Europa League: Arsenal's bouncebackability being tested under Arsene Wenger
In sharp contrast, Thursday night's opponents AC Milan have rediscovered their zing since the appointment of Gennaro Gattuso
Six years ago this week, AC Milan and Arsenal shared an epic Uefa Champions League tie, concentrating brilliance, bravery and heartbreak into an edge-of-the-seat night at Emirates Stadium in London.
Arsenal lost even as manager Arsene Wenger gained applause and, not for the first time, respect for the way in which setback had been absorbed and answered with resilience.
The tie, a last-16 meeting in the Champions League – the competition that used be the assumed habitat of the two clubs who meet in the Europa League at San Siro on Thursday night – had shown modern Arsenal in their purest Jekyll and Hyde expression.
Brittle one match, bullish the next.
They had lost the first leg 4-0 to a Milan whose mavericks toyed with Wenger’s team. Robinho scored twice, an ebullient Kevin-Prince Boateng another and Zlatan Ibrahimovic finished the rout. “The worst night I have had in Europe as a manager,” Wenger said afterwards.
When his Arsenal had then scored three times before half time in the return leg, he wondered if one of his very best might follow quickly. Milan finished relieved, going through 4-3.
From the perspective of sixth in the Premier League, out of the FA Cup at the earliest possible stage, and recently dismantled in the League Cup final, the see-saw defeat to Milan six Marches ago looks like a high.
If half of it really did feel like the lowest point in the long and distinguished career of Wenger in Europe, where he has the distinction of having been a losing finalist in all three of the competitions he has been involved in – Champions League, Uefa Cup and Cup-Winners Cup – then he was tempting fate.
His more recent spring maulings by Bayern Munich – two 5-1s, home and away, last year – have marked new lows. This is not simply because of the emphatic defeats, but because Arsenal were unlike the Arsenal who could usually be relied to at least make their exits at the last-16 stage of European competition vaguely defiant.
Wenger’s Arsenal are losing that knack: the skill of stemming a crisis before it turns into an avalanche. The club are a long way from the force they were in the first decade of his 21 years in charge, and the frustration among a segment of the support base with Wenger’s work is a constant hum.
But the last month has taken the club to a significant trough.
“Look at my record with Arsenal,” Wenger is fond of saying. “You will find we do not lose three matches in a row.”
He is right, such sequences are rare. Much rarer the run of form Arsenal carry to the Stadio Meazza on Thursday night: They lost at home to Ostersunds two weeks ago, albeit in the second leg of a Europa League tie they held a winning first-leg lead in.
Then they lost a cup final heavily to Manchester City, the first of two 3-0 defeats in London in the space of five days to the Premier League leaders. The booing among the away supporters, much of directed at Wenger, grew louder at Brighton, where Arsenal then lost their fourth match on the trot on Sunday.
Wenger will appeal to the "character" of his players to arrest that slide on Thursday night. He will do so in his measured manner and perhaps recall Arsenal heroics of the past in San Siro, the highlights including a 2-0 win there against Milan 10 years ago this week, in the Champions League, and, still more spectacular, a 5-1 away dismantling of Inter Milan in 2003.
Arsene Wenger 'amazed' at all the speculation over his future as Arsenal manager
Meanwhile, his opposite number has already made his appeal to the character of Milan.
Gennaro Gattuso, appointed manager in December, has overseen Milan’s longest run of games without defeat for nine years – 13 and counting – guided Milan to the Coppa Italia final and returned them to contention for a Champions league place next year.
Gattuso looked an unlikely saviour. His bank of credit as a former Milan player, loved for his pugnacity, is replete. But his managerial record with lesser clubs is often brief and patchy. Yet his coaxing of enhanced levels of performance from individuals and an organised approach to tight contests have impressed.
And he is recognisably Gattuso.
“Sometimes we have to be ugly,” he said ahead of Arsenal’s arrival, “ugly like me, with a beard, and dark bags under my eyes.”
Right now, Gattuso’s zeal looks a better formula for raising a fallen giant than Wenger’s Zen.
Updated: March 7, 2018 02:57 PM