Arsenal came into this game needing to score 5 goals or more so as to overturn a 4 goal deficit. In the end, they put up a brave display but just lacked the crucial firepower to finish off the job.
The game was odd, not only because of the football on display, but also because of the personnel that turned up for both teams. Both teams put out sides that in normal circumstances they would not in a Champions League game. But with the realities of injuries and suspensions, both managers really had no choice and had to field what they thought was their strongest Starting XI’s.
Arsenal were without the concussed Mikel Arteta and the injured Aaron Ramsey. They thus had to improvise by having Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain come into the side and play in midfield. Gervinho, who’d missed the first leg because of the African Cup of Nations, started out wide left. Other than these two changes, the rest of the side remained the same as from two weeks ago in the first leg.
Milan had problems in midfield as Kevin-Prince Boateng was injured while Massimo Ambrosini was suspended. They were also dealt the blow of having Luca Antonini suffering a thigh strain on the eve of the match. Massimiliano Allegri was thus forced into fielding their January transfer window signing from Lecce, Djamel Mesbah at left back.
On a positive note, Milan had former AS Roma, Liverpool and Juventus midfielder, Alberto Aquilani, back from injury. Allegri however decided not to risk Aquilani from the start and went with what looked, on paper at least, a very dangerous attacking trident of Robinho, Zlatan Ibrahimovich and Stephan El Shaarawy.
The presence of Aquilani on the bench would however prove to be important later on in the game.
A team’s strength transcends its starting XI, but for this game, there was really nothing to write home about on the bench for both sides.
Arsenal had Lukasz Fabianski, Park Ju-Young, Marouane Chamakh, Carl Jenkinson, Ignasi Miquel and Oguzhan Ozyakup. Hardly names that any Gooner would be looking to to make an impact while coming off the bench. They thus had to hope that the starting XI did the job.
Milan’s was even more strange. It had two goalkeepers (Marco Amelia and Flavio Roma), three defenders (Gianluca Zambrotta, Daniele Bonera and Mario Yepes) one midfielder (Aquilani) and a teenager (Simone Ganz). Though Milan’s bench seemed to have experience, it lacked balance in terms of the personnel on the pitch. Allegri did not have the luxury of ‘like for like’ switches (defender for defender, midfielder for midfielder). He also could not rely on having to put up the old legs of Bonera, Zambrotta and/or Yepes up against the pace of Walcott, Gervinho and Chamberlain.
Battle of formations
With both mangers improvising, it was interesting to see what systems they would apply. Both managers went for a 4-3-3. It thus looked as if it would be a clash of similar systems.
But as Jonathan Wilson writes, all formations are neutral, and only differ in their application. The application of the 4-3-3 by both teams was different.
Arsene Wenger went for a more attacking 4-3-3. Missing Arteta, Wenger decided to abandon playing a deep-lying playmaker alongside Alex Song, and thus played two attacking midfielders (Tomas Rosicky and Chamberlain). He thus had Song as the holding midfielder with two attacking midfielders ahead of him. In a way, it was a 4-1-2-3′-ish formation. He also told his defenders to play a high line, thus pushing the team further forward and allowing them to press the ball higher up the pitch. This was the right decision from Wenger as he needed to attack. It also showed Wenger’s flexibility and understanding of his players; Rosicky is not as good a deep-lying playmaker as Arteta and playing him there would not have helped the team as much as it did while playing the Czech in a more advanced role.
Massimiliano Allegri knew that he didn’t need to attack as much and thus went for a more conservative 4-3-3. He had a flat 3 of Antonio Nocerino, Mark Van Bommel and Urby Emanuelson. He looked to have his flat 3 form a screen in front of the defence and allow Arsenal onto them, then play on the counter. For the counter attack, he would rely on the pacy El Shaarawy and the slippery Robinho to get the ball to Ibrahimovich.
