Anderlecht 1 Arsenal 2: Three talking points
Harry Reardon looks at the talking points as Arsenal mount a late Champions League comeback against Anderlecht
Arsenal need to bully games like this
Before this game, Anderlecht had not won any of their last 10 matches in the Champions League. They had two wins from their last 33 games in the competition. Seven of their starting outfield players were aged 24 or under. All of which would, for any other English team in this competition, have added up to a comfortable, commanding victory. But Arsenal do not do comfortable and commanding. Lacking the pace and intent of a Theo Walcott or an Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (until the latter’s introduction late on as the game began to slip away), the Gunners did not go for the throats as the situation demanded at the Constant Vanden Stock Stadium, and the game, until the sudden late turnaround, once again brought to mind the sterile domination that has been a feature of their season to date. They controlled the statistics but not the game against Spurs in the North London derby recently, and it was much the same here. Anderlecht sensed this as a weakness and probed from the start, looking sharp if a little indecisive and unincisive on the counter-attack. For the Gunners, meanwhile, the loose balls and misunderstandings piled up. Somehow, they managed to pull a victory from the jaws of defeat, as Anderlecht continued their unfortunate Champions League habit of conceding late goals; but this was not the way to win it, and it answers none of the difficult questions.
Injury and suspension problems no excuse for a neglect of experience
Much of the focus before this match was on Arsenal’s goalkeeper, Emiliano Martinez – who in the end had a decent enough game. But the former Argentina youth international, whose last appearance for the Gunners was in the madcap goal-fest that was their 7-5 League Cup victory over Reading two years ago, had earned his place in the team thanks to developments which, while unfortunate in themselves, rather encapsulated the somewhat lackadaisical approach that Arsene Wenger has taken to his team, particularly the defensive line, in recent years. Wojciech Szczesny picked up an entirely unnecessary – and far from out of character – red card against Galatasaray, and his replacement, David Ospina (who was signed by Arsenal while injured in the summer) was thrown on without a warm-up and promptly exacerbated a thigh problem. In front of them, Wenger let the (albeit injury-prone) Thomas Vermaelen leave – for no less a club than Barcelona – in the summer without bringing in an experienced replacement. Wenger continues to place his trust in youngsters – none of whom particularly disgraced themselves in this game – but there remains a sense at the Emirates of building towards a future which, ultimately, seems never to arrive.
Can Arsenal avoid another last-16 exit?
Arsenal tend not to suffer from groups of death in the Champions League so much as second place finishes of death. The competition has seen them feature in the last 16 for the last 11 years. It has not, however, seen them win a post-Christmas knock-out tie since victory over Porto in the spring of 2010. Since then, they have finished runners-up in their group three times, going on to lose once to Barcelona and twice to Bayern Munich. This season, their loss to Borussia Dortmund (who also topped the Gunners’ group last season) had already put them on the back foot before tonight, and the German team showed no signs of taking their foot off the accelerator with a comprehensive victory over Galatasaray in the other group game of the evening. For Arsenal, therefore, tonight’s result, while welcome, advanced them little towards ending their run of bridesmaidship. Before tonight’s games, the group leaders elsewhere featured the Madrid clubs, Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain, with Barcelona and Juventus waiting in the wings. Unless Arsenal can find a way to beat Dortmund when the Germans come to town a month from now, the odds of breaking the quarter-finals this season, once more, will not be in their favour.