Arsenal 3-3 Anderlecht
In thirty excruciating second half minutes, Arsenal once again showed the soft underbelly which will continue to undermine their progress unless Arsene Wenger acts fast to address it.
Unsurprisingly, and one can assume not for the last time this season, Wenger’s failure to strengthen his squad’s defensive department came back to haunt him against a side which at 3-0 down, should have been well and truly beaten.The manager’s insistence on deploying Monreal at centre back and Callum Chambers at right back, when Hector Bellerin has proved more than capable at this level, is startling. In the post-match interview Wenger attempted to justify his selections by pointing to the fact this patched up defence had kept two consecutive clean sheets prior to this game. Yet those two shut outs came against a Sunderland side bereft of any confidence, following their 8-0 drubbing to Southampton the previous week and a Burnley side destined for relegation, having only scored five goals so far this season, the joint lowest in the league.
The cracks in this patched up defence are clear for all to see. Monreal’s defending when deployed in his favoured left back position is questionable at best. At centre back, alongside the slow and cumbersome Mertesacker, it is an accident waiting to happen. Given the lack of numbers at the back and the fact the side still does not have an out and out defensive midfielder to screen the back four, Wenger should not be encouraging his full backs to push forward, with such reckless abandon, in support of the attack. Doing so simply leaves the two central defenders exposed and there is currently no pace or positioning sense to comfortably deal with the threat of the counter attack.
Failure to take all three points from a game you are winning 3-0 after sixty minutes, against any side, let alone one of European Football’s also-rans, is embarrassing and should cause Wenger nightmares. Having conceded the first and then the second, those leaders on the pitch should have been calling the shots, shouting to their teammates, ordering them to keep things tight and ensure they got through the final minutes. But there are clearly no leaders in this squad, another problem which Wenger has refused to address for years. The only player who can be seen issuing instructions to his teammates is Flamini and even he is enduring a campaign to forget as he struggles to find the form which made him such an inspired signing last season.
Once again the only man in an Arsenal shirt who performed was Alexis Sanchez. The Chilean was involved in all three Gunners goals as he produced yet another stellar display. Ironically this may be part of the problem at the Emirates. Such is Sanchez’s form that it has become too easy for those around him to hide behind the Chilean rather than be inspired by him, which if true would highlight a great deal about the characters of these players. If the situation does not change soon, there will come a time when Sanchez looks around the dressing room and wonders if he made the right decision in joining the club.
The former Barcelona man effectively set up the first Arsenal goal with a wonderful reverse pass through to Welbeck, whose run was thwarted by a clumsy challenge inside the area, leaving the referee no option but to point to the spot. Arteta despatched a cool penalty fight down the middle of the goal to give the Gunners a 24th minute lead. Five minutes later and Sanchez doubled the home side’s lead with a wonderful finish. The Chilean stepped up to take a free kick, but having seen his effort come back off the Anderlecht wall, Sanchez reacted quickest to volley the ball into the bottom corner of the goal. Then just before the hour mark, Sanchez’s incredible work rate paid off once more as he chased and harried Deschacht, stealing the ball which fell to Oxlade-Chamberlain. The Englishman showed great acceleration as he surged through on goal and steered his shot past the goalkeeper and into the far corner.
Game over right? Anderlecht may not have thought so, but the Gunners certainly did. With Arteta having to come off with an injury, Arsenal stopped playing, became complacent and the away side seized the initiative. First Anthony Vanden Borre poked the ball into an empty net following a low cross which Chambers should have never allowed to happen. The former Southampton man has had a great start to his Arsenal career but he is severely lacking in experience and has performed better when deployed at centre back. The constant change in positions has not helped Chambers either and with Koscielny out for a number of weeks this was a perfect opportunity to grant him an extended run in the middle of defence. Vanden Borre was clearly offside when he poked the ball home but this was still no excuse for the implosion which happened afterwards.
In the 73rd minute Arsenal pressed the self-destruct button as Monreal needlessly wrapped both hands around Mitrovic in the area and hauled the Anderlecht striker to the ground. As in the first half, the referee had no choice but to point to the spot and Vanden Borre punished the Gunners once again with the spot kick to reduce the deficit further. Still the home side should have been able to hold onto their lead, but they failed miserably as in the final minute Mitrovic scored the equaliser, easily outmuscling Mertesacker to get in front of the German and head the ball past Szczesny at his near post. The Anderlecht fans went wild in the away end and rightly so, while Gunners supporters looked on in disbelief.
This was nothing short of an embarrassment for a club which prides itself on having competed in Europe’s top club competition for the last seventeen years. Throughout that time Arsenal have only appeared close to getting their hands on the trophy Brian Clough affectionately labelled “old big ears” once (in 2006 when they reached the final) and judging by their performances so far, they have never been further away from being able to compete with Europe’s best.