The outcome of both managers’ tactical plans made for a very exciting 1st half, from all but a Milan perspective. The high pressing of Arsenal meant that Milan neither had the time, nor the space to work the ball out of defence and into their attackers. It also meant that Arsenal retrieved the ball quickly. Milan’s attacking 3 also failed to realize that Arsenal were pushing Milan’s midfield so deep that it created a huge gap in the center, thus breaking the link between Milan’s midfield and attack. This gap also ensured that more often than not, Song received the ball with no pressure whatsoever on him, and he thus had the time to pick out his players. (The gap in midfield also explains why for some periods in the 1st half, Song would venture forward and not bother with quickly getting back into position).
With Milan’s attacking 3 not coming back into midfield to close the gap, the Arsenal midfield got the time and space to dominate possession of the ball. This time however, they mixed their possession with good movement. Both Rosicky and Chamberlain found pockets of space in midfield from which they would run at the Milan defence.
Arsenal’s high line of defence also meant that Milan were continually caught offside.
From Milan’s perspective, the decision to sit back and let Arsenal onto them put them at a disadvantage. It meant that they did not start at the high pace that has come to characterize their season, and once Arsenal got into their rhythm, Milan found it difficult to lift themselves and move up the gears. It led to them having a very poor 1st half, and even when they did get the chances to threaten, their poor start seemed ton have infected them negatively. They thus kept on giving the ball away, not controlling the ball well and defending poorly.
The first goal came as early as the 7th minute. A corner from Chamberlain fell onto the head of Laurent Koscielny, who headed in at the near post. This goal probably set the tempo for Milan’s poor first half defensive display. As the corner came in, Van Bommel let Koscielny evade him, and as Koscielny headed the ball, Ignazio Abate, who was guarding the near post, foolishly left it unguarded, and did nothing to attack the on coming cross.
The second came after Theo Walcott made a run at the Milan left back, Djamel Mesbah, who looked jittery and out of sorts on his Champions League debut. Walcott got to the byline, and his attempted pull back lacked power. But the ever reliant Thiago Silva somehow contrived to clear the ball onto the feet of Rosicky, who accepted the gift by placing the ball inside Christian Abbiati’s near post.
The third was a penalty, earned by the impressive Chamberlain, who ran at the now clearly Milan weak link, Mesbah. Chamberlain’s trickery led to the Algerian left back pulling him down inside the box. Robin Van Persie blasted the penalty past Abbiati.
Having been overran and outthought Milan looked as if they would once again be the victims of a remarkable comeback. And the signs of this showed when on the stroke of half time, El Shaarawy missed a clear cut opportunity. Surely, it seemed the footballing gods were on Arsenal’s side.
However, as the teams came out for the second half, Milan looked more composed and started off by creating chances of their own. The half time break seemed to have spoiled Arsenal’s momentum.
Three incidents in the second half turned the match in Milan’s favour. The first, and most crucial, was a hamstring pull picked up by Chamberlain. This meant that Chamberlain was not up to his pacy best, thus he could not continue much of the good work that he had done in the first half. He was no longer running at Milan and in effect, it reduced Arsenal’s attacking opportunities.
The second was an uncharacteristic miss by Robin Van Persie. Referred to as ‘Reliable Robin’ by the Gooners, his miss with just over 30 minutes left of the game seemed to confirm that this was not going to be Arsenal’s night after all. With Gervinho’s shot partially saved by Abbiati, the ball fell to the one person Arsenal fans would have wanted it to have fallen to. But Van Persie’s attempted chip, when it would have been easier to side foot it, or even blast it, showed that the Dutchman is human after all.
The third incident killed off Arsenal tactically. Despite his weak bench, Allegri’s change to bring on Aquilani for El Shaarawy proved decisive. With Aquilani on the pitch, Milan reverted to their usual narrow midfield diamond shape. They looked more comfortable this way, and with more players in the middle of the pitch, the disadvantage of Chamberlain’s injury started to show. It forced Wenger into an unwanted change, and so he threw on Marouane Chamakh for Chamberlain.
