Thursday, October 23, 2014

Arsenal Escape Blushes: Score Twice Late to Win at Anderlecht

Arsenal headed into the game today with the expectation that it would be a relatively easy win. Not only has Anderlecht been a beating bag for UCL opponents for several years now (finishing last in their group every time they qualify), but they have been in bad form in the Belgian league as well. But Arsenal has had a less than auspicious start to their season as well, already drawing five time in the league, with only two wins and a loss – and are suffering through what is becoming a perennial injury crisis. And though the Gunners were clearly the more talented team on the pitch, they were second best throughout most of the contest.

From front to back, Arsenal looked lethargic, uninterested and mediocre. Welbeck had a hard time finding an opening, and didn’t do much with the ball when he did get it. Wilshere lost the ball at least 13 times in the game, with lazy passes finding Anderlecht players as often as Gunners. Ramsey continues his attempt to find his form from last season with little success and the defending was again suspect. In the 71st minute, that suspect defending led to a goal by Andy Najar that gave the hosts a seemingly unlikely lead. The cross that Najar scored his header from should never have come, as Monreal failed to close on the winger before Mertesacker and Flamini allowed the shortest man on the field to score a lovely header between them.

During this young season, the one thing Arsenal has done is found a way to up the pressure after an opponent scores. That did not happen here, though, as the entire team continued to pass around the pitch without much purpose and then lose the ball. Joel Campbell came on for Welbeck and Ox for Flamini in the 75th minute, but neither contributed much at first. Then, the forgotten man this season, Lukas Podolski came on for Wilshere in the 84th minute and Arsenal began to slowly come to life. Sanchez grabbed the ball and sent Chambers through on the right before the youngster sent a pitch perfect cross to the far corner where Kieran Gibbs found the ball with a lovely left footed tap across goal. Arsenal were suddenly level and would go for the win, with only four minutes to play. They only need two of those minutes, as a ball in the box was snatched by Sanchez, who muscled his way around defenders before hitting a hard low cross that ended up at the feet of Podolski three yards out. The striker made no mistake and Arsenal had won an unlikely victory from the heels of defeat.

It happened to be Arsene Wenger’s birthday and the last four minutes gave him the three points he desired, but the gift was marred by the performance for the first 88 minutes and the sense that this team continues to flatter to deceive. There is a lack of fluidity and creativity in the attack, too many mistakes by talented players and a tendency to find themselves wide open on the break. While the Gunners did control possession, 64 to 36 percent, Anderlecht actually had more shots (14 to 13), only one less shot on target (3 to 4), more corners (6 to 3), only three more fouls (15 to 12) and as many saves (2). They easily could have put the game away, but for some poor finishing toward the end. And Arsenal continued to look like a shell of the team that came within a February/March collapse of winning the league.

Sure there are tons of injuries to sift through at the moment, but beyond Sanchez, there are real questions about the drive and consistency of the players. Cazorla played well at times, but was poor with his corners, most of his free kicks and gave the ball away a little too easily at times. Wilshere is just too careless with the ball, seemingly trying to do an impression of Ozil’s laconic style (without the requisite talent). Flamini always gives his all, but that all has declined substantially since the first half of last season, and he has become a liability that is at the heart of Arsenal shipping too many goals. Even the reliable Mertesacker has been guilty on too many goals this term, including the one tonight (though he headed out five of the six corners). Chambers did a good job, but the same could not be said of Monreal, who is clearly uncomfortable in the middle, and Gibbs, who is great going forward but really needs to work on his defending. And Welbeck was largely invisible for most of the match, failing to connect on his two best chances to score. Finally is Wenger, whose mistakes in the summer and in tactics are there for anyone to see every time they go on the pitch.

But three points is three points and assuming they beat Anderlecht and Galatasaray in the return fixtures, they are all but certain of another second place finish and a quick exit in the Round of 16! In the other games today, Olympiakos surprised Juve with an impressive 1-0 victory, Liverpool’s struggles continued as they lost 3-0 to Real at home, Dortmund crushed Galatasaray 4-0, and Atletico beat lowly Malmo 5-0. As it stands, Arsenal and Chelsea should advance with relative ease, Liverpool has a good chance (though they are tied with Basel and Ludogorets on 3 points after 3 matches) and Man City is all but out of the competition. But if Arsenal don’t wake up from their month and a half slumber soon, the season will be lost. COYG!

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