As Arsenal threatened to sink without a trace, it was little surprise that this past week has seen more leaks than a patched-up lifeboat emerge from an apparently disgruntled squad. There was the ‘growing resentment’ towards under-performing high earners, the scapegoating of three particular players after defeat to Brighton, and a crisis meeting where tears were shed, answers were sought and lines were drawn.
Arsene Wenger could hardly deny any of the claims himself. “The players are a bit affected by what happens because the players want to win,” he said at his pre-match press conference on Wednesday. “When you have a bad week, players change their mind about their own quality.”
The Frenchman would then choose his public platform to set his squad three simple targets for their game against AC Milan on Thursday: “Focus on defending better, playing quicker and doing more things together.”
Save for a nervous opening ten minutes at the San Siro, Arsenal met each of those modest expectations on Thursday evening. They kept a second clean sheet in 12 games, attacked with pace and purpose and displayed a team unity not seen for some time. The Gunners had lost their last four games in a row, and five of their last seven away; Milan were unbeaten in 13 games, and had won six in succession. Yet the tables were turned in an unexpectedly professional performance.
While Milan suffered a crippling bout of stage fright, this was Arsenal at their pragmatic best. The visitors counter-attacked with scintillating pace and incisive passing, slicing the Italians open at ease in the first half. Mesut Ozil was the conductor, finding Henrikh Mkhitaryan in space for the Armenian to open the scoring, before linking up wonderfully with the excellent Aaron Ramsey on the stroke of half-time. The Welshman deservedly doubled their advantage.
Even the much-maligned Danny Welbeck provided the perfect foil for the Gunners. The striker was a constant menace to a defence that had kept seven clean sheets in eight games, marrying selfless work-rate with erratic touch. It is impossible to predict the actions of a player who never knows his next move himself until it actually happens, and this was one of those rare occasions where that worked almost entirely in his favour.
Absolutely gutted this didn't go in. Would have been a goal to sum up Welbeck's entire career pic.twitter.com/62TMY1JEZ9
— Terje (@ArsenalTerje) March 8, 2018
Behind the front three, Jack Wilshere and even Granit Xhaka were composed and tenacious, an effective screen to the defence and a valuable link to the attack. Neither were brilliant, yet neither truly needed to be.
The third wheel of that midfield was the key to this, one of Arsenal’s best all-round performances of the season. Ramsey was disciplined, timing his runs from deep to perfection and cherishing his reward of time and space. His goal summed him up in a microcosm: the impudent flick to Welbeck, the movement that is so difficult to defend against, the run, the touch, the finish. It was a fine goal.
Amid the chaos of this past week, it was almost forgotten that Arsenal are reportedly considering selling the Welshman this summer. The fear of losing him for free when his deal expires at the end of next season is understandable, particularly with the haphazard way the club has dealt with contracts this season. But they must try their utmost to persuade him to stay instead of looking to cash in. He offers the sort of dynamism that no other player in this squad possesses. And despite having started just 19 games this season, the only current Arsenal player to score more goals is Alexandre Lacazette.
Arsenal will know better than to declare this crisis over. The Gunners have turned enough corners in the past to realise that they could soon be greeted by another locked door. But they must realise the unique talent they have in Ramsey, a game-changer amid a sea of passengers.