Warning: Arsenal aren’t quite through to the next round

I know that I’m supposed to start blog posts with an anecdote or wax lyric about some lyrics. That’s the convention. So, here’s my opening metaphor: I made lemon curd this morning while listening to the Guardian Football Weekly podcast.

The lemon curd turned out great. The recipe I used was from Bon Appetit and it’s just the right amount of citrus to sugar. It’s also a simple recipe to make, you just kind of put everything in a pan, set the pan on medium and cook it till it’s thick. I like simple. I added an extra step, I strained the curd while it was still warm. And now I have a pot of lemon curd, perfect for mixing into the lemon mousse I’m making tonight.

I’ve made lemon curd dozens of times and I don’t always get the balance right. Too much lemon, too much sugar, sometimes it even curdles. And I’m sure that me even telling you about my lemon curd recipe will now elicit responses about what I could have done differently. Cool. Cool.

The Guardian podcast, on the other hand, didn’t turn out great. See, they had to talk about football and when they have to talk about football, and not whether Indiana Jones is a good movie, they struggle. But what was most hilarious was how they were (I believe) unanimously despondent about Spurs losing to Juventus.

They had to spend time asking the big questions: are Spurs as good as we think, and is Pochettino as good as we think. It was funny to listen to them struggle only to conclude that Spurs are fun to watch, that they were kinda robbed, and that Pochettino is promising jam tomorrow.

It could just be that there are suddenly a few little cracks in the Tottenham facade of greatness. After all, they have won precisely zero trophies in 10 years.

I’m a Gooner, they would say, a bitter Gooner and wave away my criticism. Fair enough, I have done my fair share of research on Arsenal in the early days and I can report that the press were equally glowing about Arsene Wenger – how little he spent, how Arsenal were underdogs, how he revolutionized training – up until about 2010. But then Arsene Wenger won three doubles in that time and deserved praise.

There is a marked difference, though, between the way that Wenger’s project youth – with Cesc at the helm – and stadium building project was written about and the way that Spurs are being written about now. Virtually no one is criticizing Spurs and yet that period of Arsenal’s history is called “the Banter era”.

Metaphors and complaints about media coverage aren’t why I’m here. I’m here to ask the question that’s on everyone’s lips after Arsenal beat AC Milan 2-0 away: how come they don’t do that all the time?

The first answer is that they sort of do. Up until December, Arsenal only had five losses including a draw against Chelsea and a 2-0 win over Tottenham in the “North London Power Shift Bowl”. But then things started to fall apart and I suspect that player angst was at the heart of it all.

Arsenal had that fantastic match against Man U, where we really stripped that United team bare, only to lose 3-1. After that, the team looked in shock. The next 9 matches, Arsenal won 4 and drew 5. Then there was the loss to Nottingham Forest. After that match, Arsenal won 4, lost 8, and drew just once.

So, what happened all the sudden at the San Siro for Arsenal to put in a performance and get a 2-0 win? That was Arsenal’s first win in 4 matches, since beating Ostersunds 3-0. Perhaps the dressing room clear outs and team meetings with the tears and gnashing of the teeth have finally made the players realize that this is the manager they have for the rest of the season and they might as well put in performances.

But I’m much more cautious. I don’t think we have “turned a corner” with this team yet and even if Arsenal win this weekend I don’t think we can confidently say that this is a new and revitalized Arsenal team. Against Milan, Arsenal did something we’ve seen them do a number of times over the last few years: they played one good half of football.

Arsenal scored a goal off a piece of individual skill – Mkhitaryan’s opener – and then played on the counter. Arsenal created several great chances against Milan late in that first half, all in the span of about 10 minutes before half-time. Arsenal scored a second off a great late run by Ramsey and went into the locker room with a 2-0 lead.

Why I’m cautious here is because the problem is that in the second half, Arsenal didn’t create anything for themselves. Two total shots, both from distance, both after the 90th minute. Even if you’re just a counter attacking team, you should create something in 45 minutes. That’s worrying because AC Milan stifled Arsenal with their midfield duo and I wonder if Gattuso (who, like all Italian managers can and does change tactics to try to win games) saw something in the first half, changed his system, and made a real go of the second half?

