There’s no place like Rome: Arsenal versus Italy

Arsenal face Napoli in the Europa League quarter-finals this week, but what’s our record like against Italian opposition in Europe, and what can it tell us ahead of this game.

Jon Spurling (@JonSpurling1) reports.

For a club which has often, to put it mildly, fallen rather short in European competition, Arsenal’s track record against Italian clubs, especially in knock out games, is remarkably impressive. Often the underdog, the Gunners’ tactical nous has seen them overcome the likes of Juventus (more than once), Parma and AC Milan among others, and provided supporters with some unforgettable memories along the way.

When I asked Bertie Mee why he thought Arsenal had enjoyed so much success against the leading lights in Italian football, he pondered the question long and hard and responded: “Italian teams have always had a reputation for tactical excellence. You know in advance of the game the pattern your opponents will play in. So you have to be utterly prepared to face that system and adapt accordingly. Sometimes, Italian clubs tend to resort to type and can be rigidly inflexible. My experience is that can sometimes play into Arsenal’s hands, because with clever improvisation, you can counter that.”

Such occasions have often tested Arsenal’s mettle to the extreme and revealed the depth of togetherness in the squad. Bertie Mee knew this better than most, after having the dubious honour of being the first Gunners boss to face Italian opposition in European competition, as he took his defending Fairs Cup holders to face Lazio in September 1970. In a bear pit atmosphere in Rome, the Gunners raced into a 2-0 lead courtesy of John Radford’s brace, before being pegged back in the second half by a Georgio Chinaglia double. It wasn’t much the quality of the Lazio players which surprised Mee’s team (Lazio were relegated from Serie A at the end of the season) – but their approach to the game which took the Gunners players’ breath away.

Lazio deployed classically uncompromising Catenaccio defensive tactics. “Catenaccio means ‘a locked door bolt,’ and this summed up Lazio’s attitude across the tie,” recalled Gunners skipper Frank McLintock, “although they weren’t especially good at it. But they would literally defend to the last man and squeeze you as tight as possible. They had one outlet up front Chinaglia. When you throw in a 60,000 crowd and all the fireworks and the noise, you can see why Italian teams were once the most feared in Europe.”

When the banquet in a Roman restaurant afterwards turned nasty and morphed into a street brawl, the Arsenal players showed their team spirit and stood up for one another. Bertie Mee strode through the mayhem outside, urging his players to get on the team bus, fearing intervention by armed Italian policemen, but 25 years after the incident, he told me: “It demonstrated that my players had each other’s backs and wouldn’t let one another down.” In the Highbury return, Lazio quickly crumbled as Arsenal polished them off with goals from Geordie Armstrong and John Radford.

Due to Arsenal’s mid 1970s decline, they didn’t face an Italian team for another decade, and when they did, Juventus appeared to be almost insurmountable opponents in the Cup Winners Cup Semi Final. The Turin club were the arch purveyors of the zona mista, a combination of zonal marking, often brutal man to man marking and a relentless attacking of space. “I don’t think Juventus had ever lost at home to an English club in Europe, and they hadn’t lost at home to anyone for 2 years,” recalled Arsenal manager Terry Neill, “and their back line of Zoff, Scirea, Gentile and Cabrini formed the backbone of the national team. English football was harder back then, but Italian sides could always resort to brute force when they needed to reinforce their zonal system.”

This was perfectly demonstrated at Highbury in the first leg, when Juve striker Roberto Bettega removed David O’Leary from the equation with a shin high tackle. Juventus drew 1-1 in N5, and from the outset, appeared content to play cautiously in Turin and go through on the away goals leg. In The Times, Clive White wrote: “They (Juventus) are capable of murdering Arsenal 0-0, you would say, for this is all they need to go through after the 1-1 draw at Highbury. And 0-0 are the most popular figures in Italian football.”

“We knew that they would be cautious in the Stadio Communale,” recalled Pat Jennings, “because that was their style. We were very careful not to go gung-ho out there because they would have picked us off, and because we did that I think they didn’t quite know what to do with us. They never really pushed forward and they paid for their inherent caution.”

When Paul Vaessen’s late header – from a beautifully flighted Graham Rix cross – gave Arsenal an aggregate lead, Juventus knew that they had nothing more to give. On the touchline, coach Giovanni Trapattoni slumped in disbelief. They’d been outfoxed and outwitted on their own turf, on one of Arsenal’s finest nights ever in Europe.

