Friday, March 9, 2012

Heart, Not Depth

Going into the match against Milan, it was all but a foregone conclusion that Arsenal would be knocked out of the Champions League. While it's not impossible for a team to come back from a 4-0 deficit in a home and home series, it had never been done in European play and, even with the Gunners' recent form in the Premier League, there was no reason to assume that this would be the first. As an Arsenal fan, all I wanted was a team that came out and cared about giving their fans a good show, giving their supporters a proper send-off as the team was bounced from the tournament. The feelings of fans cannot be paramount in the mind of teams, players and coaches, if only because fans are highly reactionary when they have no true data from which to make decisions. But soccer, like all popular sports, is a spectator sport, which is why teams and players make such a point to do things for the fans, from signing autographs to charity events to one-on-one specialized interactions. For this game it made sense for fans to feel as if they were owed something given how miserable Arsenal played when they were in Milan, prematurely eliminating themselves. Rational fans would have been more than happy if the players showed up to play for them, to give them the great atmosphere the crowd previously hoped to have in this return leg of the elimination round.

As it turned out, the Gunners wanted to do more than just put on a show. In an impressive display of heart and grit, Arsenal came out absolutely flying and was able to put three shots in the back of the net in just the first half. Most of the attack was directed down the right flank as Theo Walcott and Bacary Sanga were going against an untested left back in Djamel Mesbah, but Gervinho still presented himself as a threat down the left flank as well. Either due to injuries or desperation, Arsene Wenger deployed Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain as one of his attacking central midfielders and "The Ox" was up to the task, linking up with other attackers and drawing a penalty kick with a darting run into the box. In general, Arsenal pressed high and hard, moving their entire team forward up the field at break neck pace and playing as a team who had nothing to lose. The strategy caught AC Milan off guard as the Italian side struggled to maintain any possession in the midfield while never adjusting to the high backline Arsenal's fullbacks were playing, resulting in nine offside calls over the course of the match. Going into the break within one goal of drawing even in the tie, the Gunners looked like a team capable of making history.

Unfortunately, the very strategy that put Arsenal so close to their goal in the first half would be their undoing in the second. More than anything, the Gunners tired. The suicidal pace that started the game off would only result in a slow death as time went on. Both Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain were forced off the field due to slight pulls or strains, and the team as a whole was too exhausted to keep Milan on their heels. The saving grace for the Gunners could have been the addition of substitutes that could continue the hard work of the departing attacking players, substitutes that could run at defenders to generate chances as well as keep Milan from settling too much into the match. Unfortunately, the best that Wenger could do was bring Marouane Chamakh and Park Chu-Young off the bench, two unimpressive strikers that had almost no impact on the game whatsoever. This is the woeful injury situation that Arsenal finds themselves in. Aaron Ramsey, Yossi Benayoun, and Mikel Arteta were all inactive for this match, any of which would have been influential subs; Ramsey as a workhorse and ball chaser, Benayoun as a veteran attacker, and Arteta as a midfielder to keep possession and dictate tempo to Milan. Injuries seem to have come at the worse times all year for Arsenal and these may have cost them the miraculous turnaround that seemed so close at times on Tuesday.

While it did hurt somewhat to have the Gunners come so close yet land so far, it's hard to be angry or sad about something we had no right to expect in the first place. Arsenal gave their fans goals, hustle, excitement, and more than a little belief over the course of ninety minutes, which is much more than anyone could have realistically wanted. If anything, it has given Gunners fans more hope for the chances of not only locking down a Champions League spot for next year, but completing a different kind of dramatic comeback by overtaking Spurs for third place. Though this has been an up-and-down year from the get go, we're all looking for a reason to believe in the future. I'm thankful that Arsenal brought that familiar feeling back to London, and anywhere else fans might reside, with their play in this leg of the Champions League match. As Always, Go Gunners.

(no Game Notes this week as this post was largely analysis)

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