Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Milan 4-0 Arsenal : deservedly battered

Arsene Wenger called it ‘shocking’ and ‘our worst ever night in Europe’. Personally, I still think the worst night was that one in 2004 when Wayne Bridge’s goal knocked us out, but in terms of performance there can be no question that last night was a low point.

From the start you could see we were sluggish, off the pace and that certain players just weren’t up for it. As early as the 4th minute the problems were obvious. Bacary Sagna was left two on one as Seedorf traded passes with a teammate, there was no sign of Theo Walcott coming back to help him, no sign of one of our midfielders coming across to fill the gap, and it ended with the veteran Dutchman firing a shot not far wide.

If that was a warning sign then so too was the fact that simple passes dropped between our centre-halves, designed to drag them out of position, worked time and time again. Koscielny did his best to mop up, while Vermaelen is lucky he has so much goodwill on his side such were his struggles last night. This was basic stuff though, Milan were allowed far too much time and space in midfield. If we were struggling to cope with these passes then we should have worked harder to cut off the supply. We didn’t and paid the price.

While Szczesny has to take some of the blame for a poor kick which led to the first, the fact that it dropped to a Milan player without so much as a sniff of a challenge from an Arsenal man was unforgivable. Again, the simple ball between the centre-halves cut us open like a hot knife through butter, and Boateng’s finish was fantastic.

If you hoped it would provide something of a wake-up call then you were disappointed. Arsenal struggled to keep the ball in any meaningful way. There can be no blame apportioned to the pitch. Yes, it was terrible but the same for both teams. It was almost as if the players didn’t want it, keen to get rid of it and pass the responsibility on to someone else. Time and time again we gave it away.

And if anything summed up the state we were in it was Bacary Sagna, a player I have all the time in the world for, getting caught out like a schoolboy. Yes, Ibrahimovic was offside when he received the ball but the first thing you’re taught is to play to the whistle. Add to that his rather half-hearted jog to get back to the big Swede and it made Robinho’s header to make it 2-0 all the more infuriating. A dismal first half closed with Laurent Koscielny hobbling off with a knee injury.

Wenger took off Walcott for Henry at half-time, which was at least a positive move. When the chips are down and you need someone to take some responsibility Theo’s just not the man. Any hopes of Thierry having the required impact were quashed by an early Milan goal. Robinho firing from the edge of the box into the bottom corner, leaving Szczesny with no chance, after Vermaelen slipped.

We did muster a chance or two. There was a glimpse of what we’d like to think is the real Arsenal when Henry flicked a Song pass into the path of van Persie his volley forcing a great save from Abiatti. The captain had a header saved late in the half too, but as an attacking force we were pretty much impotent all night long. A heavy defeat became a rout when Rosicky got caught on the ball in midfield, Milan came forward, Ibrahimovic crumpled under the the vaguest touch from Djourou and duly converted the penalty.

It could have been worse. Before the final whistle Milan had two great chances to make the scoreline even more humiliating, and but for some poor decision making they would have scored more. Afterwards, Arsene said:

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. What made it worse is that we had to chase the game. It was always the same problem, balls over the top and we were well beaten.

And on having any chance of progression:

Let’s be realistic, we don’t play in dream world. Maybe two per cent or five per cent statistically. We have to show a completely different performance and you never know. But, you have to say, realistically, we are out of the competition.

He’s right. We’re out, no doubt about it. And look, there’s absolutely no shame in going out of the Champions League to a team like AC Milan if you turn up, give them a game, but don’t quite come out on top. Going out to anyone the way we did last night is embarrassing, however. We’ve seen some poor performances from this Arsenal side this season but for me that was by far the worst.

If you can find some mitigating circumstances to the Old Trafford game (threadbare squad, summer still impacting), and Blackburn away (two own goals, individual errors), as a collective performance last night was as bad as it gets. From the first few minutes it was obvious Milan saw a weakness and looked to exploit it. That they were able to do so for pretty much the whole game is a terrible indictment of our performance, and to my mind we missed the organisational skills of Mertesacker.

I like Koscielny and I like Vermaelen but I have my doubts that they can ever form an effective partnership. They’re rather too similar and while the German’s pace is used as some kind of proof he’s not up to the job, he provides balance in the centre of our defence. His reading of the game is exceptional, allowing a Koscielny or a Vermaelen to do what they’re best at – attacking the ball – while he mops up. As it was Koscielny was firefighting for his 44 minutes as Vermaelen struggled in what is his favoured position.

That there wasn’t the leadership on the field to sort it out, or instruction from the sideline, was even more disappointing. Even late in the second half Milan had a free kick in midfield, they played a straight floated ball into our box, bread and butter stuff for any defence, yet Ibrahimovic won the ball. In the first half there was a moment when a high ball dropped just outside our six yard area and Boateng took it down without an Arsenal player even challenging for the ball. In our own box!

You’d get a kick up the hole if you did that in a Sunday league game, let alone a Champions League knock-out tie. It’s so hard to explain, because these are professional footballers who should not need to be told things like play to the whistle or when a ball is dropping in your box make sure you get a head on it instead of letting it fall to a bloke who has already scored one great goal. For all the criticism the manager will get today, and rightly so, he surely has a right to expect that his players will at least get the basics right.

The bottom line though is that on the big stage we choked. People can point to our squad and its weaknesses, again with plenty of merit, but you can’t tell me that the players we had out there last night weren’t capable of better. Quite why we performed like that is anybody’s guess. There can’t have been a lack of preparation or motivation, but nor can you say it was one of those days because we’ve had too many of them already this season.

There are fundamental problems with this team and this squad that continue to go without being addressed. The only striker we had on the bench last night was a 34 year old Thierry Henry who now returns to New York, his legendary status enhanced not just by his goals but by the fact he became van Persie’s de facto back-up so quickly. Neither Chamakh or Park could even make the bench last night and when Henry came on he was deployed up top with van Persie behind him, something we haven’t seen Arsene do before. It all smacked a bit of desperation.

And for me our woes come from our inefficiencies off the pitch as much as on it. I don’t pretend to know exactly what goes on when it comes to our transfer business but clearly there’s something missing in our set-up. It’s one of the more curious situations that many champion the return of David Dein as a cure-all but, at the same time, advocate the removal of the manager he’d most like to work with.

Yet you cannot look at the way this team, this squad, has been managed and not worry about where we go from here. The nucleus is there, there are exciting young players with huge potential, but a lack of quality to support and develop them properly. Last night was something of a slap in the face for Arsene Wenger, he talked about his pretenders becoming contenders, but last night they could even pretend to be pretenders.

The Champions League was, for me, an unrealistic target for us but we’ve been hammered in Europe before (think Barcelona away) and it hasn’t felt like this. Maybe we had the luxury of pointing to the genius of Messi or a harsh sending off, this time we failed miserably, and it feels like something’s got to give now.

All the same, there’s nothing for it but lick our wounds, forget about the Champions League and concentrate on domestic matters. There’s the FA Cup and a top four finish to play for. We can only hope that last night was (another) a nadir from which the only way is up.

Till tomorrow.

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