It’s difficult to think of a fitting first line for an article on a night like that (and some might call this one a cop-out), a night on which Arsenal came so close to completing the seemingly impossible. There were a few prevailing emotions at the final whistle: pride, restored after the humiliation at the San Siro, was certainly one, as the Gunners put in a superb performance to put three goals past Milan, who had no response. But as well as that, a tinge of regret – despite the heroics, there were one or two “What if?”s that Arsenal fans couldn’t help but to ask.
The main one was regarding the man pictured above. 32 goal Robin van Persie. A man whose goals have carried Arsenal this season – although this is not to say that the Gunners are a one-man team; simply that van Persie is more often than not the man who puts the ball in the back of the net – and whose left foot has been compared by many to a wand.
What luck, then, just the luck that Arsenal needed in fact, that the ball would drop to that same foot mid-way through the second half, after Christian Abbiati had only parried Gervinho’s blocked attempt. With the goalkeeper on the floor, surely the most clinical Arsenal player since Thierry Henry would finish off an incredible – in the full meaning of the word, not the all-too-common modern day hyperbole – four-goal comeback.
However, it wasn’t to be. Disbelief, all around, as van Persie stood in agony as Abbiati leapt to his feet, ball in hand. In hindsight, the dinked finish was probably the wrong kind, although credit must go to Abbiati. Still, watching the replay of the vital miss again, one can’t help but beg for van Persie to smash the ball past the goalkeeper and spark wild celebrations at an already-buzzing Emirates Stadium. If only football, and indeed life, worked like that.
Sadly it doesn’t, and van Persie must live with his miss. But if Arsene Wenger’s players showed anything on the night it was that infamous mental strength, which the Frenchman so often reiterated in his press conferences. Many would laugh at him as he insisted that his players were strong, but it seems he was vindicated, and even his fiercest critics may have to admit that he was right after all.
Some might argue that it was the fans’ infectious belief that transferred to the players, though that is but a trivial aspect of the game. What matters most is that the players summoned the belief, one way or another, to battle their way back to 4-3 on aggregate. They refused to sit down and admit defeat, even late in the second half when they were visibly exhausted from the super-human effort to claw the tie back to such a small overall deficit. It was clear, though, that not even their belief could carry an injury-ravaged, burnt-out side over the line. Arsenal had certainly made the impossible seem infinitely possible, but fell just short of ascending the Everest-like mountain they had created for themselves.
In the first half, Max Allegri’s side had little response to the intensity and spirit of Arsenal’s game. They pressed and pressed, harrying Milan, not giving the opposition any time to rest or to even think on the ball. Arsenal were hungry for the ball, hungry to atone for the errors at the San Siro. With the speed of the players at Arsene Wenger’s disposal, it was always going to be promising winning the ball back high up the pitch, and the likes of Tomas Rosicky set out to do just that.
The only problem with that was the all-too-real possibility that the Gunners would run out of steam. Wenger’s options suddenly decimated by injuries after the Liverpool match, he had just two specialist midfielders in the first team available, in Rosicky (who passed a late fitness test having been a doubt) & Alex Song. Oxlade-Chamberlain was the natural choice to be the third man in midfield, given that he played in the centre of the park for Southampton several times. Indeed, he displayed the talents which saw him picked there by Nigel Adkins at St Mary’s, despite the likes of Graeme Souness admitting he “didn’t realise [Chamberlain] could play there”.
As mentioned on Chronicles of Almunia before the game, it does seem as if the England youngster will end up in the centre of the park. He certainly has the attributes – upper body strength, an eye for a pass, a wonderful drive on the ball and a talent for long-range strikes. What hadn’t been apparent until last night, however, was how far he’s come defensively since his last Champions League appearance at the Emirates. Against Olympiakos, despite scoring, he was criticised for his lack of defensive nous, but showed significant improvement in that area against the European giants of Milan.
It was not only his stamina but his defensive contribution that Arsene Wenger had worried about before letting ‘The Ox’ loose, but now he is willing to throw his summer signing into the deep end. This faith in his discipline in tracking back was undoubtably repaid – in a deeper midfield role than he might be used to, Chamberlain curbed his attacking instincts well at times to cover for Song, when the Cameroon anchorman went on a pressing foray. The ex-Southampton man even covered at centre back at one point.
Chamberlain did make a few telling contributions going forward, of course – none more so than his bursting run from deep into the opposition penalty area, when he was brought tumbling down as the filling in a sandwich of Djamel Mesbah and Antonio Nocerino, the former bundling him over to concede a penalty. As Michael Cox said over at Zonal Marking, Arsenal decided to target Milan’s left hand-side in particular, which meant Gervinho was fairly quiet. The African Cup of Nations also took a lot out of him, which may have contributed further to his muted performance.
Laurent Koscielny also profited from Oxlade-Chamberlain’s good play, bundling home his corner with either his head or the top of his shoulder. The French centre-back was magnificent once again, marshaling Ibrahimovic many a time to keep the big Swede relatively quiet. His runs having dropped deep usually pose a problem for sides, but Arsenal played the offside trap to perfection, catching him offside probably around 10 times.
