Tag Archives: Anderlecht

Why on Earth didn't Walcott come on against Anderlecht?

Like many of you, I’m still struggling to make sense of Tuesday’s result. How is it that we could squander a three-goal lead, at home, the one of the weakest clubs to make it into the Champions League, one that had scored just two goals in three matches? Yes, we can point to complacency after racing out to a two-goal lead by halftime and pad it with a third shortly thereafter, and we can deride individual players for their desire to pursue individual stats rather than collective goals, but those are issues that should have been addressed at halftime. Up 2-0, we should have salted this one away with a substitution or two, not to mention a few tactical adjustments as well. As we sift through the remains of a win that could have been (clever rhyme, that), one question persists: where was Walcott?

We saw him warming up. We lusted after his return. More than that, we needed him—not so much for what he could achieve on offense as for what he could achieve for our defense. Hear me out.

Up 2-0 at halftime, Arsène should have sensed that this was in a game in hand. Instead, for whatever reason, he went after the two in the bush. Victory was all but assured, but something prevented Arsène from feeling satisfied. We went into the second half with the same XI (sans Arteta, injured and replaced by Flamini) and with largely the same tactics. Why? Well, for one, the only defender on the bench was Bellerin, a situation that begs its own questions. Even then, though, why didn’t we see Walcott come on in order to support a different defensive strategy?

Walcott flourishes in a wide-open, counter-attacking match. He’s fast. Rather than pinning Anderlecht back only to come away empty-handed and to occasionally deal with counter-attacks (something that we struggled with from early on), why not defend the lead by removing someone like Alexis, bringing on Bellerin, and defending with something more like a 5-4-1? With Gibbs, Monreal, Mertesacker, Chambers, and Bellerin in defense, and with Flamini, Ramsey, Cazorla, and Ox in the midfield, we’d have a stolid defense, one that Anderlecht could not have pierced. Flamini and Ramsey could do the dirtier work in the centre of the pitch while Cazorla and Ox could threaten on the wings. More to the point, though, all nine of these players could sit back and defend. This is not parking the bus, necessarily, as we’re doing more than merely setting up two banks of four around he area. There’s more than enough quality on the pitch to recycle possession, albeit not so high up the pitch. In fact, there would have been little need for any save Ox or Cazorla to get into the attacking third, which brings us to Walcott.

We’re up 2-0. Anderlecht need a goal. At a risk of erasing Ox’s goal, why press forward? Discretion is the better part of valor, after all. Let Anderlecht chase the game. Meanwhile, Walcott can prowl around the edges of the defense, waiting for a clearanace from or a through-ball to spring him in behind Anderlecht’s over-eager defense. He’s in on goal. Maybe he scores. The strategic lift—not to mention the emotional one—sends such a surge through the entire squad that there’d be no stopping us. With an early lead, we should have sat back a bit, still controlling possession but with an eye towards unleashing the pace we have. It’s something we haven’t seen much of, given how tetchy so many of our fixtures have been of late. With that early cushion, we might have treated the second half as a dress-rehearsal for some tactical variety against tougher opponents.

The ramifications stretch beyond this match. What point is there, after all, in having the pace of Walcott or Welbeck or Alexis, or of having the passing-perspicacity of Özil or Wilshere or Ramsey, if we’re not playing to those strengths? If we can draw out the defenders in matches against Man City or Chelsea and hit them hard on counters, so much the better. Against Anderlecht, we might rue the two points dropped. It might be more accurate to rue the rehearsal we didn’t have for future fixtures.

We could have and should have won 2-0. A third goal might have come through Walcott getting behind Anderlecht’s defense but agaisnt the run of play as Anderlecht pressed forward and exposed themselves. Instead, it was us who continued to press forward and expose ourselves, even after conceding the first and second goals, with the third as icing on the cake.

Meh. So it goes. Lessons listed but likely unlearned.

