Anderlecht 1 – 2 Arsenal
1 – 0 Najar (71)
1 – 1 Gibbs (89)
1 – 2 Podolski (90+1)
You knew it was coming. Not the equaliser or Podolski’s winner, both of them were unexpected. No, using The Great Escape as this morning’s lead photo; it’s the only appropriate image. Nothing cryptic, a Ronseal choice. Arsenal were lucky and nicked three points from a performance that barely deserved one. Another Great Escape, two in two games.
I could have chosen a picture of Steve McQueen but the escape of Pleasence and Garner seems more apposite for Arsenal. Full of good intentions but a bit scrappy along he way.
Victory leaves Arsenal on the cusp of their traditional Round of Sixteen exit, an eventuality that will be sealed if they and Dortmund win the return fixtures in a fortnight’s time. Unlike the Italian national team whose habit of playing badly and qualifying from the group stage of tournaments we are emulating, Arsenal are unlikely to get better as they progress. Mainly because if they put in such an uninspired performance in the first leg of the next round, a good side will batter them. Another tradition to keep up, I suppose.
It’s a results game, baby.
Indeed it is. A win and an unlikely one at that. When interviewees mention fight and spirit in the first sentence of their first reply, you know the players know they got away with it. Even Arsène reflected that not conceding a second goal as the clock ran down, was the pivotal point of the game. It could so easily have happened; it should have happened as Anderlecht exposed Arsenal’s frailties for all to see.
With five minutes to go, I would have taken the point that the night began with and called it a good result. Not because Anderlecht are a frighteningly good side but Arsenal were so poor, so utterly one – dimensional as to defy belief.
Belief, now there’s a word. You cannot fault the side for their spirit but how long before that builds into performances? Winning late as in last night’s game or avoiding defeat in a similar manner is not the basis upon which to build a season. Winning ugly is something good teams have to do but on a regular basis, like being in transition all of the time, is not a temporary state of affairs.
Arsenal were devoid of ideas and despite the inclusion of Sanchez and Cazorla, lacked natural width to stretch the game, in no small part due to the ponderous nature of the passing. Exploiting Alexis Sanchez’s pace is a good attacking tactic but one that needs faster movement of the ball to him. After the weekend, Arsenal were in no mood to be adventurous and leave themselves vulnerable to the counter-attack. It manifested in Wilshere and Ramsey playing like strangers, suppressed attacking directness neutered their effectiveness.
And if you stifle the midfield, you stifle the attack. Welbeck, starved of service, was unsurprisingly substituted as Arsenal chased the game; it wasn’t proof why United let him go. By that time Najar had headed Anderlecht into the lead and stood on the cusp of a second. Martinez had little to do all night, surprising since Arsenal’s defending was at best, ramshackle.
Persisting with Monreal in the centre is seeking a triumph of belief over reality. The Spaniard may be experienced as a full back but is more callow than Chambers centrally. It showed in his unnecessary yellow card after nine minutes. If inexperience us Monreal’s excuse, I am not sure what Mertesacker’s is. He seems to be missing a specialist defensive partner more than anything and like his colleagues, unsure of who is supposed to be marking whom. Certainly no one picked up Najar to stop him leaping highest.
But in the end, it went alright on the night. The Arsenal bar rattled and thankfully Mario Suarez does not possess Luis’ class of finishing otherwise the damage would have been irretrievable. Chambers and Gibbs may have endured a torrid night defensively but when they combined in attack, it was to devastating effect. The finish makes you wonder why Gibbs doesn’t advance more often; the cross made you wonder if Gibbs was the intended target and if so, why can’t we produce more of those from either flank.
If Anderlecht were wounded by that goal, they contributed significantly to their own downfall. The defending was woeful against every Arsenal attacking prompt. Gibbs surge forward was unchallenged, Oxlade-Chamberlain’s purposeful dribble couldn’t tempt a defensive gesture which was more intervention than Sanchez and Podolski faced in the final moments of the attack. The German has an unerring accuracy from that position.
At the final whistle, relief brought smiles on the pitch and touchline. Some were briefer than others, Alexis seemed acutely aware of the notion that Arsenal had got away with it. His was one of the few bright spots of the evening, another match in which the go-to guy took on the responsibility when others wouldn’t.
At £35m, you expect this level of performance consistently, where he drags the XI out of the hole they have dug themselves into. At £35m, he is looking something of a snip and could easily be a significant contributor to that level of prize money. If the others can lift their game, who knows what will happen.
It sounds exciting, positive in thought. The fly in the ointment is that there is precious little sign of a rapid return to form and that is quite a disconcerting thought.