The tie that most were waiting for in the UEFA Champions League round of 16. The anticipation was that it would be an enthralling match, pitting two prestigious clubs from traditional European club football powerhouses, England and Italy. It also promised to be a clash of different styles, with Milan’s narrow attacking play coming up against Arsenal’s wing play. But in the end, the tifosi at the Estadio Giuseppe Meazza witnessed a match that virtually makes the tie a foregone conclusion.
Such was the dominance by AC Milan that the Italian newspaper, La Gazzetta dello Sport hailed them as spectacular, and wrote that Milan are virtually in the quarters. Brave words from Italian sport’s most reliable newspaper, but after witnessing the 4-0 drubbing of Arsenal at the San Siro, I don’t think even the most die hard of Arsenal fans will have any belief come the 6th day of March when Milan visit the Emirates.
But far from being a ‘spettacolo’ performance from Milan, much of it had to do with Arsenal’s initial tactical set-up, which quite unknowingly to Arsene Wenger, played into Milan’s hands quite well.
Narrow v Wide
Massimiliano Allegri, as expected, went for his usual 4-3-1-2 shape, with the emphasis on the midfield ‘-3-1-‘ to shape up into a diamond (or ‘Diamante’ as it is known in Italy,) when on the ball. As has been the main feature of Milan’s play this season, the attack would be narrow, with Kevin-Prince Boateng playing in the trequartista role (the role just in between the two strikers). Playing Boateng as a trequartista has been quite odd for Milan, seeing as most trequartisti are skill players (think Deco, Totti, Kaka, Ozil) and not players who depend on their athleticism, as Boateng does. Either way, it has worked for them, to an extent this season, so why fix it if it ain’t broke.
It was expected of Arsene Wenger to field his natural system, a 4-3-3 that relied on the wingers for attack. This, most thought (and logically so) would match up against the narrow shape of the Italian side. Wide play would force Antonio Nocerino and Clarence Seedorf/ Urby Emanuelson wide, thus leaving a hole in the center which would require Boateng to move into, and with the Milan strikers generally not interested in dropping deep to defend, that would mean there wouldn’t be a link between the midfield and the attack.
Another reason why Wenger should have gone for natural wingers was the fact that the players that Milan played as full backs (Ignazio Abate and Luca Antonini) both started their careers as wingers. It would have been worth having a go at them, simply to test their defensive capabilities to the fullest.
(Below are diagrams showing how Milan’s narrowness and Arsenal’s width have played out on the pitch this season. Chosen are both teams’ most effective line-ups this season, and not the lineups that started the game.)
But what Wenger came up with was a confusion of sorts. He started all of his regular central midfielders. He thus had Alex Song, Mikel Arteta, Tomasz Rosicky and Aaron Ramsey on the pitch. The only reasoning for this might be that Wenger was seeking a draw, thus sacrificed one wing for the sake of a ball player (and wanted Arsenal to keep hold of possession.) But this I thought limited Arsenal’s prowess going forward, as they didn’t really have an option for counter attacking down the left (the ball player, Rosicky played on the left thus slowed down the ball whenever it came in his direction.)
His starting line-up would also come to haunt him tactically later on in the game.
It was difficult to figure out how Arsenal had lined up. At time, it seemed a 4-3-3-‘ish shape, with Rosicky on the left of the front 3. At time, it was a 4-4-2-‘ish/4-4-1-1 with Ramsey as the second striker. Whichever it was, Milan dealt with both with one defensive formation, the 4-3-1-2. The 3 midfielders, Nocerino, Mark Van Bommel and Emanuelson formed a screen in front of th3e defence to stop Arsenal’s path to goal through the middle. When the ball went wide, Milan would double up on the winger and force them to either go backwards, or round the outside, confident enough that any cross whipped in would be comfortably dealt with by Philippe Mexes and/or Thiago Silva.
With Milan allowing Arsenal to go wide, Walcott should surely have been on top of his game. But once again, he disappointed, and had he done more often what 2nd half substitute, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain did in the 76th minute (beat his man and deliver a cross for Robin Van Persie), then Milan would probably not have won so convincingly. Walcott also failed to give defensive cover to his right back, Bacary Sagna, and Milan exploited this by directing most of their attacks down Arsenal’s right back area.
Despite this, Arsenal still saw more of the ball than Milan. Milan however used it better. This was probably because Mark Van Bommel, Milan’s deepest midfielder had no pressure whatsoever applied on him. This should have been Ramsey’s job, but he failed to do it, and the Dutchman, who generally uses the ball well, used the space afforded him to mostly pick out his front men.