Well, we'll still qualify, right? Somebody hold me…

Well, that’s it. Let’s put the season to bed and a few players out to pasture. Fire the manager and the physios, forfeit all of our remaining matches, and accept relegation. All of the players (except one) are rubbish, too old, too injured, or some combation thereof to sustain any kind of meaningful campaign, but at least getting relegated would improve our chances at winning a league title. That one exception? He’s too good so we should just sell him and use the proceeds to pay down the stadium debt. What else is left to play for after a humiliating capitulation like this, one that has slam shut the door on our chances of advancing to the Champions League knockout phase? Heck, the knock-on effect will surely see us plummet to the bottom of the Prem and crash out of the FA Cup to boot.

Oh. Wait. We still claimed a point and look just as likely to advance to the knockout phase as before? Yes, we may still need a point from Dortmund’s visit or our trip to Galatasaray, but Anderlecht has to win at home against Gala and away over Dortmund as well. Yes, it would have been mighty nice to have salted that 3-0 lead away and coasted to victory. We haven’t choked on a three-goal lead since that barnburner against Newcastle in 2011 when we went up by four goals at St. James’ Park only to see them roar back, thanks in part to two penalties scored by Barton, and like Tuesday, the match ended in a dispiriting draw. Tuesday’s result threatens to shatter confidence and see us circle the drain until the entire season slips away.

What went wrong? Maybe we went ahead too far, too fast. By the time Oxlade-Chamberlain scored to make it 3-0, it felt as if we should have been up twice that but for some missed chances and decent saves. We were bossing the game, and this seemed to encourage some bad habits that we paid for in the end. Some players seemed to get more interested in getting fancy or joining in on the scoring, playing for the highlight-moment rather than making the smart, simple play. We neglected the fact that Anderlecht had carved out a few chances, mainly from our right flank, where it seemed that Chambers was either AWOL or overwhelmed; a few tidy crosses led to some dangerous moments that went awry or that forced Szczesny into a few vital saves.

That dodgy defending, and selfish attacking, seemed to conspire against us. We kicked ourselves in the arse. By the time Anderlecht scored that first goal, we had swelled our egos up so much that all it took was that pinprick to burst the bubble. That Vanden Borre was offside only compounded matters, as we were now frustrated at having lost the clean-sheet and flustered at the perceived injustice of it all. We had no real response at either end, and the injury to Arteta, replaced by Flamini, seemed to unravel our defense all the more. Unable to clear as effectively, our defense put itself under more and more pressure, and our midfield, reluctant to simply recycle possession and preferring to pursue the next memorable moment, allowed Anderlecht more and more opportunities. When Monreal reprised the Koscielny take-down of Dzeko, he was perhaps lucky to see yellow, not red, and the penalty that made it 3-2 gave Anderlecht the confidence it needed.

It’s a sign of deeper issues when our only defensive sub was Hector Bellerin. Instead of having the kind of subs needed to defend a lead (even against an inferior opponent), Arsène looked to his bench and, with 10 minutes to go, sent out Tomáš Rosický and Lukas Podolski. Now, I love Rosický, but neither he nor Podolski is known for defensive tenacity. Rosický can press up the pitch and harass, but it would have been nice to send someone of a more-defensive mindset. Were we looking to score a fourth goal or prevent them from equalising? It’s all a muddle.

Still, set aside the despair. Yes, it’s an infuriating result but not a debilitating one. It does increase the importance of our remaining two fixtures, from which we really must take a point or more to avoid the deeper capitulation. Those who might argue that failing to advance to the knockout phase to force Arsène should be careful what they ask for: it would incrementally if not monumentally harder. If we’re no longer competing in the Champions League come January, the Khediras and Carvalhos of the world may take a bit more persuasion (read: pounds per week) before they’d join Arsenal. If critics are casting about in hopes of finding a way to force Arsène out before or at season’s end, again, think past that. Who’d be available and willing to replace a manager so legendary and synonymous with the club that many believe its name derives from his? The question takes on more ominous overtones if it seems like the club is in turmoil after a fractious, disappointing season.

