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No excuses as Arsenal are torn apart by Milan

AC Milan 4 Arsenal 0

Boateng 15, Robinho 38, 49, Ibrahimovic 79

One of the tamest performances of Arsene Wenger‘s tenure as manager ended with Arsenal‘s heaviest defeat in European competition as AC Milan ran riot at the San Siro and effectively knocked the English side out of this season’s Champions League before the return leg in a fortnight’s time. It was a sad way for Thierry Henry to end his second spell at the club, but even the combination of the great man and his successor Robin van Persie was not enough to disguise a display of stunning mediocrity which will inevitably lead to renewed questions about the club’s lack of timely transfer activity in both the summer and January transfer windows.

Wenger made two changes from the side which pulled out a last-gasp 2-1 win at Sunderland on Saturday. Kieran Gibbs returned from injury at left-back, with Thomas Vermaelen moving into the middle in place of the injured Per Mertesacker. Aaron Ramsey slotted back in to midfield, with Tomas Rosicky moving out to the left.

Szczesny

Sagna – Koscielny – Vermaelen – Gibbs

Song – Arteta

Walcott – Ramsey – Rosicky

van Persie

The teams met at the same stage of the competition four years ago. After a goalless draw at the Emirates, goals by Cesc Fabregas and Emmanuel Adebayor inside the last five minutes at the San Siro gave Arsenal a 2-0 aggregate win.

Milan show up, Arsenal don’t

Szczesny's errant kick led to the opening goal (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Milan dominated the opening 45 minutes, coping much better with a heavy, bobbly and extensively relaid pitch which was not conducive to flowing football. Arsenal struggled to offer any real threat up front but soaked up the early pressure well. Nonetheless they found themselves behind after a quarter of an hour.

A poor clearance by Wojciech Szczesny went straight to Antonio Nocerino. He advanced unopposed and chipped a delicate pass down the inside-right channel for Kevin-Prince Boateng. The former Tottenham midfielder chested the ball down in stride and without hesitation struck a vicious volley past Szczesny, who barely had time to see it let alone react to it.

Lifted by the goal, Milan pushed Arsenal back into their half as the visitors repeatedly found themselves unable to retain possession. Nocerino fired just over from distance as the hosts looked to press home their advantage.

Koscielny's injury added to Arsenal's woes (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

It took 25 minutes for Arsenal to register their first attempt at goal. However Laurent Koscielny‘s header from a Robin van Persie lacked both the power and placement to trouble Christian Abbiati. But this did little to dispel the impression that Arsenal were a yard slower than Milan all over the pitch. And no one seemed more lethargic than Thomas Vermaelen. One error gave Milan a two-on-one, but Koscielny did brilliantly to snuff out the threat. And he was nowhere to be seen as Robinho put Milan two up barely a minute later.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic was marginally offside as he received the ball on the left touchline, but it was nonetheless all too easy for him to sprint to the byline and clip a delicate centre for the arriving Brazilian to score with a short-range header. With Koscielny hobbling off injured just before the half, Arsenal were lucky not to concede again as Ibrahimovic just failed to nod in a cross and Boateng found the side netting.

Two goals at half-time was no more than Milan deserved. Nil flattered Arsenal, who had looked lethargic both on and off the ball and were second-best everywhere.

From bad to worse

There was to be no fairy-tale ending for Henry (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Needing an away goal to claw their way back into the tie, Wenger immediately sent on Thierry Henry for Theo Walcott. The Frenchman moved up front alongside van Persie, with Aaron Ramsey moving out to the right.

It was to no avail though, as Arsenal fell further behind within four minutes of the restart. Ibrahimovic slid the ball across the face of the area. Vermaelen, crucially, slipped to leave Robinho free to lash the ball home first-time into the bottom corner. Three shots on target, three goals.

Such had been the paucity of Arsenal’s attacking threat that it was not until the 58th minute that they finally managed to turn Milan’s defence, as Kieran Gibbs took on Ignazio Abate, forcing a corner. Even then, Milan nearly scored as they quickly cleared their lines and left-back Luca Antonini scuffed his weak shot wide.

Van Persie was Arsenal's only real goal threat (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Belatedly – and with Milan seemingly content to sit on their advantage – Arsenal slowly restored at least a sense of respectability to the balance of play. A stretching Ramsey could not keep his header down from a corner. And then a delightful flick from Henry teed up van Persie on the edge of the area. His first-time half-volley was heading for the bottom corner, but Abbiati got down brilliantly to turn it around his post.

Milan, however, weren’t finished. Ibrahimovic squirmed away from Johan Djourou with ease, and if there was an element of the theatrical about the way he went down, it was a situation entirely of Djourou’s making as he bundled clumsily into him. The Swedish striker picked himself up and duly despatched the penalty.

