Photo: Nick Potts/PA
Just so we're clear, Arsenal had a three-goal lead against a mediocre group of no-hopers from a crap league with thirty minutes left to play. The fact that we contrived to throw it all away is as predictable as it is disgraceful. The list of Arsenal players who escaped this debacle with no blots on their copybooks is comprised of just two names: Alexis Sanchez and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Every other player in red today should at least partially be disgusted with themselves, and as for the manager? This is more on him than all of the players put together.
Any match will have several inflection points around the way, but this is one that can be broken up roughly into thirds.
The first (not exactly mathematical) third was the first 20 minutes. Arsenal came out with verve and determination, to the point where they almost looked like a German side, such was the ferocity of their pressing game high up the pitch. Anderlecht - obviously having expected the same old Arsenal performance - were continually harried into losing possession in dangerous areas.
Here, friends, is arguably where the seeds of this result were planted. When you win the ball multiple times in highly dangerous areas, those opportunities must be converted into high-percentage chances. While the visitors did come up with some excellent desperation blocks in their penalty area during this time, a side of Arsenal's quality has to do more to punish them there.
(Side note: Apparently, Anderlecht's bus was stuck in traffic, so they arrived very late and without a proper warm-up. Still, we couldn't make them pay, Astonishing. Amazing. Disgraceful.)
There were warning signs even during that period of domination, though. A perfect example was when a witless pass by Danny Welbeck was intercepted by Danny Praet. Anderlecht were away in a flash, aided and abetted by the nonsensical 4-1-4-1 formation that the manager insists on playing. Mikel Arteta alone is never going to be enough to break up situations like this, that soft center leaving our already bare-bones defense that much more exposed. Praet couldn't find Gohi Cyriac in the area, but it bounced back to him. Luckily, his shot deflected off of Chambers and away to safety, but it damn near snuck in at the near post.
Can you imagine what the result would have been like if we conceded first?
The visitors almost did again, though we could have taken the lead through Aaron Ramsey were it not for a brilliant sliding deflection by Olivier Deschacht. Cyriac started it with a nice cross into the area, poorly cleared out by Per Mertesacker. Sascha Kljestan collected it, motored right past the appalling Nacho Monreal as if no one were there and was in alone on Wojciech Szczesny. Thankfully, the Pole came out well, cut off the angle and blocked with his body.
Another warning fired by Anderlecht, another warning not heeded by our tactically-inept manager.
It's funny - in retrospect, the Belgians can be somewhat disappointed with themselves for only managing one point out of this. They easily could have won this if they were able to get out of their own way.
Here is where the move to the second of our three sections of the match. Arsenal were still unconvincing, but Anderlecht did their level best to hand us goals that we probably didn't deserve. Chancel Mbemba was unable to deal with a run from Welbeck in our area, got his legs in a tangle with the striker's, and ended up conceding a needless penalty. Arteta stepped up and dispatched it, cool as you like. 1-0 to the Arsenal, and in normal circumstances it should have been up, up and away from there.
A few minutes later, it looked like that was indeed the case. Anthony Vanden Borre - appalling from first minute to last in his defensive duties - conceded a thoroughly-unnecessary free kick just outside the area. Sanchez belted it into the wall, but the rebound came straight back out to him. Luckily for us, the wall evaporated away, allowing the Chilean Assassin to fire it straight back in. Silvio Proto - as poor a goalkeeper as you'll see at this level - must have seen it late but he still should have kept it out. Instead, it squirmed under his hand at his near post, and we were rolling.
If it should have been over as a contest then, it definitely should have been just before the hour mark when a wonderful run and finish made it 3-0. While Sanchez receives a ton of accolades for his attacking prowess and rightfully so, what also makes him special is his ferocious desire to win the ball in the opposition's half of the field. Here, Sanchez did enough to wrest the ball away from Kljestan, allowing Oxlade-Chamberlain to collect the scraps. The Ox still had it all to do though, as he blazed down the left wing. Vanden Borre was left for dead, and our man slotted home in the far corner. A top goal by a man rounding into form, and again I stress that this put us three goals to the good at home against a crap team with half an hour to go.
