Before the match with AC Milan in the San Siro, I couldn't decide what I expected from the game. My mind kept switching between thinking we could go there and win, similar to the way we did in 2008, and thinking we'd get walloped. Eventually, I settled on thinking we'd give it a good go but might lose 2-1, and at least give ourselves a chance of getting through in the second leg.
I should have chosen to expect us to get walloped. That way at least I'd have been less disappointed and wouldn't feel as let down by the team as I did after the match. I'd have been more accepting of the defeat had the Arsenal shown some fight, some application and some determination to get back into the tie. There's no scapegoat to place the blame with, and the result wasn't the sole responsibility of the manager. No-one was good enough and the team got what they deserved.
The big challenge has to be for this result to not affect the team for the rest of the season. Given how certain matches have led to our seasons falling apart in the last few years, I'm struggling to see how the players will pick themselves up from losing 4-0. If they don't, that defeat in Milan will be our last meaningful away trip in Europe for some time. The fans that travelled to Milan and sang throughout the game deserve better. Even at 4-0 down, the only singing that could be heard through the television were the away fans who were high up in the San Siro.
It would be easy to look at the four goals and say that we were unlucky for some of them, but that would be ignoring the larger issue that the team were dismal. The first goal came from a poor clearance from Szczesny, and then the midfield and defence were slow to react when Milan had the ball. One of the key things to do in the first leg of a knockout tie is to keep things tight at the back. We were hopelessly open and Milan were able to punish us with a chipped pass over the top for Boateng. The finish was good, but Boateng far too much time and space to attempt the volley. Ibrahimovic was offside for the second goal, but the defence didn’t chase back hard enough to put him under pressure and Robinho shouldn’t have been allowed a free header from the edge of the six yard box.
The third goal was probably the most unfortunate one to concede, with Thomas Vermaelen slipping at the key moment when he was about to close Robinho down, however it had been too easy for Milan to get into that position on the edge of the box. The penalty was a bit harsh as Ibrahimovic seemed to move his leg into Djourou, but had that been at the other end, we’d have been gutted had it not been given.
Realistically, the score-line should have been worse given the chances Milan had and how they eased off in the second half. Milan looked up for it, we didn’t. Even when we were able to control periods of the game and keep the ball, we did nothing with it. Robin van Persie was feeding off scraps and couldn’t get in the game in the first half. He had three half chances in the second, however that was the extent of what we could create for him.
Not even bringing on Thierry Henry at half time could salvage anything for us. It would have been unreasonable to expect Henry to be able to drag the team up by himself. The Henry of old might have been able to pick the ball up a long way from goal and make things happen, but as we saw at Sunderland, the current Henry is primarily a finisher in the penalty area. He was given nothing to finish. It appeared to me that some of the players possibly believed the potential for the Henry fairy tale and were just waiting for him to come off the bench and win the match instead of focussing on winning it themselves. It was a sad way for Thierry Henry to end his Arsenal career.
The way we appeared to be relying on Henry by bringing him on at half time seemed symbolic of the current problems with our squad. We had to go back to a club legend, who is nowhere near the player he was, to try and dig us out of a hole. It highlighted that proper investment in the squad is needed this summer. It was needed last summer and arguably in January. We made some good signings last summer, but also some strange ones considering who left the club. We’re relying on quick fixes to get us moving again as a club. Whether we’re in the Champions League or not, or if Arsene Wenger is the manager, this summer we have to have a proper shake up and be willing to spend money. I’m all for responsible spending and not wasting money on over-priced players, but we have to be realistic and be willing to spend those few extra million pounds that will keep us competitive in modern day football.
However we have more immediate things to worry about before the summer. Any spending we do will be dictated by the forthcoming three months. We have to just focus on the players we have at the moment and how they can come back from the horror show at the San Siro, not in the second leg as we’re all but out of the Champions League, but in the Premier League and the FA Cup. Once again we have injury concerns in defence, with centre backs now going down like our full backs were. We can’t expect to see Per Mertesacker back anytime soon, and Laurent Koscielny worryingly limped off in Milan. We really missed the calming influence of the big German at the back on Wednesday, and Koscielny has been our player of the season behind van Persie. Against Milan, Thomas Vermaelen looked like a man who has been playing at full back recently and John Djourou is nowhere near the form he was showing at this time last year.
A lot of people will point the finger at Arsene Wenger for the result. Yes, when you lose 4-0 you can say the manager should have prepared the players better, and some of the investment in the squad issues could be traced back to the boss. However the whole club need to take responsibility for a result like that, those above Wenger at boardroom level, and those below him in the playing squad. Once the players are on the pitch, it’s up to them to fight for the Arsenal and execute any plans. The team that Wenger fielded on Wednesday were good enough to be competitive in the match, to score, and to remain in contention in the tie. The vast majority of them let their manager, their club and their fans down.
Sunderland on Saturday in the FA Cup is absolutely massive for our season. Effectively going out of two competitions in four days could destroy our team spirit and have a substantial knock-on effect on our top four hopes in the league. This team have responded to bad defeats before, and have to do so again. Although we can’t afford to have another bad defeat that we then need to respond to again. The least we should expect as fans is for the players to give everything for the team and look like they want to win. They didn’t do that on Wednesday. It was immensely disappointing as much as it was saddening to see Arsenal take such a deserved beating.
As he’s leaving, I’ll finish with a Thierry Henry quote that the squad he leaves would do well to remember. “If you play hard and respect the shirt, they remember that.”