That second half also had me worried because Arsenal didn’t really play proactive defense. We weren’t trying to win the ball back and when we did have the ball, they snaffled it back up. That’s why we didn’t create anything in the second half.

I am also worried that Gattuso decided to pressure the Arsenal defenders, and especially Arsenal’s fullbacks, and there wasn’t any help for them as an outlet. Because of that pressure, Ainsley Maitland-Niles had three unsuccessful touches, all in his own final 1/3 (yeah, I know “because he’s s**t” which is the criticism he seems to get now). But Chambers (who I guess is also “s**t”) had two turnovers and made an error. Meanwhile, Bellerin (who I have been informed on a daily basis is absolutely “s**t”) is out injured and Kolasinac (who is a steaming pile of “s**t”) was replaced in this match because he was injured. I guess all the Arsenal fullbacks are just awful.

It’s telling that Gattuso was asked about Arsenal’s formation and he was almost dismissive – saying that we always line up the same way. It’s also telling that he saw weakness in the Arsenal fullbacks, or their cover, and exploited that in the second half.

While I’m one of the first to laugh at Spurs getting beaten by Juventus, we would do well to remember that this tie is far from done and dusted. Gattuso will remember the lessons this match taught him and come back looking for revenge. The next match, all the pressure will be on Arsenal.

And yes, I mean both Watford and AC Milan.



  1. Question: Does Welbeck’s hilarious shooting attempt at the end where he only managed to kick up the grass actually count as a shot?

    Agreed we need to be on our toes for the next leg. We can’t do what we did at home vs. Ostersund. We had some brilliant counter attacking moves yesterday (you called it) and we would be wise to do the same and focus on keeping our shape. The question is can we build on our defensive performance from yesterday? I thought Chambers, Mustafi and Koscielny all had good games but our CMs protected them well . Xhaka, in particular, looked very comfortable with the pace of the game and was reading the danger quite well. Perhaps his game is more suited for Italy than it is for the premier league.

    Also I don’t know where this complaint against AMN yesterday is coming from. I thought that was the best 20 minutes I’ve seen from him in an Arsenal shirt and I’m not even a complete believer in him like some gooners already are.

  2. I love the new fonts makes my old phone look good visually. Glad we two goal up cos I know we can eff it up only that it will take some time now. The guys put in a shift but still look scared ish. Hope lacca can make it for the second leg cuz Danny’s body is too strong to make the ball stick a little too him as every ball seems to bounce off him.
    I got to say that we still don’t know how to defend as a unit will never improve until we get a proper dm who can teach our wingers(whatever Bellerin) is or when monny comes back. Good game. At least we know we get a goal at the EMs but lookingout how much we gonna concede. And may I say that Ospina should be number 1. He’s a lot safer.

  3. I’m glad you wrote this. After yesterday I found myself saying “yeah, but we’re vulnerable at home, it ain’t over” and then wondering if that’s just my problem? Am I too negative now about Arsenal? Can I not enjoy a ray of sunshine through the clouds? Why am I still pessimistic about our chances?

    Can you imagine the scale of the disaster now if we fail to go through because we lost at home being 2 – nil up in aggregate?

    That said, it would be completely Arsenal to go down 2-0 next game and then score late to win the tie 3-2. Then there will be talk of our “mental strength” and “fortitude” and “fighting spirit”.

    What to make of Xhaka telling Wenger to f**k off after a wild shot. That is not OK with me, despite my opinion of Wenger at the moment. He has to be benched to re-assert some discipline and respect.

    1. Had the same experience watching the game, Jack. Can’t I just savor a win? But I couldn’t help thinking how it would all have been different if Milan score on that cross in the 3rd minute or so. I just have to remind myself that’s football. They miss a shot, we get a goal off deflection and the whole dynamic shifts.
      The Wenger saga is I think what bothers us most. It’s that subconscious black cloud that hovers over us all, spoiling every match. Wondering if he’ll finally go this summer. Hating myself for thinking that every loss gets us closer to his departure, yet wanting so desperately to see a good performance by the boys. It’s the constant drama of this team that’s maddening, and sadly, also keeps us devoted.

