Let's not get carried away.
That's probably the most important takeaway from Arsenal's Thursday night victory over AC Milan in the first leg of the Europa League Round of 16 fixture. Before we get to what the 0-2 win at the San Siro means — if anything — for the beleaguered Arsène Wenger and his equally besieged team, there are three important aspects of the preceding sentence to consider:
First, 'victory over AC Milan': The Rossoneri are a shadow of their former selves — a far cry from the days of Filippo Inzaghi terrorising defences, Clarence Seedorf marshalling the midfield and the combine of Paolo Maldini, Gianluca Zambrotta, Alessandro Nesta and present manager Gennaro Gattuso blunting the most rapier-like attacks. That said, AC Milan have been enjoying a resurgence of sorts under the defender-turned-manager, going unbeaten since Christmas last year and not conceding a goal in their last six games. Also considering the fact that wins have been at a premium in 2018 for Arsenal — as five victories in 15 matches played across all competitions thus far demonstrate — this is an accomplishment for the North London club. However, it's still only AC Milan, a team that hasn't finished above sixth place in Serie A for the past four seasons.
Second, 'first leg': If there's any team, particularly this season, that is capable of blowing a two-away goals lead, it's Arsenal FC. While not in itself a particularly catchy football chant, it contains a fair bit of truth. In the 21-plus years that saw Wenger go from a complete unknown to being a very well-known object of massive global ire, this has probably been the worst season the club has endured. The season — marked by the departure of talismanic players, the outlay of over £100 million on two strikers yet to fire (although this assessment is a tad premature in the case of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang), the apparently collective refusal to show any trace of spine in the face of adversity and the growing gulf between the manager and the board — has seen the worst of Arsenal. Cases in point: The spineless displays against Östersunds FK and Brighton and Hove Albion over the past couple of weeks. It is therefore prudent to wait until the return leg on 16 March before getting too excited.
Third, 'Round of 16': Should the Gunners emerge triumphant after that second leg at the Emirates, there will still be five matches to get through before they can get their hands on the not-so-coveted-but-it'll-do-in-a-season-like-this-one Europa League trophy. Which also means that a win against Gattuso's wounded men, presumably out for revenge, will propel Arsenal out of the Round of 16 — a graveyard for the club — for only the second time this decade. Will the occasion prove too much for a team that hasn't been to a European quarter-final since 2010? And given that with the likely exception of Lokomotiv Moscow — teetering on the brink of elimination after a 3-0 defeat to Atletico Madrid — no team is completely out of the running to be Arsenal's quarter-final opponent, this isn't a time for Wenger and Company to rest on their laurels.
So what does all this mean for Arsenal?
For starters, it would appear that the curse of the blue jersey has lifted.
Arsenal's results when playing in the blue kit this season:
— afcstuff (@afcstuff) February 22, 2018
Let's assume for a while that the curse has indeed lifted and that away performances will improve from here on in. That won't change the fact that this utterly woeful — relatively speaking, of course; let's not forget Arsenal fans are a notoriously entitled lot — season has all but sounded the death knell for Wenger's reign as club manager. It's still too little too late to save Arsenal in the Premier League, where blue jersey games (away games) against Leicester City, Newcastle United, Manchester United and Huddersfield Town lie in wait. To put matters into perspective, even wins in all four of those matches will only yield 12 points and Arsenal are presently 13 points adrift of a top four spot. And that's assuming the likes of Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea and Liverpool are going to sit back and make matters easier. This makes the Europa League all the more critical to ensure that there's something to show for the season and to qualify for the Champions League next season. The debate on whether there's even any point in a club like present-day Arsenal going to Europe's premier club tournament can wait till qualification has been achieved.
After a run of four below-average to downright-shabby performances (Östersunds, Brighton and two against Manchester City) and in view of the challenges that lie ahead, Thursday's display showcased two very big positives.
The purposeful performances by Mesut Özil and Henrikh Mkhitaryan — two players on whom Arsenal's hopes in the Europa League rest in the absence of an eligible/fit/competent striker — will bring a smile to the face of manager and fans alike. This duo is capable of being one of the most devastating ones around when deployed together, however, what's required is some consistency, given both players' propensity to ghost around the pitch when opposing defences prove tricky to unlock. With a solution to Arsenal's worryingly porous defence — one or two exceptions notwithstanding — highly unlikely to be found this season, it's imperative that goals continue to flow. And if this pair continues to create opportunities, it stands to reason that someone will snap onto them.
The move to 4-3-2-1 — that consigned a very hit-or-miss Alex Iwobi to the bench and brought Granit Xhaka, Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey together in midfield — appeared to pay off. It's too early to say if 4-3-2-1 is this season's back-three — a formation to which Wenger switched at around this time last season and reaped instant reward, but it certainly seemed to paper over some of the cracks in the Gunners' game. That the defence, particularly in the absence of Nacho Monreal and Hector Bellerin, managed to hold its own went some way in furthering this notion. A sturdier midfield coupled with more space to roam for the two attacking midfielders appears to be the way to go as far as mitigating Arsenal's frailties is concerned.
With only the final lap — a minimum of nine and a maximum of 14 matches — left of this season, it's of utmost importance that the grit, panache and ability displayed on Thursday night becomes a regular feature of the upcoming games. This is particularly so in Europe, where every match should be a considered a virtual final, such is the importance of the trophy now. Wenger's empire was already shaky last season, but this season has seen it being set ablaze and, in some parts, turned to ash. For a team trudging through the final chapter of one of English football's longest managerial reigns, this win in Italy must inspire commitment and confidence to see the season out on a high. And automatic qualification to the Champions League would go a long way in that direction.
Ten years ago, Arsenal became the first English club to beat AC Milan (then defending champions) at the San Siro. In 2018, they would do well to put that little nugget of history aside and focus on the fact they are the first club to beat AC Milan (a weaker side compared to 10 years ago, but revitalised under Gattuso) this year.
But, will that prove motivation enough to see it through till the end? Your guess is as good as mine.
Published Date: Mar 09, 2018 15:00 PM | Updated Date: Mar 09, 2018 15:00 PM