Van Persie could justifiably have been awarded a penalty after Philippe Mexes adopted a hands-on approach on him inside his own area, but Arsenal’s night was summed up by a late Rosicky effort from the edge of the area which was sliced so badly it went out for a throw-in. 4-0 represented Arsenal’s heaviest-ever defeat in European competition. It could – and should – have been more.

Post-match reaction and analysis

Arsene Wenger admitted his side had played poorly:

It is our worst night in Europe, we were punished and deservedly so. We were very poor offensively and defensively. We were beaten everywhere. There was not one moment in the 90 minutes we were really in the game.

But he insisted the team will focus on bouncing back straight away and aim to avoid this result impacting future performances:

We will focus on our next games, the season is not finished. We have a big game on Saturday, which is a good opportunity to show we have character and mental strength and that we can respond after such a shocking defeat.

A big disappointment like that has consequences on your belief. We have a lot of work to regroup and not a lot of time to prepare for Saturday’s game. We need to show something completely different on Saturday.

He was realistic about Arsenal’s prospects in the second leg:

We don’t play in dream world. [Our chance of progressing is] maybe two per cent or five per cent statistically. You never know. But you have to say, realistically, we are out of the competition.

Finally, he said of Laurent Koscielny:

It’s a knee problem. We’ll see [what happens].

Where do I begin? Let’s start by laying a few myths to rest.

Yes, the San Siro pitch was appalling – heavy, uneven and not the kind of surface befitting a match of this stature. But it was the same for both teams, and as it had only just been relaid it cannot even be claimed that the home side had the benefit of familiarity. Instead Milan found a way to carve Arsenal open again and again on it, while the visitors barely mustered even the hint of a threat until the game was long beyond them.

Was Ibrahimovic offside in the build-up to the critical second goal? Yes, but only marginally so, and this was hardly an isolated incident of a Milan player having all night to run at speed into a wide open space in front of him. Boateng, Nocerino, Robinho and Ibrahimovic terrorised Arsenal’s back line throughout the game as defenders and midfielders – with the honourable exception of Koscielny – repeatedly backed off them. As team defensive performances go, this was as passive and uncertain a display as I have ever seen from an Arsenal back line. Vermaelen had a poor game, Sagna looked slightly off the pace, and Gibbs often found himself in trouble regardless of whether he stepped up or dropped off – both unsurprising and understandable given his long injury absence.

Worse still was the performance of the midfield five in front of them. Mikel Arteta was uncharacteristically sloppy, Ramsey kept trying but simply could not locate teammates with a series of increasingly ambitious and desperate passes, and neither Alex Song nor Theo Walcott (in his 45 minutes) were a factor. But worst of all was Rosicky, who had put in some good performances of late. Invisible in attack, a big reason for his inclusion here was to use his experience to provide defensive support for Gibbs. On this front, he failed entirely. As a quintet, the midfield gave away possession too cheaply, were found lacking in pace and invention, and were unable to provide any protection defensively. There was no great tactical shortcoming here – Arsenal were simply outclassed in every department by a more technical and more hungry Milan side. Where the visitors were tentative, the hosts were bold – and their adventure paid off both handsomely and deservingly.

No two ways about it: Arsenal are out of the Champions League, and with a whimper rather than a bang. The only upside I can see is that Wenger can now justifiably play a reserve side in the second leg. With critical league fixtures against Liverpool and Newcastle either side of that game, it provides an unexpected opportunity to rest key players and focus on securing a top-four spot.

Inevitably, questions will be asked about transfer policy, and about how a side which 12 months ago earned a first-leg advantage over eventual Champions League winners Barcelona and stood within touching distance of the top of the Premier League can have fallen so far so quickly. The reason is obvious to a million armchair pundits out there. The solution, however, is less so. Arsenal need to overhaul a squad which remains infested with mediocre players of questionable attitude, but they must do so within the constraints of their self-sustaining model and Financial Fair Play, and possibly without the lure of Champions League football. It is clear that neither Stan Kroenke nor Alisher Usmanov are going to suddenly write a large cheque. And nobody is going to sack the board any time soon. It is a long road back to the top, but Arsenal remain in the box seat as far as a top-four finish is concerned and that must now be the number one priority. There is still one game to play, but Arsenal’s European campaign is over, and the full extent of the damage will not be known until Koscielny’s injury is fully assessed.