  4. I thought the full backs played blinders.
    Chambers solid (when on his feet) and Kolasinac Hulk-like in defence and great offensively. And ANM showed calm, speed and skill when he was on, which was all the more impressive after his short lived Ostersund midfield outing and the admonishment that followed.
    The only gripe I had was with JW, who gave up possession too often.
    But everyone else gave a good, and long overdue, account of themselves.
    Let’s hope it continues …but that it still provides a (better and more fitting) backdrop to an eventual resignation at the end of the season.

  5. I did not see the game, but had commentary in the background at work. My concern would be that it sounded lIke AC Milan let our players have space. If Gattuso figures out to close down our players quicker ( like most Premiership teams have done), and play with a high press, then we will be in trouble. I am happy for the win, but it’s only one game. Remember how fans felt after the Everton win? So I am very cautious.
    Question. If, by some miracle, Wenger manages to pull it off and win this competition, should he still go in the summer? Baring in mind we are 33 points off Man. City at the moment.

  6. Mate great writing/analysis but why do we slate the team when they lose a game that doesn’t matter and still go through (Ostensund) but when they win a game that does matter, no praise just caution/fear..I say give the team and Manager credit and praise for 2-0 away to AC – this is a great result for ANY team. Sometimes people just need to hear they did a good job. Also I think we created nothing because we were 2-0, it is about controlling the game. NB City lost second leg to Basel and rightly no one said anything because they got through and we’re in 1st gear. This leg was about controlling the tie.

    1. Excellent point about City’s loss. Not a near disaster, since they are running away with the league. Still, I watched Milan and couldn’t help but think, “No wonder they are in 7th place.” Guess I’m a Champions League snob. The EL seems like very little consolation. Watching our once-great club beat another once-great club just doesn’t feel like much of an accomplishment. It just reinforces how far we have fallen.

  7. So right, Tim. This ain’t over yet. I was so utterly unimpressed with Milan. Didn’t see any quality finishers at all. And they play with a pace our backline can handle. Zero speed. I remember several times where we were very vulnerable and thinking, “That’s a goal in PL.” But Milan couldn’t finish. I think they’ll come to the Emirates and press hard. Xhaka seemed to have space and time to play, and I doubt he’ll get it in the second leg.
    And as much as I poke fun at Welbeck, his pace and energy gave Milan problems. He had a delicious pass that Miki should have converted. But the finishing was woeful when it wasn’t comical.

  8. It was two doubles, not three; three PL titles. And the reason there are higher expectations for Arsenal is that they are a bigger club, history and resources wise. See, Spurs only one two titles ever. That’s the same number as George Graham alone won as Arsenal manager. Though I can see how it’s hard to maintain a proper sense of historical perspective if you’ve only supported Arsenal since ca. 2008.

  9. AMN was incredible when he came on (apparently without a warm up!). Late on, Milan looked to Suso for some magic but AMN put him in clamps and shut him down. You’ve noted his errors, but what stats don’t tell you is how a player affects the game. Instead of trying to get to the byline, AMN frustrated Milan most dangerous player into taking shots that went out for throw-ins.

    Before AMN came on, we saw the Bundesliga Team of the Season version of Kolasinac. Both him and Chambers did a good job marshalling the half-spaces and combining in wide positions where teams usually trap us with ferocious pressing. Milan weren’t able to do that, but they’ll learn from their mistakes and we should be wary about the 2nd leg.

    Milan were disappointing overall but I liked some of what Franck Kessie did. Very technical for a big man, clever passer of the ball, able to run through our midfield at will, and absolutely brutal in challenges. Him and Biglia racked up a ridiculous number of tackles. We had to pull out some serious Wengerball to get past them.

    Suspect the home game’s gonna be just as much fun to watch.

  10. 538 had us at 60% to progress before the game. I had us at 40%. They have us at 93% now. I’d say we’re around 75%.

    I’d say we all know Arsenal inside out. We know how shit we are, how we have the propensity to fuck it all up. I think the unknown here is Milan. We saw how they aren’t the team they used to be, but it may take another round of this for us Arsenal fans to actually believe it.

    They’re a big name, but at no point were they ever a favorite win the whole thing.

