Saturday, 18 February 2012

Miserable in Milan

AC Milan 4-0 Arsenal, Wednesday 15 February 2012
UEFA Champions League Round of 16 First Leg, Giuseppe Meazza

Wojciech Szczesny
Bacary Sagna
Laurent Koscielny (44)
Thomas Vermaelen
Kieran Gibbs (66)
Alex Song
Tomas Rosicky
Mikel Arteta
Aaron Ramsey
Theo Walcott (46)
Robin van Persie

Johan Djourou (44)
Thierry Henry (46)
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (66)

AC Milan 0-2 Arsenal, Tuesday 4 March 2008
UEFA Champions League Round of 16 Second Leg, Giuseppe Meazza

Manuel Almunia
Philippe Senderos
Gael Clichy
William Gallas
Bacary Sagna
Abou Diaby
Emmanuel Eboue (71)
Cesc Fabregas
Mathieu Flamini
Alexander Hleb (89)
Emmanuel Adebayor

Gilberto Silva (89)
Theo Walcott (71)

What's the difference between these two sides? It is hard to pin it down exactly, and looking down the team sheet perhaps tells us little – we would have to consider the quality of the opposing Milan sides to get a better picture, for one thing – but the respective performances and the very different results of Wednesday night compared to that famous night in Milan four years ago would suggest that there is a palpable gulf in quality between the current Arsenal team and the class of 2008.

In midweek Arsene, his chin resting on the turf in the away dugout, looked tired, frustrated and haggard. The furrows in his brow depended as the game wore on and the situation worsened to the point where the tie became irretrievable. We are to all intents and purposes out of the Champions League – no team in this competition has ever come back from a four-goal margin in the second leg of a tie. In the post match interview Arsene was critical of his players, a rarity in itself. Yet he realised, perhaps, that only a brutally honest assessment would be an adequate response to a performance in which the Gunners were decidedly second-best. They were unlucky too, but showed little of the creative flair or tenacity that characterised previous performances in this great stadium. The weaknesses were felt primarily in midfield and central defence – Koscielny, having been accustomed in recent weeks to playing alongside Per Mertesacker, was reunited with Thomas Vermaelen as Kieran Gibbs came in at left-back. It's a central pairing that arguably would have been many fans' first choice partnership, but it didn't work tonight – and even less so when Koscielny was replaced by Djourou at the end of the first half. The young Swiss has looked unconvincing when called upon this season, which can be forgiven when he was used at right-back, but even in his strongest position he did little to instil confidence.

The midfield axis that looked as if it was beginning to become a highly effective unit was decidedly lacklustre – neither Song, Arteta nor Ramsey played well. Perhaps Rosicky's tendency to drift inside disrupts their collective rhythm, causing uncertainty where there should be commitment, but the team lacked balance. Neither was Rosicky able to provide the creative flair or the linking play to co-ordinate attacks. As a result RvP was isolated throughout, and though well marshalled by the Milan defence, in truth he saw very little of the ball. Neither was there much to the Gunners in the way of width – although the poor state of the pitch negated much of the impact that could have been made on either flank. Still Walcott was virtually anonymous, and the decision to withdraw him at the start of the second half was justified. His replacement, Thierry Henry, struggled manfully but he no longer has the pace to run defenders as in former seasons, and although his positional sense remains impeccable, Arsenal could not find the space or the passes to play him in. Thierry will have been as frustrated as any other fan at the result, and it is an ignoble end to a cameo that otherwise must be seen as adding rather than detracting from his glorious Arsenal legacy.

Arsene called this display a 'disaster', and has apologised to the travelling fans for the spectacle that they witnessed. It was an abject performance and a humiliating one, to add to those we have already seen this season. A victory on Saturday against Sunderland will be one way to repair the damage that has been done to the way this team is viewed.

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