5 key things Arsenal need to know about Milan before their Europa League clash
Arsenal vs Milan has a Champions League ring to it, yet the two teams are set to meet in the Europa League round of 16. The upcoming clash of sleeping giants is a reminder of how far both have fallen in recent years.
However, the two-legged affair also represents an opportunity for the Italian side to prove a point after a mini-revival in recent months. Led by former player turned manager Gennaro Gattuso, they represent a serious threat to the Gunners’ continental ambitions. This is why.
1. Gattuso is not to be underestimated
After a deeply underwhelming start to the 2017-18 campaign prompted Vincenzo Montella’s dismissal, Gattuso’s appointment as Milan boss was initially derided. Previously, his best work on the touchline came in the Italian third tier with Pisa, while his prior career as a bruising midfield ball-winner didn’t hint at a future as a tactician.
His response to the criticism was strong. “It’s ridiculous to me that all we ever talk about is my grit,” he barked at the press. “They didn’t just give me my licence, I studied to get it.” Those words have since been emphatically backed up.
One of Gattuso’s first priorities was to establish a clear tactical identity. He did that by dropping the 3-5-2 that Montella had unsuccessfully toyed with, implementing a 4-3-3 system in its stead. Crucially, the new shape has gotten the best out of Milan’s creative players, enabling Suso, Giacomo Bonaventura and Hakan Calhanoglu to play together behind a lone frontman.
Having sorted out the basics on the pitch, Gattuso went about forging a real togetherness off it. That team spirit is seen after every victory, with players taking it in turns to hug him, jump on him or playfully hit the back of his head. Such post-match celebrations are now common, with the Rossoneri unbeaten in 13 games.
2. Bonucci leads a strong defence
Milan’s long undefeated streak has led them to a Coppa Italia final (against Juventus in May), while also inching the club closer to a top-four Serie A spot which means qualification for next season’s Champions League. This dramatic upturn in form would not have been possible without an increasingly sound defensive line.
The arrival of Leonardo Bonucci last summer was seen as a statement of intent. Not only had Milan signed the world’s best centre-back, but they had snared him from reigning champions and rivals Juventus. However, at first the 30-year-old, who was installed as club captain, struggled to get to grips with his new surroundings.
Unfortunately for Arsenal’s forwards, Gattuso’s appointment and the reintroduction of a back four has seen the central defensive colossus find his best form once again, establishing a solid partnership with Alessio Romagnoli in the process. The duo, along with a more cohesive pressing game in front of them, have helped Milan to an incredible seven clean sheets in their last eight games. During that run some of Italy’s finest attacking sides, including Roma, Lazio and Sampdoria, have been repelled.
3. Fear the Liverpool reject
Over the last two years, Suso has gone from squad filler to star attacker at Milan. After a positive six-month loan spell with Genoa, the Spanish midfielder returned to score seven goals and set up a further nine for the Rossoneri last season. And, while Montella struggled to fit him into a variety of systems earlier this term, the Suso has thrived back on the right wing under Gattuso.
Given the consistently high quality of the 24-year-old’s performances, it’s amazing that Liverpool allowed him to leave for around £1m in January 2015. Perhaps realising the gravity of this error, the Reds are rumoured to be keen on bringing him back to Anfield. A couple of good performances against Arsenal will only fuel such speculation.
Suso is a winger in a purely nominal sense. He loves to drift infield, and is at his best when occupying the inside channel. From there, he tantalises defenders by threatening to cut inside onto his favoured left foot, which often leads to dangerous shooting and crossing opportunities. Alternately, he can use this threat to wrongfoot his marker, instead turning back onto his right and driving into the penalty box.
Arsenal are not known for being defensively compact, but they must pay close attention to Suso. Allowing him time and space could spell the end of their Europa League campaign.