Gunners progress on merit as Welbeck and Xhaka rise from the ashes: #AFC3Milan1

It is nice to be sitting in this chair and writing about a 3rd straight win. Even two weeks ago I wouldn’t have backed Arsenal to do something like this, yet here we are, with the Gunners emphatically proving me wrong.

That two of those wins were crucial to our progression in the Europa League, allowing us to have an actual trophy to fight for this season makes it all the more important. With some of the heavyweights knocked out yesterday (I have Lyon and Borussia in mind), our shot at winning the thing doesn’t seem so long either.

Our progression itself was not a foregone conclusion for large parts of the game yesterday. This time around Milan were really up for the challenge, and, despite creating little, suddenly grabbed a lifeline on the half hour when Calhanoglu’s wonder strike found the bottom corner.

That was a wonder strike alright

The penalty incident

However Arsenal responded immediately. Minutes after the freak goal from the Italians, Welbeck was adjudged to have been brought down in the box and the ref pointed to the spot. Danny himself stepped up and, amid my fears Ramsey was a better candidate, send Donnarumma the wrong way.

Now, this particular incident caused a sh*tstorm in the media which I’d like to address. First things first: Welbeck did indeed dive. The funniest thing is I’m not even sure there was contact, it looked like Welbeck was just being his clumsy self by tripping himself over.

It was a dive in intention however, because the Englishman immediately threw up his hands, claiming a foul. While it’s not something I’d like to see at Arsenal, there are a couple of points to be made still:

  1. We are not a team renowned for diving. The last dive of significance I can remember was when Cazorla earned a pen against West Brom, in 2012 (!)
  2. Welbeck is not a player renowned for diving. He is clumsy as hell and has trouble staying on his feet, but I cannot remember a single other occasion where he tried to trick the ref
  3. Some other teams employ diving as a tac, one they use consistently and repeatedly, and they never get as much grief as Arsenal did yesterday

The double standards at play were particularly noticeable to me after Spurs’ last week’s antics in the Champions League. I counted at least 4 dives (3 from Alli and 1 from Trippier), 3 of which got Juve players booked. Here’s a team and a player who use diving to their advantage, who are backed in doing so by their manager, yet all we were reading last week was how Spurs were unlucky to go out.

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So I’m not buying in all the hysteria. Not the least because…

We won on merit

It’s not even up for debate, it’s a fact. While yesterday’s game has a legitimate claim of being pretty even for large parts, the Gunners got all the hard work done at San Siro. We went to Italy, we played Milan off the park, we scored two goals and could have scored more, we conceded none.

Yesterday Milan had one shot on target in the entire first half, Calhanoglu’s strike. Meanwhile we had at least 4, and Milan had Donnaruma to thank for not being behind at the break.

The period where Milan outplayed us happened in the second half, and lasted until our second goal, meaning for 25 minutes. During those 25 Milan had chances and blew those. One goal would have seen them back in the tie. They didn’t score, it’s on them.

And let’s be honest, a 25-minute period when you are outplaying your opponent (already two goals down overall) over 180 minutes shouldn’t be enough for a team, manager, players, press or just about anyone else to say they deserved something. Milan sure as hell didn’t deserve progression at our expense, and they were precious few moments when they were close to it.

Outplayed Milan

Xhaka’s masterclass

The Swiss has been heavily criticised lately, not the least by yours truly. However I have to give him credit where due: yesterday Xhaka was very good indeed.

He was quicker than usual to track back, he won a couple of headers and made some important blocks as a result, his switching of play has been excellent at times, and he capped it all with a goal. Somewhat lucky, this goal was more a Donnarumma blunder, but it takes little away from the intention and execution. The low drive was so ferocious the keeper was unable to parry it away despite getting both hands on it.

Without Coquelin to content the central midfield spot, and with Wilshere needed elsewhere at a time when Iwobi is so dire, Xhaka’s place in the team is under no real threat. Even when it was, Wenger consistently picked the Swiss, for better or for worse. However the recent signs of improvement from Xhaka are encouraging nonetheless.

One game, or even a couple of games, is not enough to say with any finality Granit has turned a corner, and he’s been legitimately dreadful for far too long to become a revisionist on the basis thereof, but I sure hope Xhaka will go from strength to strength.

Xhaka buries Milan

Koscielny limps off

This season our de-facto captain seems to have declined. On top of an abysmal run of form, his health seems to have deteriorated. The Frenchman, while not yet in the “unreliable” category, is definitely heading there.

And look, I don’t mean to be overly critical. I love Koscielny to bits, he is the best centre-back we’ve had for a long time and he is a model professional. But age appears to be taking its toll, and that’s completely normal.

Wenger was quick to allay fears over Laurent’s long-term health, saying the knock on the back was not serious, but our French manager would be wise to plan for future a bit anyway, even if he himself won’t be part of it.

To his credit, I think that’s exactly what he’s doing. Chambers and Holding have become almost regulars recently, while Mertesacker, due to retire after this campaign, has all but disappeared from the face of the Earth. Both our Englishmen looked impressive lately too, Chambers yesterday being a case in point.

I do hope they are given more minutes this campaign even if Koscielny recovers quickly. Something tells me the Frenchman will have to contend with a place on the bench next season.

It appears Koscielny’s time as a regular may be drawing to a close

The last word

Yesterday’s win takes us into the quarter-finals of a European competition for the first time in a bazillion years. Think last time we progressed to this stage was a win over Porto in Champions League in 2010, complete with a Nicklas Bendtner masterclass.

This gives the squad an incentive to fight further, while hopefully maintaining form in the league. Injuries during the international break notwithstanding (fingers crossed there are none), we should have a healthy squad for the run-in. Currently it’s missing only Lacazette.

So here’s to some rest and recovery among those who stay with Arsenal, and minimal problems for those called up to their national squads, like Jack Wilshere and Danny Welbeck.

And I’ll be back with you for our next game.

Until then

P.S. I was wrong to doubt Welbeck in the preview – the Englishman stepped up when we needed him, and notched a brace. Kudos to him.

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