Something else to note is that in the second half, Walcott rarely looked to exploit Mesbah. It seemed odd for Allegri to leave the Algerian on the pitch after his first half performance (if it can be called a performance). But ultimately, the risk was worth it. Walcott looked to cut inside of Mesbah, rather than run at him and to the byline. By cutting inside, Walcott found himself running into Thiago Silva, who cleared the ball in no nonsense fashion. (Bar his mistake for the second goal, Thiago Silva was probably Milan’s best defender on the night).
Later on, Walcott himself got injured, and had to be replaced by Park Ju-Young.
Last 20 minutes
With Arsenal replacing their two pacy players with their two out of form strikers, the Arsenal juggernaut came to a halt. The changes forced Arsenal to play 4-4-2. This formation did not suit their players strengths; on the right was the ineffective Gervinho; on the left, an out of form and low on confidence striker (Park); and in the middle, a holding (Song) and attacking (Rosicky) midfielder who’s balance of defending and attack does not suit a 4-4-2 (Song is too defensive minded for a 4-4-2, Rosicky too attack minded).
As Arsenal ran out of ideas, Milan seemed to have found the perfect one, with their midfield diamond coping well with Arsenal’s imbalanced midfield 4. Milan therefore saw out the game comfortably. They even had the luxury of Nocerino directing a ball straight at Wojciech Szczesny when he had the rest of the goal to aim at. In the end, they let their experience show, and managed to get away with a miserable first half showing (though this is mostly down to their magnificent performance at the San Siro two weeks ago).
Far from being a valiant effort, the match showed Arsenal’s major weaknesses; lack of depth and lack experience. Their strength in depth came into question, especially the minute Chamberlain pulled his hamstring. The fact that he was left on the pitch for so long shows that Wenger may not have the audacious faith in all his players that he displays week in week out at pre, and post match press conferences.
Arsenal also lack experience. They hurried the ball too much in the second half when the least they required was a solitary goal. As the match went on, the sense that Arsenal were giving up seemed to show, and there was no Vieira-like or Adams-like character to push them on.
There is also an over-reliance on Robin Van Persie that Arsenal need to psychologically get over. For long periods in the match, even in that brilliant first half, the Arsenal players seemed to look for Van Persie too much, so much so that they at times gave him a pass when he wasn’t ready to receive it, or when it was easier to use the Dutchman as a decoy. The amount of dependence they put on him is too much, and when he did not deliver (when he missed that golden chance), Arsenal never really looked the same again.
Considering how the game panned out in the first 70 minutes, Arsenal missed a great chance to make history and become the first team in Champions League history to overturn a 4 goal deficit. Milan were not playing well, and Arsenal seemed to have everything going for them. Even a mistake by goalkeeper Szczesny was not punished by Ibrahimovich.
Having said that, credit should go to Wenger for setting out his team as he did and for going for it in the first half. He used what he had to the best of his ability, and the result was a magnificent 1st half that made the Arsenal faithful (and even the non-faithful such as myself) believe. It is a testament to his amazing managerial capabilities. But in the end, he ran out of players, and as Jose Mourinho once remarked,
“You can’t make an omelette without eggs.”
Their 1st leg performance meant that they got away with their 1st half mistakes. They came into the game too casual, and almost got punished for it.
Ultimately, they got lucky in the second half, and the presence of Aquilani (coupled with Chamberlain’s injury) proved to be the ace they needed. Questions will however arise as to whether their aggressive playing style (which was non-existent in this game) can be maintained week in week out, and more importantly, whether it can work against the big clubs. Already in Serie A, they have struggled against clubs such as Lazio, Napoli, Juventus and Inter, with their aggressiveness running out of steam, while they have steamrolled past the lesser clubs. In the Champions League, with the likes of Real Madrid and FC Barcelona to come, games like this one against Arsenal prove that they may not be ready to be considered as contenders yet.