Another week and yet another rollercoaster ride for The Arsenal. Saturday’s enjoyable 3-0 victory over Burnley was promptly followed on Tuesday with a frustrating and rather indefensible 3-3 draw against Anderlecht, a result that extends our wait for qualification to the knock-out stages and all but ends our hopes of topping the group.
Addressing the Burnley game first and there isn’t too much to be said. We performed well from one to eleven, with our superior quality leading to a dominating display against what is, to all intents and purposes, a Championship side. 32 shots, 18 corners, 68% possession, 3 goals to 0; fair to say it was a comfortable day. Yes we had to be patient, as Burnley defended for their lives and Heaton made some fantastic saves, but in the end we wore them down and Alexis Sanchez delivered once again.
Another victory and another clean-sheet to take into our Champions League encounter against Anderlecht, who proved in the reverse fixture they would be no push overs. And for 58 minutes it seemed as though lessons had been learned. Granted we pushed our luck a little up until that point, with the Belgians not making the most of some good openings, but having been two goals to the good at half-time it should have been game over when Oxlade-Chamberlain then added the third.
Sadly that was not the case and as the full-time whistle blew our three goals lead had been thrown away. Some will be upset about their first goal being noticeably offside, after all that was the goal that gave them a foothold in the game. Others will argue that their penalty should have been retaken due to clear encroachment. But for me the most offensive of the goals was the third. It was utterly amateur.
89 minutes on the clock and ominously pegged back to 3-2? Do everything you can to see the game out; it really shouldn’t be that hard. One more minute, plus stoppage time, of keeping your shape, defend with aggression and tenacity, avoid embarrassment. Instead we saw little purpose, little desire. Players thinking that being behind the ball is sufficient defending. Players not attacking the ball with the same determination as their opponents. Far too often we stand back and let crosses come into the box (Podolski the guilty party on this occasion). Not for the first time this season Mertesacker was out thought and out fought. And once again Szczesny was far from convincing; stay on his line and he makes the save, but once he came for the cross and then retreated he was always going to be in no man’s land.
I’m reluctant to jump on the “it happens all the time band wagon”. It was the first time in our Champions League history that we had both scored and conceded three goals in a single game. And as for the 4-4 at Newcastle, well that was almost four years ago. However, the collapse, and the nature of it, had a real sense of familiarity and left a bitter taste in the mouth. Statistics may not back up this notion, but it left me feeling that “it’s happened before and it will happen again”.
In Fever Pitch, Paul (played by Colin Firth) speaks of becoming an Orient fan because you know what you’re going to get, you’re not left in ridiculous situations hoping or dreaming of what might be. Arsenal seems to have reached the same impasse. Good enough for a top four finish, but not quite good enough to challenge the money men of Chelsea or Manchester. Good enough to win a cup, but only provided we avoid said money men, leaving us glued to the cup draws praying we don’t draw them. Good enough to qualify from the Champions League group stage, but not quite good enough to beat Europe’s true elite. And so the cycle continues.
What’s most frustrating is it doesn’t have to be this way. We may continue to fall short, but it doesn’t have to be in the same repetitive cycle. The calibre of players in our squad is good enough that we could be giving the Premier League’s moneymen and Europe’s elite a greater run for their money. The calibre of players in our squad is good enough that we should be looking at Atletico Madrid irritating Real and Barca, like a wasp on a warm summer’s day, and thinking “we can do the same”. But for some reason we don’t. Is it the board, the manager, or the players? I just don’t know. But the sense you get is “fourth and a cup run will do”. Ivan, Arsene, and Mikel Arteta may say otherwise, but actions seem to be speaking louder than words.
The glow of May’s FA Cup victory has faded. The optimism of the summer has evaporated. We’re back in the trenches. But if there’s one thing Arsenal has shown me time and again over the course of history it’s that they respond best when heavily criticised, when our backs are firmly up against the wall. It goes without saying that when the full-time whistle blows at the Liberty Stadium we all hope that we’ve claimed the three points. But whether we accomplish that desire or not, what’s most important is to be left feeling proud, to feel like we have given our all. We won’t always win, but we can always fight. With 89 minutes on the clock and a 3-2 lead to defend we failed to show that fight on Tuesday night and that’s what hurt me most. It’s not a mistake we can afford to repeat on Sunday, so the more players we have following Alexis Sanchez’s hard working lead the better. Come on you Gunners; up The Arsenal.