Arsenal 3-0 Milan: Arsenal’s spirit proves that the dog days are nearly over

As the half-time whistle blew, Laurent Koscielny slumped down with his hand on his knees, in his mind still chasing the loose ball with Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Tomáš Rosický ruffled his hair and looked around; all his team-mates were doing the same and all telepathically asking the same question: “is this really happening? Are we actually going to do this?” The truth probably lay in their reactions, frantically searching for their next breath. They had just made the improbable possible – heck, they even looked favourites to win the tie now – but they had given so much and expended so much energy in one half. At 45 minutes, the distance covered count read Arsenal 56756 metres, Milan 52803 metres. (In comparison, Milan ran 55km at the San Siro and Arsenal 53km). They were also so clinical, so calculated that they couldn’t keep this up in the second-half. Arsenal’s statistics read like a vector graphic: 5 shots, 4 on target, 3 goals, 2 cards, 1 half.

Yet, whatever happened in the second-half, there was a feeling this would still be the defining match of The Emirates Stadium. In an age where football is becoming more business-like, fans are finding it ever difficult to relate to the men on the pitch. Tickets were given up even before kick-off but the true fans remained. They sung and encouraged the players and the players in turn, delivered a passionate performance, chasing every ball and crucially playing with a calm head too to, not only go in at half-time 3-0 in front, but having not conceded also. The platform was in place for a momentous evening.

As it was, Milan came out in the second-half and showed all their continental nous, keeping the ball for lengthy periods and as Arsenal tired, constantly broke up any momentum that was created. They gave Arsenal one real chance in the second-half and that fell to Robin van Persie who, with the goalkeeper in front of him, tried to lift it over him. Christian Abbiati lifted up his hand and stopped it going in. That was on 60 minutes and while Milan had a few of better opportunities – Stephan El Shaaraway shooting wide just before half-time, Zlatan Ibrahimovic gifted a chance and Antonio Nocerino missing an open goal – those missed chances didn’t even themselves out with van Persie’s. Arsenal were looking for a breather and that goal would have provided them that respite to drop deep. Instead, The Gunners had to plough on for a fourth; Arsène Wenger threw on all his strikers in an attempt to salvage extra-time while Alex Song, who tried to do everything himself in the first-half, was forced to do everything himself  in the second as his partner in crime, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain succumbed to injury.

In the end, Arsenal lacked sufficient energy and the creativity to pull out the great escape. At the final whistle, Laurent Koscielny slumped down with his hand on his knees,  Tomáš Rosický ruffled his hair and eventually dropped to the ground. Robin van Persie looked around in disbelief but thanked the supporters in believing anyway. And Wenger went on his customary rant at the referee chasing the metaphoric light down the tunnel. (Sky Italia’s pitchside reporter actually reported that the referee ran off down the tunnel shouting “Don’t touch me! Don’t touch me!” at Wenger!)

For Arsenal, it had started so well but petered into the game that many had predicted beforehand. In the first-half, Arsenal gave a fine demonstration of their attacking capabilties, pressing Milan up the pitch and then breaking with devastating speed. The left-back, Djamel Mesbah, had an uncomfortable evening as everything came down his side while Rosicky and Oxlade-Chamberlain typified Arsenal’s maturity with a cool-headed display and passed the ball with conviction. Indeed, the injury to Oxlade-Chamberlain early in the second-half probably ended Arsenal’s chances of a fightback as he was disciplined and excellent positionally, allowing Song to get forward and break up the play but suddenly, BAM! he went on a wonderful run to win Arsenal a penalty. In that moment, he showed Arsenal just why they have missed Jack Wilshere, with Wenger telling Sky Italia: “We should have put more drive and intensity in the 2nd half, but our legs went because we played so hard in the 1st half.”