All that matters now is the two remaining domestic competitions. Arsenal’s Premier League fate will not be determined by Saturday’s fifth-round FA Cup tie at Sunderland. But it is where the journey must begin, and it is where the team must remind themselves that the side who have just lost 4-0 in the San Siro are effectively the same 11 as the one who hammered Blackburn 7-1 just 11 days previously. It’s time to put up or shut up, lads.

Arsenal man of the match: Robin van Persie. Let down by the rest of the team, but nonetheless mustered three shots on target and was the only Arsenal player who ever looked like scoring.

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

21 Responses to No excuses as Arsenal are torn apart by Milan

  1. Ouch! I feel your pain, Tim.

    • Tim says:

      Thanks, Richard. Part and parcel of being a fan, but I fear the internet will be full of vitriolic Arsenal ‘fans’ tonight looking to vent their spleens.

      • gavin says:

        Part and parcel of being a fan, not an Arsenal fan, disappointing to see how far we have fallen from our invincibles to present day were i have read a paper labeling us the inconsistents, just out of curiousity what would you have said that i if was to tell you after the 2004 season that Arsenal in 8 years time would not have won a trophy, have by their manager consider 4th place a trophy and that the current situation in the season we would record the same amount of loses in the premier league as norwich with 8! and that swansea city would have conceded less goals. a team that once didnt lose a game in a season and famous for its solid defense. sorry i struggle to wrap my head around this

      • Tim says:

        As a long-time fan, I’ve endured longer droughts than this one (most recently 1979-87). It happens. It’s very easy to apportion blame and very easy to suggest solutions – until you actually have to do the job. I defend Wenger insofar that he has done an incredible job for so many years – he is not flawless, and he has certainly made more mistakes in the last 2 years than before. But he has been let down by the players more than he has let the players down.

        For what it’s worth, the trophy drought is currently approaching 7 years, not 8 – our last trophy was the 2005 FA Cup.

        And should we win the FA Cup this season, will we look back on it as a success or a failure? A bit of both, I suspect. Even a trophy-winning season is not necessarily a successful one. What we need to see is progress – the lack of it in recent years is the most worrying thing, not the lack of silverware.

      • Paul E says:

        I’m personally 42 and have been a life long supporter, and therefore am quite aware of the periods where we were not really competing for the spoils!

        The thing is, although in the ‘recent’ past, Arsene has delivered so much silverware to our club, he is now far too deeply rooted in the day-to-day running of the club…he chose the cutlery for the restaurant in the Emirates ffs. He has far too much say in absolutely all areas, and I don’t think I’m unfair in saying that his policies with regards to buying on the cheap, along with not re-investing at least 50% from player sales in players that have EPL experience…it’s costing us dearly right now. There is a 100% direct correlation between us being serious challengers, and us moving from Highbury. Wenger, Gazidis, Hill-Wood are completely deluded when it comes to having a balance between investment in quality players, and the financial reward from winning competitions. And the 6% season ticket increase is another kick in the teeth for genuine supporters who are fed up with the OBVIOUS issues at Arsenal not being addressed.

        His focus should be on clearing out the dead wood, recruiting a cracking defensive coach, and buying in choice areas WITH at least a 50% re-invest. But right now, I cannot see his stubborn unwillingness to change his policy (and the policies of the Arsenal Board) from getting us anywhere than slipping further back towards a mid-table also-ran.

        I can see us weakening further this summer, with the likes of RvP being tempted away, and without (looking more and more likely) CL football and the £25m revenue lost as a result, expect little in terms of money being spent in recruiting the quality we need. Brace yourselves with the reality, that AFC is well and truly losing it’s reputation as a force to be reckoned with.

        And for anyone that doesn’t agree, prepared to stake your house on us winning this weekend? There was a time where I would have felt pretty confident.

      • Tim says:

        In truth, I’ve never been confident in our ability to win anywhere in the north-east, even during the Invincibles period, but you make good points, Paul.

        It’s often said that Wenger misses having David Dein alongside him, not just as a confidant but as someone who would challenge and push him to go that little big further – and then get the deals done. I have to agree with that sentiment. My biggest disappointment is not with Kroenke – where does it say an owner has to actively meddle in the running of his club? – but with the board. They have systematically absolved themselves of everything other than maintaining the financial well-being of the club – an achievement which should not be underestimated, but it should never be the be-all and end-all. Who is challenging Arsene? And when he does identify a target, who is busting a gut to get the deal done no matter what?

        For all that we laughed at the Glazers, they knew well enough to leave the day-to-day running of the club alone and to trust in an excellent board to work hand-in-hand with Fergie, who has also had to deal with limited funds (relatively speaking). I don’t see that happening at the Emirates. Wenger is certainly at fault for our (not so) recent decline, but I would only ascribe 30% of the blame to him – the rest is down to the board.

