So Arsenal made it to the last eight in the UEFA league by eliminating the Rossineri. It was an interesting game to watch, with both positives and negatives. I think it emphasised again that winning a game often relies on three things: focus, quality and luck. Arsenal had all three and that is why we came out as winners once again, even though we were flattered by the final score. Milan played well, especially in the second half, but lacked the composure, quality and bounce of the ball to hurt us when they had created good opportunities against us. We hit the target much more than Milan from our shots on goal, and sooner or later those will go in, and they did.
Eight observations from two legs v Milan:
- Xhaka playing deeper with defensive discipline is giving us a better balance. We have too many midfielders who want to go and make things happen. On Thursday we played Rambo, Mkhi, Jack, Xhaka and Mesut. They all are able and passionate to play attacking midfield play. We love them for it, but we also need balance. Our defenders need protecting and we need order and structure in our play. A defensive-minded midfielder with ideally some added attacking skills, is much needed. Xhaka is a great midfielder but – and many people forget this – he is still relatively young at 25. His best years are still to come and if he can develop further his defensive positioning and interceptions, we may get the balance right in midfield. I definitely saw a much improved defensive improvement from him against Milan on Thursday. He is unlikely going to be a classical DM but a modern one is in the making, I reckon.
- Mkhi is at least as influential as Sanchez and is probably an improvement to the overall team. Our new signing does not give the ball away needlessly and helps out the team defensively at least as much as the Chilean firecracker did. He could probably do with a bit more intensity in one to ones for the ball against opponents, but other than that I feel we got a gem of a player. There is something Pires-like about Mkhi: calm, mature, team-player, technically very good and just pure quality when on the pitch. We just love watching him play the beautiful game. He has hit the ground running in terms of goals and assists at Arsenal, whereas Sanchez, in that sorry looking shirt with the tacky golden cross on it, has been a disappointment at the Mancs until now. Player-swap of the decade?
- Ospina seems ready to take over from Cech next season. Our reserve goalkeeper is showing real signs of maturity: good decision-making, strong personality in the box and a fantastic balance between calm and extrovert interceptions and leadership. I am also happy with Cech playing another season, but reckon that Ospina should get a chance to start PL games. His lack of height is compensated by his catlike responsiveness, and I love his ability to come out and smother danger around the box area. This sort of goalkeeper may suit better the likes of Koz and Mustafi going forward.
- We are lucky to have Elneny, a multi-functional and talented midfielder, in the squad. I like our Egyptian multi-tasker a hell of a lot. He is a great athlete, anticipates very well, protects the ball excellently in tight spaces, and is an accurate passer with also an eye for a quality through-ball. I reckon he will be ready to replace Rambo if he were to move on. I would probably start him in games but can also see his value as a supersub: he can play anywhere and adds quality to our play as soon as he crosses the side-line. Elneny is also just 25 years old and surely more is still to come. A Xhaka-Elneny double DM-pivot could well be the future.
- Jack is playing more conservative since the arrival of Mkhitaryan. It seems that Jack is losing out between the creative powerhouses in the team. During the last 15 minutes against Milan when both Ozil and Mkhi had been substituted, he played his best football of all his time in both the legs; all of a sudden he was dominant and incisive again. A more conservative and subdued playing Jack is not necessarily a bad thing – and he still added a lot of value during the first and second leg – but the question remains whether he can reach his full potential at Arsenal with both Mkhi and Ozil on new contracts (and Rambo possibly getting one as well). My money is on Jack leaving this summer (which would be very, very sad).
- Are we back to four at the back? I certainly hope so, and it should allow us to gently play into the first squad either, or even both, of Chambers and Holding. We need height in central defence as both Mustafi and Koz lack it and have to work far too hard to compensate for it. They are making costly aerial mistakes regularly and it makes our defensive play both chaotic and nervy at times. We need to have a Tony Adams or, ideally, a Sol Campbell in the team. I like the look of Holding but he is probably still too young and inexperienced to build a defence around him. The good thing is Wenger can give him a number of PL and UEFA-cup games and see whether he makes the step up. If not, a CB-Beast should be purchased in the summer.
- One or two quality full/wing backs should be on this summer’s shopping list. Bellerin seems to be stagnating and Kola has not impressed me much since he joined us. Both are young and can still come good but can we afford to wait and wait for this? In modern football the ball ends up a lot with the full/wings backs when we attack (that is where the much loved space is). It only makes sense to have the backs playing high up the pitch if they actually possess good attacking skills. We need them to make incisive runs and also be able to beat one or two players like a classical winger; and we also need their final ball to be very good. Bellerin and Kolasinac have their moments but I reckon we need much more from those positions if we want to get to the next level. For this, we will need to shop. Alternatively, we can go back to 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1 and play with far more conservative full backs: a key decision to be made this summer, I reckon.
- The biggest question for the remainder of the season is: can we actually win the UEFA-Cup? We will have to play better than we did against Milan, that’s for sure. Welbeck has done okay but I am hoping that Lacazette will be fully fit when we play CSKA Moscow next: we need more sharpness up-front and that is what Laca offers over Welbeck all day long – and in terms of workload they match each other. We also need to defend better and not allow opponents so much time on the ball in our own half: the midfield will have to work really hard to prevent the large number of opportunities we gave away to Milan, going forward. Better teams will kill us off if we do this in the next round(s). Our defence also has to be calmer and more organised, and that is a big job if you ask me. Moscow will be a hard nut to crack and we will need a faultless first leg at the home of football. The second leg will be a tough one but if we play well (with focus, quality and have a bit of luck) we should make it to the last four. There are some very strong teams left in the UEFA league and it will be very tough to make it to the final and then win it. I know that this would give us a ticket to the CL but for me this is just a nice extra; winning the cup would do the players a world of good and it would be a nice piece of silverware to have in the HoF cupboard. It should also give us the confidence and impetus to make a much stronger fist at the league title in 2018-2019. To answer my own question: we have a chance but we will have to step it up one or two more times.