Where do you even start after what we saw that last night? 3-0 up and, in my opinion, deservedly in front despite the fact Anderlecht were always a bit dangerous, we witnessed an Arsenal-esque capitulation of truly epic proportions.
When they pegged us back in the final minute of normal time there wasn’t the sinking feeling in my stomach that usually accompanies such goals. I think it was because I had already steeled myself for it. It felt inevitable, so when it happened it just felt vaguely preordained – another tragicomic piece of ludicrousness from a team which finds new and creative ways to self-destruct right before our eyes.
Before we get to that though, let’s look at the position we put ourselves in. Against a team which caused us problems in Belgium, and throughout last night’s game when they countered with real speed and menace, we were 3-0 up. It was good movement from Welbeck and a clever pass from Alexis that helped win the penalty – Arteta’s calm finish put us ahead.
Shortly afterwards a storming run from Alexis, who picked the ball up inside his own half, saw him win a free kick just outside their box. His initial effort hit the wall, but it didn’t matter because he simply volleyed it straight back through the clutch of players into the bottom corner. Maybe their keeper could have done better but frankly who cares?
At that point I thought we were good value for the lead and we picked up in the second half where we left off the first. Gibbs could have scored but chose to feed Oxlade-Chamberlain whose shot was blocked. A few minutes later the Ox got the goal his performance to that point deserved. As you might expect, Alexis was involved again, winning a tackle deep in their half. The England man picked up the ball, drove towards goal and finished into the far corner. 3-0 and that should have been that.
Then they got a goal and we lost Mikel Arteta – two things which seemed to have a profound impact on us. The goal, well it was offside. No question about it. If the linesman didn’t see it then surely Superfluous Assistant #5 behind the goal could spot it. The flag stayed down, the goal stood, and Arteta limped off to be replaced by Flamini.
I do wonder if we’d have lost our shape that badly if Arteta had stayed on, but even at 3-1 it was a lead we shouldn’t have let slip. The captain himself said it afterwards:
Even with the first goal, you have a two-goal lead at home … it’s not good enough.
No sugar-coating or excuse making there. We can be as critical as we want about the decision to let the goal stand, but we still had a 3-1 lead at home. At that point you make sure you’re organised and disciplined. You don’t need to win the game 4-1 or 5-1, 3-1 will do just nicely, but that’s not in our nature it seems. I get that we were inherently an attacking side, but with experienced players like Flamini, Mertesacker and Cazorla on the pitch, we lacked leadership, and from the sideline there appeared to be no instructions which urged common sense or caution.
Instead we went to pieces, the ball was no longer our friend, we looked panicked and utterly disorganised. Aaron Ramsey, a player I like a great deal, should have tucked in alongside Flamini to provide a solid base for the midfield to control the game. Instead he was charging around here and there, looking to do magic at the expense of the basic, culminating in a free kick late on which he hammered over the bar for no good reason at all and for which, if I were manager, I’d be tempted to give him a Cloughie clip around the ear.
I thought the penalty for their second was a bit generous based on the amount of contact, but Monreal was caught out when the cross came in – going one way to try and win the ball early and having to check as he misjudged the flight of the ball. It’s not impossible that a more natural central defender makes the same error but you can’t look it in any other way than we’re asking a left-back to play in a position that requires as much specialty as anywhere else on the pitch.
As well as that, after the referee gave it, I think we can be thankful it wasn’t a red card for Monreal. Not just because he was the last man – and we know how strict European referees are with that – but also for grabbing the official by the arm in protest. Sterner men wouldn’t have stood for that.
So, 3-2 and you’d expect some kind of reaction from us in terms of maintaining our shape and defensive discipline. Instead we got some substitutes. Rosicky for Oxlade-Chamberlain? Ok, I can see that. Energy and experience as you try to hang onto the lead, but Podolski for Welbeck was baffling. The German is a guy you throw on when you need a goal, not when you’re trying to protect one. Strange as it may sound, Sanogo would probably have been the better option to give us some kind of an outlet and a player whose qualities were more suited for the task at hand. Or, you know, he could have just left the hard-working Welbeck on.
The thing is though: the changes weren’t made to hang onto 3-2, they were made to try and make it 4-2 and make the game safe – and how that backfired. You can count the errors for the goal. Podolski not closing down the crosser quickly enough; Szczesny anticipating a deeper cross and getting wrong footed; Mertesacker being held off by Mitrovic as the forward headed in at the near post to get the Belgians a point.
It was as predictable as anything. The fragility of our confidence right now is such that our response to letting a three goal lead be clawed back to two goals was to panic. That led to us sitting off and trying/failing to react to situations rather than take care of them in a proactive way. We pulled down our pants and asked to be spanked, they duly obliged.
Afterwards, the manager said:
"The first goal was offside but defensively our performance was not good enough to do it. Secondly at 3-0 we thought the job was done and it was a combination of switching off and fatigue as well. You could see we couldn’t win the challenges and they finished stronger and sharper – we got punished. I believe defensively as a performance across the pitch, we were very, very poor tonight."
Ok, I can’t argue with that, but this:
"We dropped off too much and didn’t go into the challenges any more. Then you’re always open. We stopped winning the challenges and we dropped off and off and off. We were always open and we didn’t stop the crosses, we didn’t stop the long balls and I don’t especially think we were outnumbered. In the first half it happened, in the second half it was bad defending more than being outnumbered"
So if it happened in the first half why were there no words about making sure it didn’t happen in the second? Why was there no apparent effort to push the team out in the closing stages? I know the momentum of games doesn’t always make it easy, but the very least you should demand from your players is that they do the basics. That they close players down, stop the crosses which end up being so dangerous you lose a three goal lead.
Maybe make the kind of substitution that adds solidity to the team rather than weakens it in the final stages? For all the manager’s frustration with his players he’s got to shoulder the burden of this one, in my opinion. If we’re a shambles defensively, much of that comes down to not having the requisite options in that area of the pitch – and on that one there’s simply no defending the way we let the summer play out. We knew we were short, we didn’t do enough about it, and games like last night are when that comes home to roost.
So, instead of already being qualified for the knock-out stages and looking at the Dortmund game as a chance to battle for top spot, we’ve heaped more pressure upon ourselves. And in case you haven’t noticed, pressure comes in the form of a mouse in a kitchen and we’re the maid from Tom and Jerry standing on a chair shrieking at it to go away.
That was an absolute shambles last night, there’s no defending it or excusing it in any way. We took a couple of baby steps forward in the last week, but as seems to be the case far too often, that’s accompanied by a large backwards one.