It was billed as the top Europa League fixture of the round of 16; Milan vs. Arsenal. A mouthwatering clash for neutrals and supporters, it was not only these teams were giants in stature but the contrast in terms of their bosses provided further colour.
The Gunners have the veteran Arsène Wenger at the helm, a man who had guided his side into the Champions League group stages for 17 consecutive seasons before a fifth-place finish in the Premier League in 2016/17 ended that impressive run.
Gennaro Gattuso, who has been nicknamed a little dog, was in the Milan side that knocked Wenger’s Arsenal out of the Champions League back in 2012.
Fast forward six years and the rookie boss of I Rossoneri – Gattuso was promoted from youth team coach to replace Vincenzo Montella in November – had not only steadied the ship but set them on course to challenge for the Champions League places in Serie A.
They had been on an excellent run of form, going 13 games unbeaten in all competitions from December 23, until Milan faced the Gunners last week at San Siro.
“I heard a lot of bar talk about our physical shape against Arsenal, but we simply got the wrong attitude,” said Gattuso after a domestic win over Genoa last weekend.
“We had prepared a different approach, but got the first half completely wrong and left far too many spaces. Arsenal have the quality to put the ball where they want if you give them that time and space.”
Whether it was tactical naivety from the Milan boss in the face of experience from Wenger or a failure of the players to carry out his instructions, it was certainly true Milan got everything wrong in the opening 45 minutes.
Mesut Özil and Mkhitaryan bossed the wide areas – the pair created two chances apiece – while the latter completed more take-ons (five from nine attempted) than any other player.
The Armenian was also better in attacking third passes, as 21 from 26 attempts found a teammate. Ozil was closely behind with 19 successful from 24 passes in the Milan defensive third.
Wenger was also intelligent to flood the right flank, which was guarded by 21-year-old Davide Calabria. The youngster endured a difficult evening and was dribbled past twice in the game, a far greater figure than the 0.7 occasions per 90 in Serie A.
It was patently obvious Calabria needed help in the right-back position, but none of his team-mates stepped. He was exposed.
Winger Suso could’ve dropped back from his right wing position but the ex-Liverpool man appeared content to stay upfield, perhaps on instruction on his coach.
Franck Kessié was deployed on the right hand side of midfield and the 21-year-old already possesses considerable strength for his age. He could have provided much-needed muscle to halt the free-flowing Arsenal attacks, yet he remained in his central position. They were tactical mistakes from Gattuso and his players.
“Regarding our physical condition, I have no doubts,” the Ivorian midfielder told Premium Sport after the match.
“We were all ready for this type of game, but there was a lack of experience.
“This Milan are very young, we have only two or three players who are used to these types of games and I think that was why we lost. Now that we know what we’re dealing with, we’re ready to give everything next Thursday.”
What happens on Thursday evening will be the biggest test yet for Gattuso and his squad of players. The tie may not be over but Milan simply must learn their lessons from what went wrong in the first leg.
This means the squad must be ready to be flexible and help each other in key areas, even if it means pulling away from their allocated position. Gattuso must relay that message; players have to make decisions for the benefit of their side.
There is no doubt Gattuso will have his squad fired up and ready for the trip to the Emirates, the question mark remains, however, over whether he will be able to outthink wily old fox Wenger in terms of tactics in order to achieve the necessary result.