In the week where Arsenal play the best team in Europe, let’s look back at perhaps their greatest ever European result: Becoming the first English side to beat Inter Milan at the San Siro, and, even more impressively, winning 5-1.
Inter Milan ended up finishing 4th, but they had been unbeaten following the appointment of Alberto Zaccharoni, and had crushed Arsenal 3-0 at Highbury on Match Day 1. They had played on the counter attack then, and as Thierry Henry said in his post match interview, Arsenal wanted to play on the counter against Inter on this occasion.
Arsenal lined up in their traditional 4-4-2, with Robert Pires cutting in more from the left hand side than Freddie Ljungberg did; with Theirry Henry playing exclusively on the left when Arsenal didn’t have the ball, there was no need for Pires to maraud up and down the left hand side, and with Ashley Cole going forward to provide width, Pires could get in to the box and join the front two. With the match being played in Italy, Dennis Bergkamp was unavailable, Kanu played up front, while Ray Parlour and Edu played as the central midfield pairing. For Inter, they set up in a 3-4-3, with Javier Zanetti and Jeremie Brechet playing as wing backs. With Cristiano Zanetti and Sabri Lamouchi in the midfield it was a quite functional midfield, lacking a number 10.
The game started off slowly and was very scrappy. A pitch that had been rained on for 3 days had cut up in the centre of the midfield, and Arsenal’s passing game in the middle wasn’t as good as it normally was, and wasn’t as good as it is today. The midfield was hampered by the loss of Patrick Vieira to injury, and without his influence, Arsenal’s play was more often directed to the width. The passing was very quick, with one touches adding to the pace of the counter attack, unlike today’s Arsenal where the build up is more deliberate. Inter Milan, without a playmaker, were very functional, and there play often consisted of long balls for the front men, Christian Vieri, Obafemi Martins and Andy van der Meyde. Early Martins had success running at balls over the top that were aimed at Pascal Cygan, and his pace caused Cygan and Cole problems throughout the whole match. Because of Martins threat, Cole didn’t get as forward as often, and Arsenal’s play was more focused on the right hand side, where Kolo Toure got forward often. Toure often didn’t have a direct opponent, with van der Meyde preferring to cut in on his right foot. When Cole did get forward, he made a brilliant partnership with Pires and Henry for the first goal. Zanetti on the right was overwhelmed by Pires, Cole and Henry all on the left, and he was prevented getting forward by those 3, leading to Inter not having width until Martins got involved.
The Inter goal was incredibly lucky, and although it deterred Arsenal until the end of the first half, they came out strong in the second. Just 3 minutes into the half saw Henry attacking down the left again, after a poor touch from Vieri under pressure gave the ball away. Ljungberg had taken up a central role, and was unmarked and tapped in when Henry squared. 2-1 to Arsenal, and they could sit deeper and hit Inter on the counter attack. Sitting deeper suited Pascal Cygan and Sol Campbell, neither of whom are blessed with pace, and Inter didn’t threaten Arsenal too often. Arsenal did threaten Inter on the counter, and a superb solo run from Henry following a corner saw the third and sealing goal. 2 more goals were added, but they were the result of bad defending more than anything else as Inter couldn’t deal with the pace of Arsenal’s attack, and being down 3-1, left the back 3 exposed.
Inter Milan lost the game because they couldn’t deal with Thierry Henry and Arsenal’s left hand side. When Ashley Cole came forward, Javier Zanetti faced a 3 v 1 situation, and it’s no surprise that out of Arsenal’s 5 goals, the first 3 came from the left hand side. The decision to play 3-4-3, then, was a mistake, and played right into Arsenal’s hands as they could dominate the game with their wide players, Pires and Ljungberg, and Henry, who drifted to the left. Inter’s midfield was too functional to break down the Arsenal defence once it was 2-1, and Arsenal were very comfortable at 2-1 before Henry sealed the game with his second.