If ever a Gunners manager relished a tactical European battle, it was George Graham. Nevio Scala paid Graham the ultimate compliment by claiming: “George approaches matches in Europe like an Italian coach.” Indeed, in the 1993-1994 campaign, his team even played like an archetypal Italian team on two occasions. Prior to the Cup Winners Cup Quarter Final first leg in the Stadio Della Alpi, midfielder Paul Davis recalled: “George watched them in the flesh and on video, and knew them inside out. In fact I felt that he over-hyped them because they weren’t exactly world beaters.”

Officially, the Gunners played a 4-5-1 formation in Turin, but when ‘wingers’ Merson and Campbell fell back to assist Jensen and Hillier in the middle it was almost a 9-0-1 with poor Alan Smith labouring manfully up front. Arsenal literally strangled the life out of Torino in a 0-0 draw, and ITV couldn’t even muster 5 minutes of highlights for viewers later that night. Graham played his tactics perfectly, as David Hillier clung tight to Giorgio Venturin, Torino’s playmaker. Starved of the ball, Uruguayan Enzo Francescoli barely figured at all.

34,000 saw Arsenal follow Graham’s instructions to the letter in the Highbury return, as Arsenal ‘squeezed and harried them.’ A floated free kick in the 66th minute from Paul Davis found skipper Tony Adams, who nodded home the decisive header which saw Arsenal finally unlock Torino’s Fort Knox defence. “European football is like a game of chess,” explained a hugely satisfied George Graham afterwards.

The Scot only had six weeks to wait before pitting his wits once again against Italian opponents, this time in the form of Nevio Scala’s expansive Parma team. “I felt like a field marshall making battle plans,” Graham later admitted. His dossiers highlighted the vibrancy of Parma’s three man midfield, with Tomas Brolin as an attacking midfielder, Pin on the right and Crippa out left, and Zola and Asprilla in a dazzling forward line. Parma could flit effortlessly between a 5-3-2 and a 3-5-2 formation. “Our strength was our adaptability,” recalled Scala, “which was rare in Italian football back then.”

Alan Smith celebrates his goal against Parma in 1994

The message from Graham was simple: “Don’t let Parma play. Don’t give them a minute.” On the occasions that Parma stormed forwards, they looked like thoroughbreds, but Steve Morrow and Ian Selley – drilled to within an inch of their lives – cut the supply line to Asprilla and Zola. Arsenal won 1-0, with lone striker Alan Smith netting the only goal.
It was a monumental performance against what was, on paper, a far superior team. Scala later admitted: “Arsenal deserved to win, showed how to control our system of play and to me they are the least typical English team I have seen.” And Parma were arguably the most atypical Italian side Arsenal could have faced in that era.

Wenger’s Arsenal enjoyed some stellar nights against Italian sides, winning in Milan on two memorable occasions, as they crushed Internazionale 5-1 in 2003 and AC Milan 2-0 on aggregate in 2008. They also beat Juventus at Highbury on unforgettable evenings in 2002 and 2005, and Thierry Henry’s hat-trick to give the Gunners a 3-1 win in Rome was one of his finest individual displays. But sometimes they were outwitted and obliterated too, as happened in Milan in 2012, when they lost 4-0 in the first leg of the last sixteen in the Champions League, which was the last time they faced an Italian club in the knock out phase of that competition.

Last season, the Gunners cruised to a 5-1 aggregate victory over a poor AC Milan team in the Europa League, but Napoli, currently lying second in Serie A following a disappointing 1-1 draw with Genoa are likely to pose a sterner test. The competitive record between both clubs is dead even, with both sides winning 2-0 during their Champions League group stage encounters in 2013. On Sunday, Napoli coach Carlo Ancelotti insisted: “We’re defending badly and getting the basics wrong. If we play like this against Arsenal, we’re in trouble.”

The Gunners’ insipid display at Goodison Park will doubtless give Ancelotti heart though, especially for the return leg in Naples next week. If Arsenal are to progress to the Europa League Semi Finals in 2019, they could do worse than draw inspiration from their predecessors’ tactical triumphs, when a combination of ingenuity, discipline, skill, and sheer bottle saw them prevail against Italy’s finest.