Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Arteta goes off, takes whole midfield with him

After the pretty unjust smash and grab job done by Arsenal to somehow escape Brussels with a 2-1 win, it’s arguably poetic justice that Anderlecht came back so spectacularly to draw 3-3 at the Emirates on Tuesday night. But poetic justice should mean f*** all in football. If you’re 3-0 up at home, you should win the match, end of story.
But this is Arsenal. Dazzling brilliant one moment, a team with no confidence ready the pull the trigger on its own foot the next.
The key turning point came just as Arsenal were celebrating Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s well-taken goal to make it 3-0. Mikel Arteta went over to the touchline to receive some treatment, and in the few minutes that followed, continued to gesture to the bench asking to be replaced as he gingerly moved around the pitch. With Arsenal’s captain essentially immobilised, Anderlecht were able to work the ball through midfield and out to the left, before Vanden Borre popped up to score. It was clearly offside, but it shouldn’t have mattered at that point. It should have just been a consolation.
Mathieu Flamini came on to replace Arteta, but Arsenal’s play missed the calming influence of the Spaniard. The Gunners were more panicked in possession and progressively dropped deeper and deeper as the second half wore on. Without Arteta, the midfield also seemed to lose all organisation. I’m all for being flexible and wingers mixing it up by attacking different flanks, but when closing out a match, there needs to be some discipline in the formation. Calum Chambers was left exposed too often as Arsenal appeared to play without any wide midfielders. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s goal was great, but I have no idea where he was meant to be playing in the second half as he didn’t seem to offer protection to either full-back. Cazorla also drifted inside so all Anderlecht had to do was the work the ball wide and they had a dangerous situation. Having been rigid with 4-5-1 earlier in the season, Arsenal’s midfield was suddenly too fluid and seemed to lack any defensive organisation and discipline without Arteta.
The penalty that made it 3-2 was also horribly predictable. Overall, Nacho Monreal has acquitted himself admirably as a make-shift centre-back, but he was always going to be at risk of being caught out because he still doesn’t have the natural instinct of how to defend certain situations in the centre. It might have been a harsh decision, but in Europe, as soon as the forward gets goal-side of the defender and there’s some contact, the referee isn’t going to hesitate over giving a spot kick.
Having brought on Tomas Rosicky and Lukas Podolski, the Arsenal midfield still didn’t quite seem to exist in the last ten minutes of the game. The equaliser for the Belgians also typified why Podolski isn’t starting games. For someone that should have been fresh, the lack of effort in closing down the cross was staggering.
Now, in reality, even though a win would have taken the Gunners into the knockout rounds, Arsenal should still qualify, only needing a point from two games to do so. But, the damaging effect of the 3-3 draw is that second place in the group is the likely outcome, so Arsenal will do well to avoid another big name in the next round, should they secure qualification, which looks immensely careless after the experience of facing Bayern Munich two years in a row.
More damaging than facing a tougher opponent could be the effect the draw has on the team’s mentality. Things had been looking up in the last couple of weeks, but it’s genuinely terrifying to see how fragile this Arsenal team is. A 3-3 draw in those circumstances can be destructive, so suddenly the trip to Swansea in Sunday has taken on a completely new complexion. Arsenal have to go there, be organised, and not do anything stupid.
That the game was thrown away by such a meagre performance in the last half an hour of the game was made more frustrating as it wasted the three good goals Arsenal scored. Welbeck worked hard to get in front of the defender to the win the penalty that was superbly dispatched by Arteta. Alexis Sanchez then continued his rich vein of form with a stonking volley after his free-kick hit the wall. Oxlade-Chamberlain then showed great pace down the left wing to set up a calm finish for what should have been the clinching goal.
Arsene Wenger isn’t always renowned as a manger who loses his temper often, but I hope he let the players know how unacceptable that capitulation was. That was a chance to ramp up the goal difference and seal qualification. Now everything and everyone, bar Alexis, is being questioned again. Wenger should have sorted out the organisation in the midfield when Anderlecht started to over-run Arsenal in that area of the pitch, but the players do have to take an element of responsibility. It should have been clear it wasn’t a balanced midfield defensively, and it wouldn’t have been difficult to sort out someone to play properly on the flanks and protect the full-backs a bit more.
It isn’t a fatal result for the Champions League campaign, but could have long-running confidence for the season as a whole. Arsene and Arsenal need to offer a serious response at Swansea on Sunday. As he went off injured, I presume Mikel Arteta will be unavailable. Without him, it’d be nice if the midfield could turn up on Sunday and show some signs of organisation.