      • Paul E says:

        Completely agree with you there Tim, especially with Regards to Dein…but I don’t see him coming back…not with the current board! Still, let’s hope!

  2. Paul E says:

    It’s usually around this time we throw in the bin progression any further in either the CL or domestic cups. The FA cup game will no doubt be our next exit from competition.

    Wenger has failed to instill any sense of fight or passion for my beloved Arsenal.

    Instead it’s “let’s make £25m profit purely to pay off the stadium” while conveniently forgeting that as each season passes we lose more key players, and become a weaker football club.

    It’s not a moan, just frustration…

    • Tim says:

      Personally, I’m not feeling quite so negative. This is the same team which had the heart to come back against Sunderland and the quality to thump Blackburn. Where we fall short is against the bigger sides and in terms of our lack of consistency. There’s no doubt this side is not as good as previous seasons, though.

      Profit does not pay off the stadium debt, as such. It merely generates cash which could be siphoned off by the owner, though. I do think it’s far too simplistic to blame Wenger. He is not a stupid man and he understands the importance of the team being good enough to compete for trophies. Where he has gone wrong is having too much faith in a crop of youngsters, some of whom did come good (Song, Wilshere, Gibbs if only he could stay fit) but others of whom have been rewarded for having potential which was never fulfilled (Denilson, Djourou etc) – and then being too passive in the transfer market.

      But we’re all frustrated tonight. We aspire for better, but instead we are now merely a good side, not a great one. We shouldn’t forget, though, that even the very best Arsenal sides up to and including the Invincibles consistently underperformed in the CL too – it’s not just this team.

  3. Shrek2be says:

    Vermaelen had a shocker of a game. Have to say Walcott’s limitations as a player come to the forefront again against tight defences.

    • Tim says:

      Vermaelen did have a very poor game by his standards, but sometimes it happens. The problem was more that EVERYONE had a poor game. Where we lost control of this game from minute one was in midfield. Milan were as good as we were bad – all credit to them, no credit to us.

  4. Kevin Raju says:

    Oh Man I am sad…What a pity..

  5. Sheree says:

    I don’t know call yourself a football fan! Confusing Inter and AC: inexcusable school girl error. I need an intensive course in Italian football from our young friend Jack.

    That said I was sorry to see Arsenal so easily undone!

    • Tim says:

      It really did look like we let the state of the pitch get into our heads even before the game kicked off. Very poor, but I take nothing away from Milan.

      The yo-yo form of the team is very worrying. One week we destroy Blackburn (yes, I know it was ONLY Blackburn!), the next we have a spirited comeback to win at Sunderland – and then this. I’d almost rather we were consistently mediocre than constantly up and down like this. Although from the comments of a few fans last night you would think we have been playing this badly week-in week-out for months!

      • Sheree says:

        Failure to manage overly high expectations!

      • Tim says:

        There is definitely a section of Arsenal fans below a certain age, who do not remember the “bad old days” when (a) we couldn’t win anything and were the very definition of mid-table mediocrity, by which I mean 1979-87 or (b) we did win stuff but were frequently appalling to watch, by which I mean the last few years of the George Graham era (about 1992-5). There is a generation which has grown up on a diet of trophies, beautiful football and annual appointments in the Champions League. It’s not really their fault they have such high expectations – it’s all they know. And it’s not all younger fans by any means – there are plenty of older fans who have also become spoilt. But, perhaps more than most, I belong to the school of fans who have enjoyed the last 15 years for what it has been – the best period in the club’s history, and one which almost every other club would be envious of.

        Like all things in life, success is cyclical. We’ve been on the down-slope for a few years now, and really we can only hope that things will pick up again soon. In the meantime, we will have to adjust our expectations and stop whining quite so much.

  6. arse_lite says:

    An attacking midfield of theo, ramsey, can’t complement rosicky’s loss of stamina due to age effectively. Though tomas has a quick, sharp play-making creativity he is bound to be lost in this trinity. The recent games arsenal has won is due AOC complementing rosicky and the both of them make walcott’s inefficacy virtual.
    So milan beat us because of the theo- ramsey- rosicky lateral.

    • Tim says:

      I agree that has been part of the problem, but it’s too simplistic to say it is the entirety of the problem. There are many things not quite right at the club just now – a lack of goalscorers, midfield, no defensive organisation, poor transfer dealings, the board, the owners, even Arsene himself. Which is why I keep saying there is no easy fix.

      It is also too easy for us to ignore the many good things about the club. We will not do a Rangers. We have some incredibly talented players. We have a magnificent stadium. And we are still capable of some beautiful football, although with decreasing regularity. Things aren’t great at the moment – equally they’re not all terrible.

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