Arsenal 3 – 3 RSC Anderlecht
1 – 0 Arteta (24 pen)
2 – 0 Sanchez (29)
3 – 0 Oxlade-Chamberlain (58)
3 – 1 Vanden Borre (61)
3 – 2 Vanden Borre (73 pen)
3 – 3 Mitrovic (90)
When the manager condemns the defensive performance, you know that it was appalling. There’s no other way to describe it.
It would be easy to launch into vitriol and hysterical criticism of the players and managers but I am genuinely not surprised that a three-goal lead was let slip. Not for one minute am I suggesting that I possess a messianic foresight. I’m just not surprised by it.
And nor before you ask, was I expecting it.
Consecutive clean sheets were hailed as the defence putting their woes behind them. Ordinarily, it would be a long time before any such claims were made again but this is football and hyperbole is the mortar that holds the bricks of the game together; those claims will be repeated again in the near future when circumstances suit. Will this result be forgotten at that time? It seems so but it shouldn’t be.
As easy as it would be to lump the final thirty minutes in with those defeats from last season, to me they are very different to the point where they hold little relevance. There is some, of course, the susceptibility of the back four to pressure is still there but last night was different. It came from an attacking naïvety that suggests a squad which is still not confident in itself. Three up in a game where they had not been in complete control encouraged the players into an attacking frolic, one where the sense of defensive duty was lost.
It never returned either. Whilst there may well be claims for offside as Vanden Borre turned the ball in, the folly became apparent when possession was ceded to the Belgians so readily afterwards. Penalising Monreal for the penalty was no surprise, it was soft and typical of those awarded in European football. As soon as the Spaniard afforded Mitrovic close attention, there was a sense of inevitability that Arsenal were playing the footballing equivalent of Russian Roulette. A player of Monreal’s experience would know the likelihood of the decision going against him in those circumstances.
Twenty minutes to go and the three goal lead was reduced to one. Where was the leadership to steady the team? Trying to contain the pain of a twanged hamstring. Flamini is no Arteta which begs the question, what is he beyond a finger-pointing shouting man? All action was not what Arsenal needed in the centre but calmness, pulling the players together into a solid defensive shape. That leadership might have come from the centre of defence but the gap between Mertesacker and midfield was too much to bridge. It was inviting for the visitors though and they refused to decline the open invitation to attack it.
There were positives as well, scoring three goals is never negative and despite not getting on the scoresheet, I felt Danny Welbeck had a good game, working hard for the team and creating space for the likes of Alexis Sanchez to exploit. And at this point we all hail the Chilean for without his mesmeric feet and footballing brain, we would be condemned to be nothing more than distinctly ordinary. It was another night when he dragged the team kicking and screaming into attacking mode. He can’t do everything and Arsène needs to find someone who is as motivated, defensively.
The strangest of nights unfurled with Anderlecht probably wondering how they were three down with an hour played. We presume Arsenal swept them aside but like a heavyweight title fight, the favourite traded opening jabs before landing a telling blow. The penalty was, like so many in football, stupid to concede; had Welbeck gathered the ball without impediment, it is not difficult to envisage him being shepherded away from goal. Mbemba, caught up in the action, could not view the situation in such a calculating fashion and got his sums wrong. Arteta’s penalty was impishly buried.
Sanchez’s volley was ruthless and the sign of a man who believes he can do anything. If the set piece itself was disappointingly limp – you’ve set high standards, Alexis – the subsequent despatch was the polar opposite. The mercurial Chilean is the man of the moment and were the individual awards for a season dolled out now, he would win them all. Two up, get ready to engage cruise control. Oxlade-Chamberlain’s goal as the hour was the sound of the gears crunching into place.
The catalyst came with Arteta’s departure. It’s a condemnation of the squad that we rely so much upon the Spaniard as he enters the twilight of his career. Not in terms of ability but attitude. How can they not retain focus on the job in hand. With a three-goal advantage, keeping your shape is a matter of concentration. It’s the same at 3 – 1 and letting slip to 3 – 2 it definitely becomes the central plank to seeing out the game.
Statistics are much-loved these days and many will point out that we weren’t so bad going forward. With 65% possession, I should hope not. As much as focus is on the defence – quite rightly so – the attack is offering glimpses of concern. A third of the efforts on goal were on target. It isn’t a particularly high percentage and not unique to this performance with similar numbers in the weekend’s win over Burnley. The conversion rate is high, fifty per cent, but a hint of confidence not quite being what it should be throughout the team?
That will be the biggest issue for Wenger this week. Confidence will have taken a battering. He and the coaching staff will work on the defensive shape and (hopefully) be brutal in pointing out the weaknesses exposed last night. We can’t change personnel now, January is two months away and despite the temptation to rush Laurent Koscielny back, we were not that convincing as he played through pain before. The longer-term good for the player and team are one in that respect.
Wenger might tweak the team to move Chambers centrally, perhaps that will curb his attacking instinct. That was exuberance and last night may well have been the lesson in curbing that. It’s a costly one though.
Despite this result, Arsenal remain masters of their own destiny in the pursuit of qualification from the group stage. A point from their remaining games will be enough to see them through. They could get by without any if Anderlecht and Galatasaray draw when the meet in the next round of matches. Whatever the case, the list of opponents we might meet in the Round of Sixteen is short; Porto and Leverkusen are two you would expect Arsenal to beat over two legs.
God knows why. It’s down to arrogance the way this season has panned out. We can beat anyone on the day but those days where we turn up are few and far between. I read that we have won in Madrid, Milan and Turin. Indeed, with more balanced sides. We are unbeaten in the last two trips to Munich as well. A pity the ties were dead by then.
But that’s in February. Before then, Arsène will have bought the midfield and defensive cover we crave. Just have to hope that this mad half an hour proves to be an aberration rather than the norm until then.