Arsenal's encouraging win in Milan shows there is still a road to salvation
Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in. Arsenal have a habit of desperately grasping at redemption and pulling it tightly to their chest, and Thursday was no different as they ended a horrendous run of form with an excellent 2-0 win away at AC Milan, which should, barring a disaster, propel them into the quarterfinals of the Europa League.
The story of the past five seasons has been one of consistent disappointment in the Premier League punctuated, and to some extent alleviated, by cup competence. The only difference this season being that salvation will have to come in the form of a European trophy rather than the FA Cup, which has sustained Arsene Wenger in three of the past four campaigns.
It is still an intimidating task with Atletico Madrid lurking in the draw, along with a host of second-tier European sides who could all pose problems, but Arsenal are second favourites now to win the trophy after a San Siro performance which looked remarkably competent.
It was almost unsettling, watching Arsenal put together some pleasing moves, defend stoutly, or just about stoutly enough, and play with purpose and urgency. A marked difference to the past month and a vivid contrast to the string of insipid performances which have seen Arsenal contrive to win only three matches in 17 away from home all season in England.
It was, as Jack Wilshere said, a template for how to approach the remainder of the season -- or the European part of it at least. "We have to use this win, use it as sort of target. We've got to reach these levels every week," Wilshere said. "It's been a while."
It has. So long in fact that Arsenal's league campaign has basically been rendered redundant by their desperately poor form and now all that really matters is trying to win the Europa League. Reaching that level every week, Wilshere's stated aim, is not really essential any more. Doing so on Thursday nights is.
So what were the particular features of this template which Arsenal now need to follow? The first, sadly, may be unrepeatable. As much as Arsenal deserve credit for their performance, we cannot ignore just how bad AC Milan were. Much had been made of their recent upturn in form under Gennaro Gatuso but they firmly "did an Arsenal" on the night. Arsenal took advantage but not all future opponents will be so compliant.
Perhaps the biggest pointer for Arsenal was the performance of the midfield. Grant Xhaka has looked completely lost as a sole holding midfielder but he benefited from having a disciplined Aaron Ramsey alongside him, while Jack Wilshere pushed on purposefully in a midfield three. It was a far more impressive unit than the central two in a 3-4-3 allows and Ramsey felt he had enough cover to saunter forward to score the second.
The formation also worked in attack where Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Mesut Ozil both enjoyed impressive performances as wide forwards. The former scored the opener and hit the bar, while the latter collected both assists. Arsenal cannot play Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in Europe as he is cup-tied but the hard work of stand-in Danny Welbeck allowed the two more delicate playmakers to thrive.
Aubameyang is hardly likely to be sacrificed in the league after costing a club-record fee in January but he could do worse than watch Welbeck's performance and take down a few notes. So too Alexandre Lacazette, who is likely to return from his knee injury at the start of April and will probably supplant Welbeck in the starting XI, if Arsenal are still alive in Europe at that point.
Continental success is now the only priority and it is encouraging that a second-leg blowout against Ostersunds aside, Arsenal have looked quite at home in the Europa League. That may change as the standard gets more taxing but for now it serves as the bright light in an otherwise dark season. And if lessons are learned from the Milan victory, and new templates followed, then it could keep Arsenal afloat for a few more weeks yet.
Tom is one of ESPN FC's Arsenal bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @tomEurosport