Arsenal 3-0 Milan: Arsenal press excellently but lack options from the bench to maintain it
Arsenal got very close to the most remarkable two-legged turnaround in Champions League history.
Arsene Wenger named the logical side considering his injury problems – Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain played in midfield, Gervinho was on the left, but Wenger didn’t really have other options.
Max Allegri attacked, using Robinho and Stephan El Shaarawy in the front three. Djamel Mesbah played at left-back, with Urby Emanuelson ahead of him.
So near yet so far – Arsenal defended well throughout, attacked excellently at the start of the game, but fell away badly at the end.
Arsenal pressed very well here, as heavily as they’ve done all season. Last season they did it brilliantly against Chelsea and Barcelona, while in 2011/12 they sit back more. But here, the wide forwards closed down full-backs and the midfield was energetic too.
Alex Song pushed high up the pitch and used his energy to pressure the Milan midfield (although he did leave gaps in behind), while Oxlade-Chamberlain dribbled with the ball and Tomas Rosicky also played in a quick, direct manner from the centre. This surprised Milan, and without Kevin-Prince Boateng bringing power and energy to the side without the ball, they got overrun in the middle. Robinho did little without the ball, and Mark van Bommel was seriously constrained by his booking in the first few minutes. Take out van Bommel’s ability to tackle (and his license to foul without fear of dismissal) and he is half the player.
But despite the threat from the centre, what Arsenal did particularly well was to attack down the flanks, to get the ball out wide and run with the ball at the full-backs. That was what they strangely failed to do in the first leg (especially when Theo Walcott was removed at the break, and Aaron Ramsey came on down the right). Because of both shape and personnel, Milan are vulnerable at full-back, and with Mesbah making his European debut, he was the clear man to attack.
Sure enough, two of Arsenal’s goals came after attacking at speed down the right. Walcott’s run and cut-back fell to Rosicky for the second goal, while Oxlade-Chamberlain was brought down by Mesbah for the penalty for the third goal. Gervinho on the other flank didn’t contribute as much, though this may have been because Arsenal were focusing on the right (which was the correct strategy).
Allegri could have helped Mesbah out by bringing on another midfielder and getting Emanuelson to play in front of Mesbah – two banks of four seemed the more logical way to defend, but then Milan have defended with 4+3 for the entire campaign, and are more familiar playing that way.
Arsenal’s one problem was that they couldn’t actually cross the ball successfully, aside from the corner for Laurent Koscielny’s goal.
Milan actually had good possession throughout the game, and completed more passes than Arsenal over 90 minutes. But Robinho is not a trequartista, at least not in this situation and with these players. Allegri loves Boateng because he has the energy to link midfield and attack and prevent Milan becoming a broken side – when he’s unavailable, Emanuelson often does a job there. Robinho ambled back, and Milan’s front three did the job of (at most) two players.
Arsenal also did very well to push their defence high up the pitch, in keeping with their pressing. This meant that Milan were frequently caught offside, although Arsenal’s closing down resulted in a lot of fouls.
It could have been different for Arsenal, had Robin van Persie not wasted a great chance midway through the half. But equally Antonio Nocerino missed a similar chance, and besides, the van Persie chance and the Gevinho effort that preceded it were the only two serious efforts Arsenal had in the second half.
Milan changed little – though were probably told to get their heads in shape by their coach at half time. However, they did sit a little deeper and were more compact from front to back – Arsenal got less space.
But having pressed so much at the start of the game, Arsenal were now exhausted. They desperately needed more energy from the bench to liven things up and increase the tempo, but as Wenger said after the game, he didn’t have any midfield options to introduce. Aaron Ramsey, Mikel Arteta, Jack Wilshere, Abou Diaby and Yossi Benayoun were all unavailable, and each would have been used in the second half.
Oxlade-Chamberlain got injured early on in the second period, and struggled on for an admirable period of time – but this just contributed to Arsenal’s lack of energy in the second half. It was unfortunate that both he and Walcott had to depart, because these were the two players offering the most pace with the ball, and most able to attack Mesbah.
The game was a good example of how throwing on more strikers doesn’t automatically lead to more of a goal threat. Maroune Chamakh and Park Chu-Young came on and played high up the pitch, but this allowed Milan more time on the ball in midfield, and they were actually the stronger side late on. It’s difficult to blame Wenger here – three of his available substitutes were defenders, another was a reserve goalkeeper.
However, at one point young attacking midfielder Oguzhan Ozyakup was getting ready to come on – but never appeared, and Wenger seemingly changed his mind. Whether he would have made a difference is debatable (ZM has never seen him play) but if he could run and press, he probably would have been more useful than two static strikers who contributed little.
Milan deserve some credit for their performance late on – Allegri brought on Alberto Aquilani for El Shaarawy, Emanuelson moved to the high tip of the diamond, and Milan were more compact and killed the game well in the second half – they completed much more passes than Arsenal did.
The preview to the tie mentioned “an interesting battle of very different styles”, and how it showed. Both sides were, at different times in this contest, both absolutely superb and dreadful beyond belief. When one got their gameplan right and played to their strengths, the other couldn’t cope. These are completely contrasting sides, which vaguely explains why we had two such extreme matches (with a large slice of pure freak football thrown into the mix).
Looking purely at the two results, the logical conclusion is that Milan maximised their period of dominance (the first leg) for longer. The truth is probably slightly different – Milan were able to fight back in the second half of the second leg and withstand pressure, whereas Arsenal never really got a grip of the away leg.