Ultimately, having pride doesn't bring you trophies. The fact of the matter is that despite playing superbly against AC Milan at home, we're still out of the Champions League. Whenever a game has gone badly, I'm keen to look at the bigger picture. It should also be considered when we've played well.
The bigger picture is that it is now definite that we won't win a trophy this year, and that we're still struggling for consistency at the highest level. We have so many regrets from the tie with AC Milan, mainly for the non-performance of the majority of the team in the San Siro. However as an individual match, the home leg at the Emirates showed the fans and the team, that Arsenal do belong at Europe's top table. Not many teams will beat AC Milan 3-0 this season.
Now isn't the time in the season for negativity. The fans know, the players know and the whole club knows that the performances in Milan and Sunderland in the cup were abysmal. On a long term basis, those poor performances in key cup games need to be addressed. In the short term, performances have definitely been addressed and sorted out. If after those games, someone said to me that we'll beat Tottenham, Liverpool and Milan, score 10 goals and concede three, I'd have dismissed them as crazy.
I expected nothing from the match at the Emirates, but this team are playing with a sudden new found confidence. In a way, it didn’t feel like we went out, because it felt like that happened three weeks ago. It was just a thoroughly enjoyable and committed performance from everyone in red and white, and we came close to pulling off a genuine miracle. Against a team that we previously struggled to muster some half chances against, we absolute over-ran them and bossed them all over the pitch. Even though we went out, the players and the fans showed real pride in the red and white shirt and that hasn’t been the case for some of this season. The match might not have salvaged our Champions League season from a position of nothing, but it has helped the increasingly rapid healing of the relationship between the team and the fans.
It would have been easy for the team to just accept they weren’t going to make it through, but they didn’t. There does seem to be belief in this squad that hasn’t been evident in the last few seasons. Obviously we need to cut out the set-backs, but we’re undoubtedly better at recovering from them. We couldn’t fully recover from being 4-0 down, but the team understandably ran out of energy. Some of them almost had to be dragged off the pitch after the game. Whatever the result, when you see players like that after a match, you can’t help but be full of admiration and know that they’ve given absolutely everything for Arsenal Football Club. You can’t ask for more than that. Including the international friendlies, a number of those players have played four games in a week and a half. It would have been almost impossible to keep playing at the same intensity for the whole match.
The first half was probably the best half we’ll see from Arsenal this season. The whole team pressured Milan, forced mistakes, and cut through a defence that is renowned for being stubborn. There were so many individuals that performed brilliantly, but that contributed to the whole ethic and game plan of the team. Arsene Wenger got the tactics right, and although his team selection was limited due to injuries, playing Oxlade-Chamberlain as a deeper lying central midfielder was brilliant.
On seeing the Ox in the starting line-up, I expected him to play behind Robin van Persie, with Tomas Rosicky dropping back. However with the form Rosicky has been in for the last few games, he deserved to stay in the influential advanced role. He has typified the recovery of this team, and the responsibility being taken by some players that have lived in the shadow of others in recent years. He ran the midfield, harried the opposition, was always looking to move forward at pace, and scored a deserved goal with an excellent finish. He is definitely a player that deserves a contract renewal.
Ordinarily, playing an 18 year old winger as a central midfield against a quality team like AC Milan, would be risky. However Oxlade-Chamberlain isn’t an ordinary 18 year old winger. He combined well with those around him, and added lightning pace from the middle of the pitch. Had we been patient in our build up, Milan would have got players back and would have been difficult to break down. Instead, the presence of Oxlade-Chamberlain allowed us to stretch the Italians. His direct running for the penalty was excellent, and showed his confidence. He saw the gap, he went for it, knowing he had the pace meaning that he’d have to be fouled to be stopped. Eventually, he ran out of steam, but he covered so much of the pitch for an 18 year old who had flu the day before.
Robin van Persie’s penalty, following the gamesmanship of Mark van Bommel, was brilliantly dispatched. There will be regrets about his second half miss, but the goalkeeper deserves credit for being in front of our captain. It’s quite difficult to criticise van Persie after the season he’s had.
If any of our wild dreams about winning 5-0 were going to come to fruition, we weren’t just reliant on attacking well, we needed to keep a clean sheet against a team that easily put four past us three weeks ago. We did that, mainly because Laurent Koscielny and Thomas Vermaelen were awesome. Koscielny showed set-backs don’t affect him anymore. An own goal on Saturday, was followed by a goal at the right end after five minutes of the next match. Defensively, he bossed things. Robinho and Ibrahimovic got nothing out of him. Vermaelen looked sharp again, and as always, played with his heart. With our attacking approach, Milan could have been dangerous on the break, but the pace and determination of Koscielny and Vermaelen stopped that from happening.
Milan improved in the second half, and we were reliant on the starting XI doing the majority of the work as injuries meant our bench wasn’t filled with good options. Had we made it to extra time, we’d probably have gone out given how knackered our players were.
The brutal reality is that pride and unity doesn’t win you trophies, but it undoubtedly helps and makes fans enjoy supporting their team. We’ve been drastically short of at times this season. It’s fluxed from one its lowest points in recent seasons, to one of its highest within a couple of weeks. The atmosphere at the Emirates on Tuesday was positive, loud and proud. We’re out of Europe, but we’re feeling good as fans again and believe that we can get back into the Champions League next season. Cynics who think it would be a good thing to miss out on the tournament next season should have been inside the ground against Milan. We took on an excellent side and tore them apart, and the atmosphere was epic.
I’m not usually a big fan of football on a Monday night, but given the state of some of our players at the end of the game on Tuesday, the extra time will be needed to prepare for the Newcastle match.
Hopefully the team won’t feel too disappointed from the aggregate defeat, but take heart from the result on the night. We’ve shown that the team can be competitive in the Champions League, they just need to ensure that they’re there next season.