Even if the result wasn’t ultimately satisfactory, the performance was as the team answered all the questions that was asked of them before the game. Most pleasing was Arsenal’s defensive organisation which was superb throughout considering they had to “go for it.” In particular, Laurent Koscielny rose to the occasion once again in a big game but they looked like a unit once more; the nine offsides they won was an indictment of their cohesion. But there were still some questions left to answer after the win; does this team need to be unshackled and be forced into taking creative risks to play at it’s best? And considering how difficult that is to sustain as shown by the second-half, it’s not a reasonable request to expect them to play like this all the time. Of course, the core theme of the game is what they should take as the reference point for the rest of the season; the togetherness, cohesion, the conviction in attack and the perfect execution of the game plan – and this was probably the first game in the season that Robin van Persie wasn’t required to be at his best. And looking at it from a universalistic point of view, this team has actually remained very consistent throughout this season if not spectacular although it needs a couple of creative players if it wants to play as the manager wants to. Wenger was about to introduce rookie, Oguzhan Ozyakup, to regain some control but as he waited for Oxlade-Chamberlain to shake off his knock, it became too late and he was forced to throw another striker on. The balance was lost as soon as Oxlade-Chamberlain felt the effects of the flu he was suffering on the eve of the game.

Andrey Arshavin might have made a difference but it must be remembered, that he made an ultimately selfish decision to leave. Now the irony is, his form will be under more scrutiny in front of his native people’s eyes in Russia. The other irony for Arsenal was that Robin van Persie, so often making the habit of scoring the easy way this season, opted for the chip. Abbiati read it and pulled off the save to stop Arsenal completing the great escape. Nevertheless, the image may serve as a symbolic moment of this team’s potential; the audacity and character to try something special even in the most unlikliest of moments. And for that, there is a need to recognise something exceptional. This team has it.

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Zlatan Ibrahimovic inspires Milan to the perfect game

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If there was a football equivalent of a “perfect game” then AC Milan might have executed it. Unlike baseball though, it’d be qualitative because Milan didn’t overwhelmingly dominate in any of the main statistics – except shots – but their game-plan went  perfectly according to plan to emphatically defeat Arsenal 4-0 in the 1st leg of the Champions League knock-out stage. It doesn’t happen often; FK Crvena zvezda (Red Star) might have claimed to have done that when they beat Liverpool 2-1 in the European Cup in 1973, imploring even the Anfield crown to applaud their winner. Or Ajax in 1966 as they defeated the same club 5-1, forcing Bill Shankly to peculiarly declare that “they were the most defensive team we have ever met” – everything just went right for Ajax. Milan’s 4-0 win over Barcelona in the 1994 final may have been as perfect as it got in the European Cup while you can argue Barcelona themselves do it every week (except very recently), winning by doing EXACTLY what it wants.

There is a feeling, though, that Milan played a perfect game because Arsenal’s inefficiencies make that more likely to happen against them.

For all of Arsenal’s progress this season after a summer of discontent, there are still teething issues throughout the squad. Arsène Wenger admitted before the game that this Arsenal team had more “mental quality” than technical quality in comparison to the 2008 side which conquered at the San Siro, noting that that side were “technically perfect.” However, last night they well and truly suffered on both departments. Arsenal had a game-plan – to play in the opponent’s half (“at the start we will try to get out of our own half and try to get up there and play. Spurs won the game when they were dominated, but that is football today”) and in training the players were given instructions on what they might face and must do against the red-and-black. The reality was much starker as on the pitch, Arsenal didn’t react to scenarios Milan threw at them. Patrick Vieira talked about Arsenal lacking “leadership” on the pitch and he’s right. As Gus Hiddink stresses, players must “coach” team-mates on the pitch and Arsenal don’t do that enough.

Much was made of the pitch beforehand and that may have had some influence on Arsène Wenger eschewing a wide game. He started Tomáš Rosický on the left instead of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, possibly to help cover the returning Kieran Gibbs but mainly to help retain possession better. In that, it wasn’t such a bad move because he was one of Arsenal’s most creative players and by working the ball wide, they might have shuffled around Milan’s supposedly narrow midfield. Milan, though, threw a spanner in the works and set-up much more dynamically than expected.