    A slight tangent, but Milan offers an interesting case study/cautionary tale. They were in the 2005 CL final, beaten by Pool. We were in the 2006 final. Both clubs have fallen, but one has fallen far lower than the other. It could be worse – and it may yet get worse for us.

  11. I try very hard not to think about the next game after an unexpected win because if I know anything about this club it’s that we know nothing about how or even if, we’ll turn up for the next match.

    That in itself is damning but it should be beyond obvious.

    Some have commented that AC Milan were poor on the night but we’ve lost to teams who have played badly plenty of times, unable to take advantage of opposition inferiority on the pitch. This season.

    This mercurial quality that we have is to me, most characteristic of the late Wenger period and it won’t go away until the manager does. Players’ attitudes seem disrespectful. Did Xhaka really tell Wenger to f&^k off? That man, despite all my many complaints, deserves much, much more than from his players.

    Can you imagine a United player saying that to Fergie back in the day? The repercussions would be instant and unpleasant and absolutely correct.

    I have no idea if we’ve sorted ourselves out with this much needed win but it was a pleasure to watch an ARSENAL performance. That lobbed pass from Ozil to Mkhitaryan was alone worth the price of admission.

    If nothing else, at least I am looking forward to watching, rather avoiding our next couple of matches. Fingers crossed that we don’t spoil the curd.

    1. He said “Common!” I think
      That was one of those moments of the game that I actually took notice and was expecting to see a lot of speculations about it
      It was absolutely silly decision to give the position away with that clueless shot while had many options around him to pass the ball and keep the ball away from our half. So you put that beside the comments n knowledge on how much Arsene Wenger hates shooting from distance while I was shouting at the monitor myself I kind of waiting for Arsene to shout as well!!
      But Xhaka’s reaction was like:
      Common!! We worked our a** off in this game and we are beating AC Milan 2 nil at San Siro and now your shouting at me because one mistake?!

  12. Tim, i think the media coverage about Wenger personally might have been as you say, but it wasn’t quite like it about Arsenal. From being soft for not liking having their legs broken, to talk of trophy droughts (the term first used in 2007), and the demand to spend some money ( I think this picked up steam later but started before 2010)

    I’m not sure why Spurs are media and ref darlings. maybe just because they’re not Arsenal? Could it be just that? but hopefully the tide is turning a bit as you say.

    On the game, I don’t think Milan are a great pressing side. They can do it against inferior oppponents, and they started off on the front foot with us and caught us a bit cold. But I think they backed off because we were able to play through them. They weren’t getting the expected reward for the physical effort.

    You are right that we invited pressure in the second half and were too passive. I don’t blame the team for wanting to hold on to a good result. Their confidence has taken a knock. It’s to be expected. Of course we’re not through yet but just because it might all go wrong tomorrow is no reason to not enjoy today.

  13. Hey y’all,

    If anyone happens to read this, and apropos of Tim mentioning the Guardian podcast, do any of you have recommendations for podcasts? Doesn’t have to sports related. I’m running out of podcasts to keep me entertained during workouts. I like true crime, cultural history, philosophy, and sports, of course. I’m kind of done with TAL.


    1. I like Audioboom’s “Mafia” podcast, currently only 5 weekly episodes old, if that’s up your street. Sadly that’s currently the only non-soccer podcast I listen to.

    2. Timesuck is good, will entertain and scratch an oddball history itch. I love Very Bad Wizards-irreverent and informative, hosted by a professor of philosophy and psychology. I also really like Waking Up with Sam Harris. Finally, if you’re a real historophile, Hardcore History is excellent.

    3. Thanks, chums! Those are good recommendations, and I hadn’t heard of many of them, so very helpful.

      I haven’t listened to Serial since the first season. Is it still any good? Started Hardcore History the other day, and really enjoying it so far.

      I also like:

      Someone Knows Something (first and second seasons are the best).
      In Our Time (BBC)
      Casefile: True Crime (you actually start to get addicted to the monotonous Aussie)
      Criminal (very hit and miss)

    4. I’ve heard good things about Generation Why.
      Think it’s a true crime podcast as well.

  14. There does seem to be an element, even amongst some arsenal fans, to look with longing appreciation over at what spurs are doing, even though we’ve done what they’re doing right now countless times over the last decade or so to far less acclaim, and much criticism, from even our own fans.

