsenal were now attempting to take on Milan at Milan’s game, an amazingly reactive and timid approach. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain emerged late on and made a couple of promising runs down the flank.

In fairness, Henry did OK – van Persie was no longer isolated, and the two combined beautifully for the van Persie shot that forced Christian Abbiati into an excellent save.

The Milan diamond became flatter when Max Ambrosini replaced Boateng – he sat alongside van Bommel with Emanuelson left and Antonio Nocerino right. That was seemingly a response to Oxlade-Chamberlain’s introduction – Milan wanted more protection for the full-backs.

Milan still broke very well – the movement and decision-making on the counter-attack showed they were more than about brute force, and Ibrahimovic deserved his late goal after a brilliant all-round performance.


These are clearly two very different sides – good in some areas, bad in others. One’s strengths are the other’s weaknesses, and vice-versa. Here, one side focused strongly on putting energy into their preferred areas, with Milan dominating the centre ground and outmuscling Arsenal throughout. The away side, however, barely even attacked down the flanks, and it wasn’t really clear what Arsenal’s gameplan was, or what they were trying to do on the ball.

Milan certainly played well, but their performance was more about maximum efficiency than great skill. They actually only managed five shots on target in the game, and there were rarely slick passing moves or periods of utter dominance from them. They were just brilliantly ruthless when they went forward – ZM has questioned whether the approach of bullying their way past opponents is good enough to defeat top opposition, as shown by their poor record against big sides in Serie A – but Arsenal were weak, and Milan were brutal.

This is a genuinely shocking result for Arsenal. In terms of style, Milan seemed the ideal side for them to face, because of their vulnerability to pace and width, but Arsenal didn’t show either of those features here. It’s staggering that Arsenal didn’t go wide more readily, and difficult to explain.

In one of their long-running spats at the turn of the century, Arsene Wenger once commented upon Sir Alex Ferguson, saying that “His weakness is that he doesn’t think he has a weakness.” Wenger’s weakness is that he doesn’t seem to know his side’s strength.


Some interesting pre-game quotes from Wenger and his approach in relation to Tottenham’s win there last year:

“I have seen [that game], yes. Milan had a lot of the ball and Tottenham caught them on the break at the end of the game. You never decide when you break, you break when you can. It was a game which was vastly dominated, especially in the second half, by Milan. We will not decide at the start of the game that we will sit in our half, if we have to, like Tottenham did, and then try to catch them on the break. At the start we will try to get out of our own half and try to get up there and play. Spurs won the game when they were dominated, but that is football today.”

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