Arsenal Vs AC Milan: Highlights and analysis – Backs-against-the-wall brilliance

MILAN, ITALY - MARCH 08: Henrikh Mkhitaryan of Arsenal celebrates with team-mates after scoring during the UEFA Europa League Round of 16 match between AC Milan and Arsenal at the San Siro on March 8, 2018 in Milan, Italy. (Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)
MILAN, ITALY - MARCH 08: Henrikh Mkhitaryan of Arsenal celebrates with team-mates after scoring during the UEFA Europa League Round of 16 match between AC Milan and Arsenal at the San Siro on March 8, 2018 in Milan, Italy. (Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images) /

Arsenal faced AC Milan in the first leg of their Europa League last-16 tie on Thursday night. Here is the full recap, all the highlights and analysis of the 2-0 win.

This is why I hate Arsenal football club. After four abject losses that have led to Arsene Wenger facing a mire of critique and abuse, they go and put in this type of performance. I guess we should have all seen it coming. Arsenal carved AC Milan open to the tune of a 2-0 win, playing some lovely, counter-attacking football, especially in the first half, before remaining disciplined and secure after the break. So, it truly would be Arsenal if they went and screwed the pooch in the second leg. But we’ll get there in due course.

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The opening few stanzas of play were odd. After 15 minutes, it was fair to say that Arsenal started fairly positively. They played the ball neatly through midfield, even created a couple of opportunities, and still could have conceded three goals and a penalty. I guess that is the perfect picture of this football club at this point in time.

Milan piled on the pressure in the opening few minutes with a series of corners and crosses flashing across the Arsenal goal area. Hakan Calhanoglu was very nearly felled by David Ospina — had the attacking midfielder been a little more devious and forced the contact, he would have undoubtedly been awarded the penalty. Patrick Cutrone also poked a shot into the side netting after Calum Chambers lost possession with a wayward pass.

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At the other end, though, Arsenal did enjoy openings. Danny Welbeck should have done better with a pass into his feet, just before Henrikh Mkhitaryan, after some lovely play between Mesut Ozil and Jack Wilshere, pulled his shot past the near post. And those openings resulted in the first goal.

It was Granit Xhaka who initiated the move, spraying a long pass out to Sead Kolasinac. That put Arsenal into the AC Milan territory, and after Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere worked to win the ball back, Mesut Ozil smartly found Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who chopped inside onto his right foot and lashed a shot towards the goal. Fortunately for the Gunners, it looped up and over Gigio Donnarumma, after deflecting off Leonardo Bonucci, giving them the all-important away goal.

That set the tone. From the moment the ball rippled the back of the net, you could see the heads of the Arsenal players stand, the chests puff out, the shoulders rise out of their slouch. And it seeped into every essence of the Gunners’ play. Their passing was precise, fizzed from one to the other, at a tempo and attacking intention that has been missing for many weeks. They worked hard off the ball, communicating clearly, remaining disciplined and in the defensive shape of the collective. They chose their moments to surge forward, darting through the Milan lines with pace and power.

The second goal came on the stroke of half-time — it was the fourth minute of added time in which they beat Gigio Donnarumma for the second time. Arsenal played the ball forward into Aaron Ramsey, the eventual goal scorer. His flick, via Danny Welbeck, made its way to Mesut Ozil who sliced open the Milan defence with a lovely pass into Ramsey, who rounded the goalkeeper and rolled the ball into the gaping net. Wonderful.

Arsenal did have other chances throughout the half. Henrikh Mkhitaryan hit the crossbar after some brilliant work by Danny Welbeck, whose athleticism in leading the line caused Milan problems. Calum Chambers forced a good save from Donnarumma, angling his strike from the edge of the penalty area towards the near post, while Welbeck forced the young shot-stopper into action only moments later after a bursting break down the left wing involving Mkhitaryan ended in a far-post, open-bodied curling effort on the goal.

The second half was a much tighter affair. Milan began to enjoy a greater control in midfield, with the Arsenal intensity slipping a little, and several crosses into the box did cause issues. Giacomo Bonaventura fired over from the penalty spot after a low cross by Davide Calabria, while Laurent Koscielny had to poke away from Frank Kessie at the back post.

Arsenal still tried to threaten on the break, but the same cutting edge of the first half had subsided for a slightly slower, more ponderous approach. Danny Welbeck did nearly add a third after he galloped onto Kessie’s sliced clearance, only for a flying Gigio Donnarumma to brilliantly deny him, but chances other than that were difficult to engineer.

As the game progressed, Milan gradually turned up the pressure on their visitors. Primarily through a wide and aerial attack, AC bombarded the Arsenal penalty area with cross after cross, hoping to engineer a chink in the Gunners’ blockade. There were openings: Laurent Koscielny made a super block from Kessie; Suso shanked an excellent opportunity out for a throw-in after Ainsley Maitland-Niles, who had been introduced for the injured Sead Kolasinac; Rob Holding, in his first touch of the game, threw himself into a block; David Ospina slid at the feet of Nikola Kalinic as the Millan striker attempted to scamper onto Andre Silva’s through pass.

Wenger was clearly happy to take the 2-0 win and the clean sheet. It was Mesut Ozil who subsided for Holding, while Mohamed Elneny was brought on on the opposite flank as Calum Chambers had to withdraw with a knock. There were periods of smart, conservative possession from the Gunners, just allowing the clock to run down, showing surprising acumen as they looked to manage a game in which they had full control of. That control never weakened.

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This was not the perfect performance. Milan did create chances that, perhaps on another night, they might have taken. But given the fragility of the dressing room, the toxicity surrounding the club, and the form of the opposition, this was one of the best displays of the season from Arsenal. It certainly does not right the many wrongs of the recent weeks, but it was nonetheless most welcome.