Another Arsenal player who can be particularly proud of his individual performance is Tomas Rosicky. The Czech midfielder was marvellous in midfield, imperious even, as he played a huge part in dragging Arsenal to the brink of glory. He was buzzing around in midfield like an angered wasp, ready to sting at any point, and indeed his near-post strike which beat Abbiati would have stung the Italian goalkeeper considerably. It was though an excellent finish, measured to perfection, just out of reach for the man between the sticks.
Rosicky has so long been tortured by injuries but has this season finally shown consistency in his performances, and it seems as if the 31-year-old is back to his former brilliant self. Arsenal have seldom seen this side of Rosicky – perhaps due to the likes of Cesc Fabregas playing in the favoured position of “the Little Mozart”, but in the absence of a playmaker, Rosicky has well and truly stepped up to fill the gap.
However, the midfield schemer visibily tired in the second half, clearly unable to influence the game as he had in the first 45 minutes. The same could be said for a lot of the Arsenal side out there though – it was never going to be easy sustaining the level of intensity and pressure they had managed to perform to in the opening period of the game. It was then that the lack of options really became apparent – Wenger threw on Park Ju-Young and Marouane Chamakh, but neither of the strikers could push the Gunners over the line.
It was no surprise that Arsenal tired – their squad has been stretched so tightly as a consequence of injuries, in midfield especially as Jack Wilshere and Abou Diaby have failed to complete a full 90 minutes between them. Aaron Ramsey, Mikel Arteta, Yossi Benayoun, Francis Coquelin and Emmanuel Frimpong all joined their fellow midfielders on the sidelines, which left Oguzhan Ozyakup, a 17-year-old reserve midfielder, as Arsenal’s only option to bring on in the middle of the park.
Once the Gunners’ injuries ease, which should be soon given the hopefully short-term nature of many of their midfielders’ knocks, it will be considerably easier to manage the strains of pressing at such a high level game-by-game. There will be the option of bringing tired players off, as well as rotation between games to allow players like Rosicky the rest which they surely would need after such an effort.
If this turns out to be the case, and Arsenal are able to produce similar performances, they stand in good stead for the future. The clouds seem to be lifting once more, and given the high-profile nature of Arsenal’s successive scalps, you could forgive Arsene Wenger for hoping that this string of results is not just another false dawn before his side plummets back into the abyss. Perhaps the future is bright after all.
Per Mertesacker. Andre Santos. Sebastien Squillaci. Johan Djourou. Kieran Gibbs. Abou Diaby. Tomas Rosicky. Mikel Arteta. Aaron Ramsey. Jack Wilshere. Emmanuel Frimpong. Yossi Benayoun. Francis Coquelin.
Those are all of the players who are unavailable to Arsenal for the home leg against AC Milan on Tuesday night – Tomas Rosicky, Kieran Gibbs and Johan Djourou are in italics due to their status of ‘doubtful’. There is just one specialist midfielder (Alex Song) in the entire first team at Arsene Wenger’s disposal, assuming that Rosicky doesn’t recover in time. If ever there was an injury crisis, this was it.
With so many midfielders injured, an option might be to bring a defender such as Thomas Vermaelen into midfield. However, this isn’t an option either – just four defenders in the first team are available: Bacary Sagna, Laurent Koscielny, Thomas Vermaelen and Carl Jenkinson, who will presumably make up the back four. Arsenal’s squad has suddenly been annihilated by injuries.
Out of the entirety of the first team squad, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is the only player who could plausibly play in midfield alongside Alex Song. Then you have the remaining forwards – Robin van Persie, Marouane Chamakh, Park Ju-Young, Theo Walcott and Gervinho, with four places needing to be filled. Walcott and Gervinho would naturally play as wide forwards, while you’d probably want Robin van Persie playing off of Chamakh. In the entire squad, that only leaves Lukasz Fabianski and Park unused (poor guy).
It would be a bit of an odd shape – some would optimistically call it a 4-4-2, as many have been calling for that for months. However, Walcott and Gervinho are certainly not wide midfielders, but more wide forwards/strikers. This would leave the formation as more of a 4-2-4, or a 4-2-1-3 when van Persie drops off of Chamakh.
The mix-and-match formation would see two things that haven’t happened a whole lot at Arsenal – Robin van Persie playing behind a main striker, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in midfield. Many have called for van Persie to be deployed in the “Bergkamp role”, and the last time he was from the start was against Partizan Belgrade in the Champions League.
As for Oxlade-Chamberlain, it does seem as if he’ll end up as a central midfielder. He appears to have all of the vital attributes – powerful runs, an excellent range of passing, a sturdy build and superb long shots. However, Arsene Wenger will continue to play the ex-Southampton man (who did appear a lot in midfield at St Mary’s, including against Manchester United in the FA Cup) out wide for as long as he can. As with van Persie and Theo Walcott, and it could be argued Nicklas Bendtner, it’s where he seems to put offensive players until he’s satisfied that they’re ready to move centrally.
Chamberlain did come on for Abou Diaby through necessity against Liverpool, but Tomas Rosicky was there also to offer protection, which will probably not be the case on Tuesday. Chamberlain will have to maintain a huge amount of discipline, especially alongside Alex Song, who tends to roam. Song will also need to curb his attacking instincts – although it’s a bit of a catch-22 for Arsenal. They need to go on the attack, and with the line-up they’ll be forced to opt for that will be the natural thing to do. But with such a make-shift midfield in particular, they’ll be extremely vulnerable on the counter-attack, so may not want to commit too many players forward.