Massimiliano Allegri played a 4-3-2-1 shape, using the three forward players in a roaming capacity when in possession which overwhelmed Arsenal’s defence because when they attacked, it meant Arsenal’s centre-backs had an extra man to watch. They couldn’t mark man-for-man because they didn’t know who to pick up as Milan committed runners superbly. In midfield, they alleviated any numerical disadvantage, partly because of Arsenal’s shape, but also because they closed of any gaps with a midfield three which was backed up a vociferous three in front. “Our positioning was excellent and it prevented them from creating good openings,” said Allegri.

Arsenal partly played to their downfall as their shape was closer to  a 4-4-1-1 and especially when they pressed, only Aaron Ramsey and Robin van Persie did meaning it was very easy to bypass the men closing down and get into midfield. And when Milan did attack, they used all areas of the pitch, stretching it with a roaming front three and pushing the full-backs forward. Arsenal’s inefficiencies were exposed.

Arsenal-Milan

But Arsenal, famed for their exuberance in attack were improbably flat and suffered from a “poverty of ideas”; they could not get any telling support to Robin van Persie. At half-time, Wenger whipped off Walcott – not necessarily for his individual performance, because were bad all-round but because he characterised the team’s lack of ingenuity. Arsenal were able to work it into wide areas but most often just crossed the ball into the box. Wenger resorted, in the second-half, to looking to play through the two players that Arsenal have that can make something happen – van Persie and Thierry Henry – and now one of those is now gone. The narrow shape created one great chance which was saved brilliantly by Cristian Abbiati but the lack of technical ability in the side is galling. It’s just not Arsenal and Wenger knows it; his words before the game remained upbeat but were filled with underdog rhetoric. But, this is not a club in decline although the strategic direction since the move to the Emirates has hampered their competitiveness. The blow was delivered by Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the man who got away from them because Arsenal insisted a trial and The Gunners were unable to handle him as he created SIX chances. He was at the heart of all the Rossoneri’s attacking play. Tuttosport wrote this morning, that it had been a “magical night”. It was the perfect night for Milan.

Arsenal 2-1 Borussia Dortmund: Alex Song helps Gunners to overcome Dortmund’s pressing

Of all the things riding on the match, Alex Song’s dignity in the dressing room was the least obvious. But his bet with Andre Santos proved to be the catalyst to produce one Arsenal’s all-time great assists and send Arsenal through to the knock-out stages.

Picking the ball up slightly to the left of Borussia Dortmund’s half – in a position Santos himself may have expected to have been – he went on a slaloming run down the touchline, taking on three men before delivering a pin-point cross onto the head of Robin van Persie. The goal came just after Dortmund had cranked up the pressure after the interval and Arsène Wenger was grateful to Alex Song for breaking free from the remits of his trade. “Song did something exceptional for a defensive midfielder,” he said after. Song, though, revealed it was a wager with Santos which inspired him but more tellingly, gave an insight to the strength of Arsenal’s dressing room at the moment. “What’s important is not what I did,” said Song. “It’s what the what team did tonight. We had a good result. Before the game, I said to André [Santos]: ‘Tonight I will score or I will give an assist,’ and he said: ‘No chance.’ It was that sort of challenge you give each other before a game.”

For Arsenal fans, Alex Song’s all action displays are nothing new and they feel he deserves greater recognition for his consistency in the holding role. Of course, that role has been made easier this season – as Jack Wilshere also did last season – because of the arrival of Mikel Arteta. Nonetheless, Song still rose to the occasion and in the second-half – after the whole team had been given an unrelenting test in the first – came up with a number of important blocks and interceptions. His glide means he doesn’t need to slide to win the ball back and because he stays on his feet, Arsenal are able to attack as soon as he makes a tackle. He made 5 in fact while also executing 7 interceptions, showing how important he is to the way Arsenal functions.

It’s a more functional Arsenal this season; sort of a halfway house between pragmatism and the romanticism of the past and it’s proving to be the perfect blend. Initially, though, the cautiousness of Arsenal’s approach play was exposed as Dortmund hounded them in possession. However, they were patient to ride through the storm, particularly in the first 15 minutes and their passing was excellent in the second-half. The tempo was increased while Dortmund tired after their excursions against Bayern Munich in the weekend, and Arsenal finished them off with the efficiency normally typical of German opponents. Commendably, Jurgen Klopp was unwilling to attribute the loss of Mario Gotze and Sven Bender through injury as turning points but it did massively impact on their strategy. Bender in particular, sets the tone for the high pressing to work, as he backs up the work of the forwards by aggressively getting tight to the opponent’s central midfielders. As a result, Arsenal suffered early on in that area.

