Before the match, Wenger said we would attack, we wouldn’t sit back in our own half, but rather push forward and play in their half of the pitch. The importance of away goals encourages teams to be more audacious, Wenger said, and that’s the approach he would adopt. It was a brave, positive, and appropriate plan. The execution left a lot to be desired.
There was a sign that things wouldn’t quite go as planned when Wenger complained about the quality of the pitch. Then we saw the pictures right before kickoff. To me it looked like Milan had intentionally dug up the wide areas to give themselves an advantage. It is widely known how narrow Milan’s shape is, and it was supposed to be the flanks where Arsenal would get some joy. The state of the surface made sure it wouldn’t happen.
What happened after kickoff we already know, so I will not recreate the massacre. We were never in the game, and Wenger admitted as much. We looked nervous, disorganized, utterly clueless. There is no doubt a lot of effort went into preparing for this match. Wenger places a lot of emphasis on having the right preparation for the match. I’m sure the weaknesses and strengths of the Milan side, and our own team, were discussed, and a cohesive plan drawn out. Unfortunately, the way the match played out, it looked as if we didn’t know what to expect from this match, like we didn’t know what we were doing, like we didn’t belong at this level.
The players and manager have been slaughtered by the fans and media in the aftermath. Many saying this is the worst Arsenal side they’ve seen in decades. They have a point. The players were poor on the night. This team, since the summer loss of Cesc and Nasri, isn’t quite a vintage Arsenal team, or an Arsene Wenger team. This is a team still in transition, a bit short of technical quality needed to compete at the top. But they are not bad enough to lose 4-0 to Milan, they are not bad enough to not even create one clear cut chance, let alone score a goal. And that’s why the defeat hurt so much more. We expected a lot more from these players.
For me, the pitch was a crucial factor. We were set up to attack, to push men forward, and like we usually do, pull defences out of shape with our quick passing and movement. However, the pitch was uneven and cutting up badly, the ball wasn’t traveling fast enough, and it was difficult to control. And that rendered our passing game very ineffective. We were too slow to build up from the back, allowing Milan to get back in numbers and restore their defensive shape. It also meant, crucially, that we gave the ball away cheaply in midfield, often in dangerous positions, and Milan pounced, counter attacking with pace and efficiency.
We needed to adapt better to the conditions. I would have instructed our players to sit deeper, and play on the counter attack. Play some long passes over the top for Walcott to run onto. But Boateng’s early goal made that approach difficult. We were chasing the game , and chasing those very important away goals. The counter attacking approach didn’t make much sense, but in hindsight, it might have worked better. But who would have thought we wouldn’t be able to score? Even a loss with one or two away goals would have been good enough to take back to the Emirates. And that is what bemused Wenger, who said “I believed there would be areas where we would have problems, but I did not think we would not score.”
There was criticism of Wenger’s tactics. Why play Rosicky? It was a good decision, it gave us another midfielder, to better match the four Milan play in the center. There was also criticism of his changes after half time. Wenger decided to switch to 442, playing without proper wingers (Ramsey and Rosicky were on the flanks). I think at that point he had decided that attacking down the flanks was not working, and that our collective game had failed, so he played to his strengths – Henry and van Persie. We decided to rely on their individual quality to create something. However, even their combined genius wasn’t enough to pull us out of the mess we were in.
We are essentially out of the Champions League. We will play for pride in the second leg. I just hope this defeat doesn’t destroy our already fragile confidence, because defeating the Tiny Totts at home is of extreme importance, especially after a result like this. We need to secure our position in the top four, and also prove the doubters wrong who have said all season that the Spurs are the better team. This team is not perfect, but we played nowhere close to our ability against Milan. Now we have to be at our absolute best for the rest of the season if we are to end this season on a high.