    I know people might say you can’t compare spurs to arsenal financially (while constantly comparing arsenal to city financially) but I think that it’s easy to admire them precisely because we don’t follow them.

    We can ignore that they’ve won nothing in a decade (despite the good football in the last few years). We can ignore that they bottled a great chance to advance in the champions league and we can ignore that, just like us, they threw away their best chance to win the league a few years ago when they imploded on the home stretch.

    They’ve a good manager, and they’re in the best form they’ve been in in years, they’ve some great players, but as we’re often told ourselves, good football is no substitute for winning trophies, and they’ve still won nothing with all their great football.

    It’s easy to admire them because we don’t have to care if they actually ‘win’ anything. It’s easy to talk about how great they are, but they’re still 18 points behind city and in the famous ‘fourth place trophy’ position that we all love so much when it’s us that’s there 🙂

  15. The Dortmund connection gets it done.
    I like Welbeck on the left in a more defensive role.

    1. I don’t like Welbeck anywhere on the field if it was up to me. The top line on his job description reads “striker.” And he’s terrible at it. It’s like praising Tom Brady for being able to run a little. Welbeck is 27, and isn’t going to learn to be a striker this late.

      There’s hope for Iwobi, though, and I honestly can’t see what he brings to the table these days. His pressing is woeful; consisting of running half arsedly in the general direction of the person nearest to him with the ball. Matter of fact, all our pressing looks perfunctory.

      All that said, satisfying win and Im going to savour it. Enjoyed the miss by Troy “Cojones” Deeney the most.

      1. Do you think there’s another area of the pitch where Welbeck’s strengths could be better utilized?

      2. Not sure if I follow the Brady analogy but regardless of Welbeck’s official position, the wider role seems be better suited for his limited skills.

  16. Agree.
    Can’t understand for the life of me why there’s even talk of offering him a new contract.
    If I saw Welbeck for the first time with a ball a this feet wearing a track suit, I would probably think he was a 100 meters hurdler who’s just goofing around.

    1. Not true, he’s no Usain Bolt or Chad Ochocinco, athletes from another walk who think they can just play footie because they’re lean and fast. Danny has the technical skills and the mental side, he grafts and hustles like few other strikers and generally understands how to press defenders and how to make effective runs. Defenders hate him when he’s on point because he can spin them just as easily as he can out-muscle them. He gave Chelsea fits in the cup final last year. But he just doesn’t score. He’s the inverse PEA. To me he’s the ideal wide forward in a big away match: he’s capable of controlling the opposition fullback in both phases and provides an outlet for counters without getting swallowed up by bigger defenders like Lacazette sometimes did. Then, you can sub him off for someone more offensively potent after everyone gets tired.

      Worst case, the opposition scores anyway, but at least Danny will play his part to make sure the damage isn’t worse. Best case. you score despite his offensive woes and he helps you control the game even more. Now, I think most of you would say I am overstating this aspect of his game, and I would agree with you but only because he plays for Arsenal. At Arsenal the rest of the team usually (Cup final again the exception) doesn’t play defense well enough to make this kind of defensive forward play valuable but a different kind of coach would be able to use his talents to far greater effect. Just not a goal scoring effect.

  17. MOTM: Cech. That PK save on Deeney was the moment of the match. Gave Deeney nothing to crow about. Karmic retribution in all it’s glory. That save kept our mojo flowing. That save said to Watford, not today son, not on my patch, not on my watch and take your shriveled cojones with you in a doggy bag.

    1. Yeah you have to give to Cech after the penalty save and for reaching the 200 clean sheet mark.

  18. Was anybody else impressed with Elneny ? I thought he had his best game yet for Arsenal in a box to box role. He only slowed a little in the last quarter which was to be expected considering the milage he must have put in. My MOTM without doubt.

    1. I would pick Mkhitaryan as MOTM because of his defensive contribution on top of the assist and the goal, but I agree, Elneny was very good especially in his movement forward.

    2. I was stunned by some of Mo’s passing in that game. Didn’t think he had that in him.

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