Disciplined, composed and exciting to watch on the counter attack, Arsenal’s performance against AC Milan was long overdue.
The Gunners showed in Italy that manager Arsene Wenger certainly has not lost the dressing room after a dismal few weeks which have included defeats to Ostersunds FK, Manchester City – twice – and Brighton. And at the centre of everything positive for Arsenal was Mesut Ozil, who reminded the watching public why he remains the best ‘No.10’ and playmaker in world football.
Arsenal were particularly adept at controlling the space given to them in the centre of the pitch by Milan throughout the first half. Gino Gattuso was his usual emotional self on the touchline, kicking every ball for his team – and the manager certainly wouldn’t have allowed such a low intensity performance in midfield if he was still playing for the Serie A giants.
Thirteen games unbeaten Milan may have been, but it was Arsenal who grew in confidence as the game went on thanks to Ozil’s delightful ball into the path of Henrikh Mkhitaryan. The Armenia international ensured it did not go to waste, maintaining his fine Europa League goalscoring record with a little help from a Leonardo Bonucci deflection.
There should have been a mismatch where confidence was concerned between these two sides, yet it was Arsenal who increased the scoreline further when Ozil threaded a perfectly weighted though ball into the path of Aaron Ramsey, who in turn rounded Gianluigi Donarumma to take a two-goal lead back to the Emirates Stadium.
Ozil’s exuberance on the pitch is always better placed when the players around him fulfil their tactical duties. Amid whistles from the 70,000 plus Milan fans inside San Siro, an inspired Arsenal side showed that if they put in disciplined performances with full concentration then Ozil will quite simply do the rest.
He is a player capable of magical moments in big games, and performances such as these only help the club defend making him their highest paid player after he signed a contract extension at the end of January.
“I always want to control the game, give assists and help my team,” Ozil told Goal in an interview last season.
“It was like that with me from the start [of my career]. In my position you have many possibilities playing forward: You can demand the balls, make telling passes or score yourself. I feel the most comfortable playing as a number 10 because I’ve done it since I was young.”
Nutmeg balls through defenders’ legs coupled with the unique ability to pick out any player with a pass which others don’t see, Ozil’s display encapsulated how much of a difference 45 minutes can make in football.
The former Real Madrid man has now been directly involved in 100 goals in all competitions for Arsenal (37 goals and 63 assists), emphasising just how key he will be to the rest of the club’s Europa League campaign – a trophy which, if won, could salvage Arsenal’s season and potentially even justify Wenger’s decision to remain in the dugout when others – whether rightly or wrongly – would have walked away.
Wenger has in the past been criticised for being too quick to bow to Ozil’s needs, with even those inside his own dressing room concerned at the special treatment the Germany international has received. But if Ozil can continue to pull the strings in this manner for the remainder of Wenger’s time in charge those decisions will be seen as clever man-management on the veteran coach’s part.
In the meantime it is up to the rest of the Arsenal team to understand their roles and commit to them with an intensity that has been lacking in recent weeks. The supporters will rightly ask where this performance has come from, why it has not been seen previously and how is it possible for a team to lose against relegation-threatened Brighton and win at San Siro four days later.
The scrutiny on the Arsenal team and pressure to fight for their manager clearly made a difference in the biggest game of the Gunners’ season so far – and their talismanic playmaker was unsurprisingly at the heart of it.