Jon Mackenzie - Emirates Stadium
There comes a point in all of our lives where we move from thinking our parents are semi-deities to recognising them to be as flawed as we ourselves intrinsically feel.
For most of us, this is a gradual occurrence that takes place one-drink-too-many at a time, or in the moments at which everything becomes all too much to maintain the illusion and the mask slips, the pedestal wobbles.
For others of us, the process is somewhat more accelerated as we find ourselves driving down the M62 with Jamie Carragher’s DNA slowly dripping down our faces and our father uploading the video to the Mirror.
For those of us who grew up watching football in the mid-nineties, the visit of AC Milan to the Emirates Stadium in the Round of 16 of the Europa League represents a parallel loss of innocence. The grandees of European football—those clubs that oversaw the geneses of Paulo Maldini, Dennis Bergkamp, Clarence Seedorf, Thierry Henry, Gennaro Gattuso—reduced to scrabbling about in the grubby detritus of a second-tier European competition.
Of course, such a view is patronising. But it is as hard to entirely eradicate the vestigial remains of the ideas about football that you developed in your youth as it is to shake off the illusion that your parents represent seeming perfection during the preliminary years of your life.
Decline and fall
Gattuso himself has been there to chart the decline and fall of AC Milan. Arriving at the club as its manager after the insalubrious tenure of Vincenzo Montella ended in November of last year.
When his first game in charge resulted in solidly-bottom club Benevento winning their first point after an injury-time winner scored by the goalkeeper, it seemed portentous of a continuation of the slump that had begun under Montella.
However, four months later and the Rossoneri find their house in much better order. Coming into this Europa League tie on the back of a 13 match unbeaten run, it was they rather than their opponents who were favourites to progress. With a game in to be played against their cross-city rivals, Milan could go into the final straight of Serie A a mere three points off the Champions League spots.
Arsenal, on the other hand, had just lost four games in four—a turn of events that is almost unprecedented during Arsene Wenger’s time at the club. Now two of these losses did come to one of the best teams that the Premier League has experienced in its not insignificant history—Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City—but the other two—at home to Svenska Cupen holders Ostersunds FK and away at Brighton—give something of an indication of how far Arsenal’s star has fallen in recent times.
When Arsenal ran out 2-0 winners on that chilly winter’s night in Milan, then, the narratives had to be stood on their heads. This was supposed to be two teams who would gaily wave at one another as they headed in opposite directions but, in a strange twist of fate, both teams had taken wrong turns and found themselves heading back from their original destinations.
A tightly-poised encounter
Which brings us to the Emirates. With the prevailing narratives lying crumpled in the waste paper bins of the San Siro press boxes, new questions were raised: How would Gattuso approach the game, his team having more pressing matters to contend with in the league? How would Wenger proceed, his team now only fighting on a Europa League front, the last remaining bastion of Champions League football for the North London club?
If the first thirty-five minutes were anything to go by, the answer to these questions was: cautiously. The Italian knew that, were his team to concede first, he would be faced with a three-goal mountain to climb. His opponent in the Arsenal dugout knew that, were his side to concede first, then the same old demons that had haunted his side in past European ties might rear their ugly heads again.
Within 45 seconds, the Frenchman might have been fearing the worst when Andre Silva found the ball at his feet and managed to miss the target in a scenario where that looked to be the more difficult option. However, the game soon settled down: Milan ceding a lot of space in the midfield areas in order to sit slightly deeper and look to hit Arsenal on the break, particularly through Suso, their mercurial wide player on the right of a somewhat asymmetric 4-3-3 (or was that a 4-4-2?).
At the thirty-five-minute mark, though, the game crackled into life. Seemingly out of nowhere, Hakan Calhanoglu fired a shot away from outside the box which took the most delicious of deflections off Granit Xhaka and flew past David Ospina into the bottom right corner of the net. Gattuso, it seemed, had played things right.
But football, as we well know, is not all about playing things right. Within five minutes, the best laid plans of Rino and Milan had joined the earlier narratives in the waste paper baskets of history. Danny Welbeck, running onto a cute through ball from Henrikh Mkhitaryan and feeling the most fleeting of contacts, threw himself floorwards with all the grace that only an Englishman can muster.
No one in the ground was under any illusion as to the real nature of the situation. Except, that is, for Jonas Eriksson and his additional assistant referee. He pointed to the spot momentarily. In unison, eleven Milan fingers returned the favour. There was nothing doing, though. The penalty remained.
For a man who had gone to the floor with all the refinement of Eddie the Eagle in Calgary 1988, Welbeck stepped up and slotted the penalty with remarkable aplomb, sending Gianluigi Donnarumma the wrong way and putting the scores level. From innocence to experience in a mere 60 seconds.
The upper hand
From this point onwards, Arsenal had the upper hand. With Milan now needing to score two, they had to push. And push they did, their front three of Andre Silva, Patrick Cutrone and Suso all vying to make an inroad into the Arsenal box.
But there was a certain ungainliness to it all. This was not the 4-3-3 that had graced the pitches of Serie A in recent weeks. This was a 4-3-3 with Lucas Biglia and Giacomo Bonaventura on the bench. With Fabio Borini at right back. And now with its back to the wall.
The chances came, of course. Most notably, Cutrone found himself in front of the goal with the ball at his feet on a number of occasions but the goal failed to yield itself. Having sat back for long stretches in the first half, Gattuso pushed his team forwards, rallying his troops like Napoleon on steroids. Suso, too, had a chance to score but pulled it wide. Silva was brought down in the Arsenal box. To no avail.
Their opposition, though, continued to chip away. Mkhitaryan came close just after the half and Welbeck, for all his eager galumphing, proved remarkably effective as a hold-up striker. When the goal did come, it was from none of these attempts at productivity, though: Granit Xhaka had had enough. Picking up the ball in the middle he found space, the ball, his cultured left foot, and decided to introduce all three.
The result was less aesthetic than the ingredients promised. Donnarumma dived in the Milan goal, comfortably got to the ball, but only managed to palm the ball under his body so that it crept inside the opposite post. There was a god, it seemed, and it hated Milan.
The tie over, Arsenal wandered into the next round. Welbeck iced the cake with a finish that completed the trinity of poor goals for his side. Aaron Ramsey had got his head to a Jack Wilshere cross, booming it at the hapless Donnarumma who could only palm it up into the air. Welbeck, like a shadow of Olivier Giroud before him, found himself in the right place at the right time and nodded it in. Three-one. Game over. Tie over. Quarterfinals reached.
Never such innocence
There comes a point in all of our lives where we move from thinking our parents are semi-deities to recognising them to be as flawed as we ourselves intrinsically feel. But even once this point is reached, our parents can surprise us.
Arsenal football club, the gift that we are led to believe keeps on giving, can sometimes offer something altogether surprising. Never such innocence again, of course. But as Arsene Wenger marches on in the Europa League, the glimpses of a more unsullied time break through.