Jurgen Klopp’s tactics must be commended; he has the look of a genius and his side buzzed around the pitch like the particles in the Hadron Collider. The 4-2-3-1 morphed into a 4-4-2 off the ball and the wall of pressure they created stopped Arsenal from passing it through the centre. Ultimately though, both sides wanted to play through the wings; Dortmund were threatening at first but Arsenal’s defending around the box continues to impress. Wenger’s side, however, remained patient and they knew if they were able to get the ball to Walcott and Gervinho, they had every chance of exposing Dortmund’s impetuousness off the ball. The big difference between the two attacks, though, turned out to be van Persie and there was no doubt he was going to get the goals. Klopp promised to stop the striker by stopping the supply to him but the nature of van Persie’s play was an altogether unfamiliar threat. In the end, Klopp’s words seemed to resonate the same mixed feeling of awe and resignation that van Persie has inflicted on his opponents in his amazing run. “But Robin van Persie, wow, what a performance, what a player,” said Klopp. “He’s certainly one of the best in Europe. I’ve hardly ever seen a player who plays so deep in midfield and then is such a danger in the box.”

Some Chalkboards…..

1. Dortmund’s pressing

Borussia Dortmund’s pressing in the first 15-30 mins will have been familiar to Arsenal fans in more ways than one. While it has drawn comparisons with Barcelona’s rapid spell of pressure at the Emirates in 2009, it more closely resembles Arsenal’s efforts which worked so successfully for two-thirds of last season. Shinji Kagawa presses alongside Robert Lewandowski to make a 4-4-2 when closing down  – similar to what Cesc Fábregas had been doing – and behind them was a unit who defended through “through-marking;” (i.e. by getting tight to stop the passes from reaching their targets). Sven Bender did that particularly well and as such, his removal from the game, from a defensive viewpoint, can be seen as a turning point. Dortmund created a first line of pressure that stopped Arsenal from passing the ball into the centre of midfield.

Arsenal had their own strategy to evade the press and as a result, perhaps they didn’t mind the fact the middle was blocked. Arteta and Song pushed up instead of dropping deep to pick up the ball therefore affording the centre-backs more room in the build up. Arsenal had plenty of ball in their own half but struggled to unsettle Dortmund’s pressing. It was not until the second-half when Arsenal passed the ball quicker that Dortmund’s pressing became less effective.

The teams close us down so much high up because they know we play through the middle,” said the manager last season. “I push my midfielders a bit up at the start to give us more room to build up the game. When you come to the ball we are always under pressure, so Song is a bit naturally high up because I want him high up. I am comfortable with that sometimes it leaves us open in the middle of the park. We want to play in the other half of the pitch and, therefore, we have to push our opponents back. But my philosophy is not to be in trouble, but to fool the opponent into trouble.”

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Only 22% of Arsenal’s play came through the middle due to Dortmund’s pressing and compactness. Their season average through the middle is 34%.

2. Arsenal’s defensive plan

Alex Flynn, the author of Arsènal: The Making of a Modern Superclub, said on twitter that “Arsène Wenger has no defensive plan B.” Which is quite an oversight from someone who has “analysed” Arsenal extensively during Wenger’s reign because it is quite evident he has changed his defensive strategy this season, and has done over the last few years. The change sees Arsenal dropping into their own half instead of aggressively searching for the ball and their improvement has become more noticeable as the season has progressed. Initially, they failed to get to grips with it but their defensive security has gradually improved and their defending around the box – bar the mistake at the end – is now more solid.

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In Arsenal’s first European match last season, they pressed more aggressively and won the ball back higher up the pitch. As such, it echoes Dortmund’s tactics last night and highlights the marked difference in Wenger’s defensive plan this season.

