On a night when all the headlines should have been about Arsenal’s new talisman Alexis Sanchez and a place in the Champions League knockout stages, their porous, nervous defence are instead under scrutiny after Arsene Wenger’s side were horribly and embarrassingly taken apart by Anderlecht to throw away a three-goal lead and draw 3-3 at the Emirates.
Arsenal were in cruise control after an hour in this Group D fixture as Sanchez scored once and had a hand in two other goals — a penalty from Mikel Arteta and a fine strike from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. But somehow they contrived to undo all that good work with a nervy and chaotic defensive display in the latter stages that allowed a young Anderlecht side — led by two-goal Anthony Vanden Borre — to mount a remrkable comeback.
“We threw everything away today,” admitted skipper Arteta.
“We have another two chances still, but you can’t miss a chance in the Champions League as every team has qualities and you saw what happened today.
“We cannot afford to make the mistakes and concede three goals after going 3-0 up. It’s not good enough. We’re very disappointed and we missed a great opportunity to finish the job properly.
“We know what we’re playing for and it was a massive day for us today. What happened in the second half is not the level required at this club.”
The point still leaves Arsenal second in the table and as favourites to go through alongside Borussia Dortmund, who have already qualified and are five points clear; but the message the result sends out about the limited potential of Wenger’s side on the biggest stage is painful to say the least.
What must Sanchez think about it all? There was little more he could do to inspire his team to victory as he continued an excellent run of form that has quickly made him a crowd favourite in north London.
Just days after he single-handedly dragged his team to victory over Burnley, he must have thought had done the same to Anderlecht. His clever reverse pass set up Danny Welbeck to win a 24th minute penalty — converted by Mikel Arteta — and his volley five minutes later — firing back his own free-kick after it rebounded off the Anderlecht wall — made it 2-0 before Oxlade-Chamberlain added a fine individual effort after the break (after Sanchez’s persistence had won the ball back).
But Arsenal cannot continue to rely on Sanchez alone to win them matches; and it is there under-strength defence which persuades most people that the Gunners won’t go too much further in Europe this season even if they survive the last two group games, at home to Dortmund and away to Galatasaray.
The way they collapsed in this match was embarrassing. It began after 61 minutes when Vanden Borre, looking suspiciously offside, turned home a Acheampong cross for 3-1. Then Monreal clambered over inspirational substitute Mitrovic 12 minutes later to win a penalty that Vanden Borre converted. In truth Monreal could well have been sent off as he also tugged at the referee to claim his innocence.
By the final 10 minutes Anderlecht were bossing the game and Arsenal, who scored two late goals to win in Belgium early in the group, were being run ragged. So there was almost an inevitability to the final goal, which came when Mitrovic headed home a Najar cross to complete an unlikely comeback.
There were boos as the players left the field. The result may not prevent Arsenal reaching the knockout stages but it does highlight just how far away they are from challenging to win it. They may have one talisman in place up front but they are painfully short of anyone who could claim that role at the back.
ARSENAL: Szczesny 7, Chambers 6, Mertesacker 5, Monreal 5, Gibbs 6, Arteta 6 (Flamini 62; 6), Ramsey 5, Oxlade-Chamberlain 7 (Rosicky 81), Cazorla 6, Sanchez 8, Welbeck 7 (Podolski 82). Subs not used: Martinez, Walcott, Sanogo, Bellerin.
ANDERLECHT: Proto 7, Deschacht 6, Mbemba 7, Vanden Borre 8, Praet 6, Kljestan 6, Tielemans 7, Najar 7, Conte 5 (Kawaya 45; 6), Cyriac 6 (Mitrovic 62; 7), Acheampong 7. Subs not used: Roef, Colin, Heylen, Dendoncker, Kabasele.
Referee: Clement Turpin (France)