Arsenal is as Arsenal does though, and we let them back into it two minutes later. I have gone on and on in this space about how often our wide defenders allow their man time and space to get crosses in, and it killed us once again (twice today, but we'll get to that second one later). A loose ball around our area pinballed out to Andy Kawaya on the left. Chambers was nowhere to be seen, and Gibbs lost Vanden Borre at the far post. Sure, the Belgian was roughly 12 parsecs offside, but the goal doesn't go in if we cut out the cross at the source.
Besides that, look...the goal was an injustice. The lino is an idiot, that call should never be made. But, we're still 3-1 up, we're still playing a crap team, we're still at home. They had been leaving gaps all day. There is absolutely no excuse as to why a team of professionals, especially the caliber of players that we have, would allow themselves to so thoroughly lose the plot from this point on. Look, I get that our captain went off after a knock. But, the men left on the field are in most cases senior internationals. They are guys who have won World Cups. They are guys who have stared down much better teams than this in the past. How can this happen, just as it has happened so many times before?
For me? It's the manager. It's the manager who has to get this team ready to play, it's the manager who failed to reinforce us with the strong central midfielder and the extra defender that we needed, it's the manager who persists with this idiot formation that gives no support to the guys on the field that need it the most, it's the manager who endlessly talks about mental strength when the available evidence shows it in painfully short supply.
The same shit happens over and over, every season, no matter who the personnel are. It's like that saying goes where if you meet an asshole, well, you met an asshole...but if everyone you meet is an asshole, then it's probably you who are the asshole after all. It's not a hard parallel to make here.
Anyway, we could have gotten it right back soon after, Welbeck connecting well on a corner kick. Proto gave up a preposterous rebound, but no one was there to mop up. No heart, no desire, no spirit, no balls.
Sure enough, the comeback was on mere seconds afterwards. A long, looping ball into the middle of our area wasn't really a danger - Aleksandr Mitrovic was alone up there, with three Arsenal defenders in attendance. So, of course, Nacho Monreal - who I honestly believe is the single worst defender we've had in the Arsene Era - rugby-tackles him down and then idiotically put his hands on the referee. How he escaped with a yellow, I'll never know. Anyway, Vanden Borre buried the penalty, and we were in full-on panic mode from there.
It was so bloody typical that we wouldn't be able to hold it from there. I keep harping on it, but this team of experienced professionals absolutely lost their minds from the second their first goal went in. I had thought that the last few weeks had pulled us out of the mire some, but it's hard to say that today is the outlier when it's happened so often in the recent past.
Make no mistake, there was only one team in it from there. Gibbs was lucky not to head a clearance into his own net, and Frank Acheampong blazed over from an area where he should have done better. To combat this shambles, most teams would throw on some defensive players to keep it tight and calm things down. But, oh, right, we don't have any of those...so we threw on Tomas Rosicky and Lukas Podolski instead. Look, I love Poldi and think he should have started today, but putting on our single worst defensive player in a 3-2 game where everyone's at panic stations? What is the thought process there? How is this defensible? How does this man still have a job?
I suppose the only surprise was that we made it all the way to the 90th minute before the equalizer came. Mertesacker and Szczesny will take some pelters for the goal and rightfully so, but for me it's even more on Gibbs and Podolski. Andy Najar, all alone out on the wing, was given all the time and space he could ever want to curl his cross in. Our two guys stood 5 feet away, exerting nothing in the way of pressure. Najar's cross was good, but you would still expect our man mountain of a center-half to be able to deal with it. Instead, Mitrovic beat him to it. Szczesny had taken a few steps out, but must have thought to himself "Per's got this". I don't know if it was saveable anyway, but he did take himself out of position there.
The thing is, we'll probably still come second in this highly unimpressive group anyway. Even if we lose in Turkey and at home to Dortmund - a serious possibility at this point - Anderlecht would have to find 5 additional points from somewhere. I don't think they will, so it looks like we're safe to sneak in through the back door and get obliterated in the round of 16 for the umpteenth season in a row.
But, seriously though. Hands up anyone who, once it was 3-1, didn't at least see this as a possibility?
I didn't think so.
The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:
Szczesny 6, Gibbs 5, Monreal 3, Mertesacker 4, Chambers 5, Arteta 7 (Flamini 6), Ramsey 5, Cazorla 5, Sanchez 8, Oxlade-Chamberlain 7 (Rosicky 6), Welbeck 6 (Podolski 6)
Man of the Match: Mitrovic changed the match when he came on. Might have given it to Sanchez instead but I don't feel right giving it to any of ours on a day like this.