3. Explosive Gunners

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Jurgen Klopp bemoaned the lack of directness in Dortmund’s attacking play and that can be shown by the amount of times they attempted to take an Arsenal defender on. Without the magical feet of Götze, Dortmund lacked dynamism on the wings. Arsenal in comparison have plenty although they were far more successful on the less clogged left-hand side. Both sides, however, attempted the same amount of crosses at fourteen each.

4. The joy of Robin van Persie

What’s even more impressive about Robin van Persie is that he runs so much – as much as midfielder would. Last night, he covered 11252 metres – the 2nd highest for Arsenal. I watch him and think “Arsenal don’t press that intensely yet his figures so high. Why is that?” And that’s because he works so hard to get back into position when the team defends, acting as the reference point while his movement off the ball is stunning, always working the central defenders. Klopp says he’s rarely ever encountered a player like him and in the second-half, once Arsenal took the lead, van Persie used his intelligence to move around the pitch and allow the faster Theo Walcott and Gervinho to profit on the break.

Lionel Messi assures his place in the pantheon of the greats

“Lionel is the best player I’ve ever seen, probably the best ever. He made the difference. Messi is unique, a one-off….” Pep Guardiola looked to be drifting off into predictable territory with his eulogy of Lionel Messi after the UEFA Champions League final but he suddenly slipped into a more sombre note when turning his attentions to Lionel Messi: the human being. “….Messi is unique, a one-off,” he continued. “I just hope he doesn’t get fed up. When he doesn’t play well it is because something is wrong with his environment. Let’s hope he can continue playing well.”

The comment was a revealing insight into Messi’s character because the player we all know and admire derives so much joy from kicking a football that is hard to imagine how he can ever fall out of love with the game. But beneath his unflustered exterior perhaps lies a more vulnerable character who, until recently, has had to do a lot of growing up. Ronald Reng writes for FT Weekend Magazine that Messi “has a pleasant lack of interest in the world, which protects him from the blandishments of the football circus.” Thus, he cares little for fashion and prefers to stay indoors – a rarity it must be said in the Spanish culture – while he watches minimal football on television. All his attention is focused on the moment he kicks the ball.

On the pitch, Messi plays by instinct and is guided by whatever means allows him to get the ball the most and in dangerous positions. It’s because of this operational mastery that it is sometimes better to strip him of any great tactical responsibility and allow him to express himself the fullest. His former coach, Frank Rijkaard, attempted to mould Messi into a tactically, more robust player perhaps misunderstanding that the greater advantage lies in granting him more freedom. Messi almost construed this as an act of punishment saying, “I cried a lot because Rijkaard was so hard on me.” In the grand scheme of things, it has helped make Messi the player he is but Guardiola has handled him better, subliminally channelling his genius into a tactical framework which gets the best out of him. Messi’s movement is overwhelmingly a team ploy, wreaking havoc with opposition marking structures and he runs harder than anyone to win the ball back. Perhaps it’s this environment which Guardiola was alluding to earlier on; that Messi needs the encouragement to play his game and should not be too bogged down by tactical quirks. Because all he wants to do is play football. “When I have the ball at my feet, I don’t think, I just play,” said Messi. “On the football field, my only thought is: ‘Give me the ball!’ I don’t invent dribbles. I don’t work out any moves. Everything simply comes from instinct.” Guardiola identified this as soon as he took over the reigns at Barcelona, his chief scout Pep Boade, telling Simon Kuper in 2009, that Guardiola had “structured a Messi strategy. If John Terry kicks Messi, the whole team will protect him.” Even though he doesn’t go out, the club say they will do all they can to make Messi feel happy, feel part of the city.

Lionel Messi’s presence in greatness has surely been confirmed by his European Cup exerts but at 23 and still maturing, the question is how great he will be. Pep Guardiola is in no doubt he is the best ever. So good in fact, it’s as if has implied that Messi may even get fed up of being better than the rest. Of course that’s not true but at the moment, he has no parallel. Cristano Ronaldo may have pipped him to the Golden Shoe but the Portuguese midfielder is a maverick and his pursuit for individual glory was put into perspective by Messi’s team play. As Jonathan Wilson writes for Sports Illustrated, “the greatest greats — Pele, Diego Maradona, Johan Cruyff, Ferenc Puskas, Franz Beckenbauer, Alfred Di Stefano — were all individually gifted, great team men. Messi may not have won the Golden Boot or the pichichi this season, but he is an awful lot closer to joining them than Ronaldo.”

