Arsenal FC: 10 Keys for UEFA Champions League Progress
To put it bluntly, Arsenal could hardly have received a tougher draw after winning their group. Of the eight group runners-up, AC Milan will provide probably the strongest test.
But it's not all bad. Arsenal did defeat AC Milan—then the defending European champions—in a two-legged knockout tie in 2008.
Arsenal are currently in crisis and AC Milan will be tough opponents, but beating the Italian giants is possible.
Here are 10 keys for the Gunners' potential progress.
Leave Arshavin at Home
Andrey Arshavin is done. He can no longer play at the highest level. He should be sold immediately, and if he can't be sold, he shouldn't feature in a big game under any circumstances.
Arshavin was never a great defender to begin with, but Sunday's loss to Manchester United—in which Arshavin's defensive frailties gave United the win—proved, again, that Arshavin's liabilities now outweigh his positives. He simply can't be trusted on defense, and his once-great offensive skills no longer make up for it.
Wenger's error against Manchester United—and it was an error, despite his protests—was bad enough. Playing Arshavin in another big match this season would needlessly put his club at a disadvantage.
And Pick Oxlade-Chamberlain Instead
Instead of sniping at journalists, Wenger should focus on the silver lining of the Arshavin debacle.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain played well in his first league start, capping a strong display with an assist of Robin van Persie's equalizer.
What's more, his strong play is becoming a trend.
Even more importantly, Oxlade-Chamberlain contributes both offensively and defensively.
There's a simple solution to the Arshavin mess, and it's staring Wenger in the eye: Drop Arshavin and play Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Stay on the Attack
Those defensive frailties will make maintaining possession imperative for Arsenal against AC Milan. To avoid another meltdown, Arsenal must maximize possession and keep the flow of play at Milan's end.
Playing defensively and waiting for a counterattacking opportunity—even in an away match, when it makes the most sense—might actually hurt Arsenal's chances in Italy.
Which brings us to the next point…
Control the Midfield
Arsenal felt Mikel Arteta's absence Sunday against Manchester United. Besides being a capable distributor, Arteta allows fellow central midfielder Alex Song more freedom to join the attack.
Arteta's presence in the midfield has been crucial to Arsenal this season, and it potentially will be against AC Milan as well. Milan's midfield has changed since Arsenal's 2008 victory in the San Siro—as has Arsenal's—but the Rossoneri still feature a strong midsection.
Wenger might do well to study Manchester United's tactics in a 4-0 romp over AC Milan two years ago. That day, Sir Alex Ferguson used his wingers aggressively, pressing Milan's full-backs while employing a tightly packed, three-man central midfield to combat Milan's core.
As Zonal Marking wrote (emphasis in the original):
Milan’s full-backs struggled to get forward (Ignazio Abate had slightly more joy, since Nani is a poorer player defensively than Antonio Valencia) but it was all too static from Milan – they played in front of United, and didn’t look to play triangles to bypass the midfield.
It's impossible to say whether Milan would try a similar strategy against Arsenal. Too many variables are at play, including a different manager and situation. But pressing Milan's full-backs with wingers could be good strategy again.
And it would fold nicely into the strategy we suggested in point No. 2: Always stay on the attack.
For that strategy to work, Arsenal would need strong performances from both wingers. Assuming Oxlade-Chamberlain starts on one side (hardly a given), Wenger would probably choose Theo Walcott for the other.
The problem with Walcott, though, is that he's been decidedly average for much of the season. It happened again Sunday against Manchester United.
Walcott has tallied three goals and six assists so far this season in the Premier League. In Europe he's been slightly more efficient with two goals and one assist in six matches.
Arsenal will need Walcott to play his best against AC Milan, even if Wenger opts for a vastly different strategy than the one we've proposed.
Perhaps the single biggest problem in Arsenal's troubled season has been a lack of match-fit full-backs.
At the time of this writing, Arsenal's official injury list contained four specialist full-backs in Bacary Sagna (pictured), Kieran Gibbs, Andre Santos and Carl Jenkinson. Center-back Thomas Vermaelen, who has filled in (mostly unsuccessfully) at full-back, was also there.
Vermaelen and Johan Djourou, another stand-in full-back, haven't proven themselves as viable options at full-back. Vermaelen works best in the middle with Koscielny or Mertesacker. Djourou should be a reserve at best.
Arsenal need healthy full-backs, not just for defending but for the sake of the team's attacking shape. Sagna and Gibbs could return in time for the match in Milan. If they're fully match-fit, they would give Arsenal a major boost.
Jack Wilshere has not kicked a ball for Arsenal this season, unless you count the preseason Emirates Cup.
Arsenal have clearly missed his creative edge. Wilshere, the reigning PFA Young Player of the Year, could slot into the team in place of the overworked Aaron Ramsey and give Robin van Persie a break from all the attention he receives from opposing defenses.
That is, of course, if Wilshere is fit in time.
Capitalize on Mistakes
AC Milan largely outplayed Inter in the recent Milan derby, only to concede the decisive goal after a defensive error.
A similar situation could arise in this two-legged tie. If so, Arsenal must capitalize.
Don't Lose the First Leg
Playing the first match on the road in a two-legged tie is supposed to be an advantage. In this situation, it feels more like a disadvantage for Arsenal.
Considering the pressure Wenger and the entire team currently find themselves under, a loss at the San Siro might prove fatal. The pressure would then continue to mount before the return leg in London.
That's why Arsenal can't lose the first leg. The Gunners need a draw—or, at the very least, score an away goal in a loss.
Robin van Persie
Robin van Persie must be considered the key man for Arsenal in every match this season.
In this season, Arsenal need van Persie to be at his best every moment of every game. As improbable as it sounds, he's come remarkably close.