Milan was 2-0 up by half time. The first was a picture of a goal. A back pass to Wojciech Szczesny led to the Polish keeper kicking it out poorly. The ball was retrieved by Nocerino, who chipped in a ball towards Boateng. The former Ghanaian international chested it down and unleashed an unstoppable effort that left Szczeny with no chance as it went in off the underside of the crossbar.
The second was a bit unlucky for Arsenal. The Arsenal defence stopped when the ball was put through for Zlatan Ibrahimovich who was in an offside position. By the time they realized that the flag had not gone up, the Swede had already taken off towards goal. He got to the by-line and his left foot cross was headed in by Robinho.
Milan continued to use the ball better for the remainder of the half, looking the more likely to score. They knocked in aerial balls for Ibrahimovich to bring down and look for his teammates.
Wenger knew he had to change things round. He’d however been dealt a defensive blow, as just before half-time, Laurent Koscielny had limped off with an injury to be replaced by Johan Djourou. His options were thus limited to two substitutes.
Wenger decided to bring on the influential Thierry Henry and took off Walcott. This seemed the right change to make as Walcott had been ineffective all game long. However, the change proved to be more disastrous for Arsenal tactically.
Arsenal switched to a 4-4-2 shape, albeit a non conventional one; it had four central midfielders. This was disadvantageous to Arsenal as it congested the midfield area (Milan’s 4 midfielders were also playing centrally.) Furthermore, Arsenal’s midfield was set up as a flat four of Ramsey on the right, Rosicky on the left with Song and Arteta in the middle. This flat four suited Milan perfectly. The two midfielders playing out wide for Arsenal would instinctively drift inwards, as is their natural tendency as central midfielders. This brought them closer to Milan’s midfielders on either side of the diamond (Nocerino and Emanuelson) thus making it easier for them to defend while still maintaining the diamante shape. This change also allowed Milan to cancel out Song and Arteta by using only one man, Van Bommel. Therefore, Milan were okay defensively, as they had every Arsenal midfielder covered, while Boateng was left free to roam around behind his strikers.
Milan finish it
Milan did not wait long to get a third, as Robinho finished off Ibrahimovic’s pass four minutes after the restart. The fourth took some time to come, but it came via a penalty conceded by Djourou on Ibrahimovich, with the Swede converting it himself.
Milan could have gotten more. As Arsenal tried to salvage something to take to the Emirates, they left themselves susceptible to counter attacks. Luckily for Arsenal, Milan did not convert the counters into goals.
Arsenal did create one chance of note. A clever flick on by Henry teed up the ball for Van Persie, who timed his volley to perfection, only for Christian Abbiati to dive low to his left and make the save. Other than that, Arsenal never looked likely to breach Milan’s defence.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain came on in the 66th minute for Kieran Gibbs, and immediately brought an injection of pace into Arsenal’s attack. He caused problems for Milan’s full backs and on one occasion, beat Antonini and whipped in a cross. The cross was however tamely headed goal wards by Van Persie. One wonders though, how much more different it would have been had he been on from the start.
They are virtually through to the last eight of the Champions League. Not even the ghosts of Istanbul look like striking this time round. On the day though, they showed a lot of power and efficiency to kill off the game. Seedorf’s injury proved to be a blessing in disguise as it allowed them to go all out on Arsenal, something that the aging legs of Seedorf would probably not have done. It may be the signal of a change of guard in Northern Italy, with the old guards who were more accustomed to being patient and relaxed on the ball, handing over to the new guard who are all out attack.
Adding onto their tactical imbalance on the night was the fact that they were desperately unlucky. The first goal was worthy of winning any game; in the second, Ibrahimovich was offside; Vermaelen slipped for the third; and the penalty decision was a bit soft. Nonetheless, they were outdone by a much more powerful Milan side, and at times, could not handle the individual quality of Milan’s forward line.
It should also be noted that two of their stalwarts this season, Szczeny and Arteta seemed to have jitters and were not their usual selves. This might be because of lack of Champions League experience (it was Arteta’s first ever game at this stage of the competition.) If that is the case, the San Siro was the last place they would have wanted to visit. Whatever the case, the lack of significant influence by these two contributed to the Londoner’s downfall.
The return leg at the Emirates seems a formality. But if Arsenal can maximize on their strengths (as Milan did) then manage to nick two goals inside 30 minutes, you never know.