Certainly any attempts to justify Messi’s place as the greatest of the greats, as many have argued and others against, prove to be highly subjective. You could say he does things that others don’t but so does Xavi Hernandez, who must be considered the best constructor and Messi, the best destructor. And what about Sergio Busquets? The man Xavi calls “the best midfielder there is playing one-touch.”

Ossie Ardiles, a World Cup winner with Argentina in 1978, argues that the game is at its peak now and that puts Messi above the likes of Diego Maradona and Pele.  Ardiles said: “the modern game helps goalscorers and the ball players; the pitches are better, the boots are better, the rules have been altered to favour the attacking players… the way the players look after their bodies, the way that clubs and national sides employ so many people to look after their bodies, with what they eat, and just about everything you can think of.”

The argument, however, can be labelled as biased against those of the older generations because the environments were markedly different then and were out of their power to shape. Sure, there was more scope for one to differentiate one self but they did it in spite of those environmental disadvantages. Logic says it’s not possible to compare players out of their time period and it would probably be better if you judge their relative superiority in that era and compare the differences. It’s still an imperfect measure but if it’s the method that’s used, it weighs in favour of Messi.

Lionel Messi’s rise has been inexorable but if demographic trends are anything to go by, he shouldn’t have made it as a football player. His story in itself is already astonishing as at 11, he was diagnosed with a growth hormone deficiency before the intervention of Barcelona at 5’6 but he’s still 2 inches short of the average Argentinean male. But sport is increasingly an athletic one and at the top-level, they have been steadily growing bigger, getting stronger, fitter and faster. And while Messi satisfies three of those criteria, if you compare it with other sports, Messi goes against those humanistic trends. Of course, football is a peculiar sport because it’s more skill-based therefore physique is not definitive. Indeed, natural conditioning is reaching its peak and, at the highest level, that will expose technique – a factor Barcelona are ahead of and others still catching up – culminating in the rise of the “little men.”

<Figure 1>How Sportsmen Grew From the 1980’s to Now. Source: Observer Sport Monthly January 2010, Issue No. 118

From a tactical point of view, Messi is also innovative, first inspiring the now universal use of “inverted wingers” and now leading the charge for the “false nine.” In the role Messi is a creator but unlike the game’s other great creators – Ferenc Puskas, Pelé, Michel Platini and Diego Maradona – who played behind another forward, he tends to have no fixed position. Perhaps only Johan Cruyff and Alfredo Di Stefano have played similarly in a forward role. Again, attempts to justify a player’s greatness positionally proves futile because it is almost discriminatory to those players who sacrificed themselves for the team ethos; a factor so key in football. Similarly futile is scorning the brilliance of Cristiano Ronaldo just because the coach chooses to get the best out of him in a position which is perhaps not as central as a playmaker but is still pivotal.

Some argue Messi wouldn’t be as effective without the groundwork of the likes of Xavi and Andres Iniesta and point to his international record as proof. Yet, apart from two separate periods when he stoked up a partnership with Juan Roman Riquelme and now under Sergio Batista, he has had to play with broken teams. In the World Cup of 2010 he nevertheless carried an exciting and at the same time, vulnerable Argentina side. When the balance is right in international level, he can be the difference as he so often is for Barcelona as displayed –- ironically — against Spain in a match they won 4-1. In the Champions League final against Manchester United, the defenders were visibly scared of him, backing off to gift space for the last two goals in the 3-1 win and his movement and potency effectively made the space for the first. Messi is overwhelmingly a team player and drifts to where he feels appropriate. Rinus Michels may have been the man who originated the theory of Total Football but it is widely recognised that it was Cruyff who breathed life into those most complex of plans and Messi is doing similar at Barcelona. Guardiola acknowledges he is the difference. The best he’s ever seen. Probably the best ever. Messi is unique. Messi is a one-off.