Look. We’re frustrated. Disappointed. Perhaps livid. We’re not playing to expectations or ability, and yet we’re still about to advance to the Champions League knockout phase (I won’t bring up how many times we’ve done that because we have to look forward rather than backward). We’re staggering to draw after draw—but have suffered only two losses, both away to very diffcult opponents—and we’re still very much competing in the Prem with plenty of time to go.  In other words, take it in stride. We seem to suffer difficult stretches in any season, and perhaps this early stretch is it. We’ve suffered a raft of injuries already, so perhaps we’re clearing the decks for a stronger stretch to come. In coming weeks, we should see Walcott return to fitness, Ramsey and Koscielny return from injury, and we should have Giroud and Debuchy a few weeks past that. Mesut Özil will also, at some point, be back.

In other words, set aside the gloom and doom and find some courage. We’ll bounce back.

Gunners 3-3 Anderlecht: What the heck just happened? [video]

What happened there? One moment, we’re up 3-0 and look to be cruising to the knock-out stage. Arteta got his first goal from the penalty-spot in the 25th minute, Alexis added a spot- free kick goal (volleying the rebound when his kick was blocked), and Ox barreled down the left to curl it around the keeper. We were flying high, and I was even dreaming of cutting into Dortmund’s goal-differential. I must have jinxed it, because moments later, Anderlecht had its first goal. So the guy was offsides. By three yards. We had been playing lazy defense the whole time and paid for it. A Monreal take-down in the box, and Anderlecht has their penalty to make it 3-2. Mitrovic was in the box before Vanden Borre shot, but whatever. We again paid the price. All that was missing was a Szczesnian screw-up and—yup. On a well-struck cross. Szcz half-charged off his line, got caught in no-man’s land, and was all but helpless as Mitrovic headed home. Feh. For as dominant as we looked early, we let this one slip right through our fingers. Watch highlights below if you can stomach them…

Alexis has earned himself a spot on the bench against Anderlecht.

It may sound at first like heresy, benching our most-prolific, energetic scorer and creator, but hear me out. Yes, he’s scored ten goals and notched three assists—five of those goals in his last three appearances—and he’s quickly proven himself to be a quicksilver talisman who can turn a match on its head with his attacking elan, but, still, he must be benched. It’s for his own good as well as that of the squad itself. We simply can’t afford to depend on him to the extent we’ve come to do thus far, with each appearance increasing his chances of redlining and being ruled out or rendered ineffective. We have too many other attacking options, some of them admittedly a bit rusty, but they should pose more than enough of a threat against the likes of Anderlecht.

More Podolski, please…

Consider Alexis as Mesut Özil revisited. Like Özil, Alexis has gotten off to a brilliant start and has reinvigorated the squad. However, there’s a very-real risk that, like Özil, Alexis could fade. It’s one thing to perform at this level when England’s climate is balmy; it’s quite another in December and January when temperatures drop, pitches freeze up, and fixtures accumulate rather than fade away as they do in La Liga. Give Alexis a rest, I say.

What’s more, Anderlecht haven’t posed much of a threat to this point in Group D, scoring only a pair of goals in three matches, one in their 1-1 draw at Galatasaray and one, admittedly, against us in the first leg. While I’d rather not revisit the tetchy, bum-clenching first 88 minutes of that match, it’s worth noticing that the momentum of the match swung in our direcion after the introduction of a few attackers we’ve otherwise seen little of: Joel Campbell and Lukas Podolski. They’ve each languished on the bench, leading to anguished if not angry cries for one or both to be played a bit more often, if only to allow them to ply their wares and increase any potential transfer-fees come January.

Podolski has shown time and again his ability to deliver stunning, thunderous shots (if not goals) with that Hammer of Mjölnir he calls his left leg, Twice in the closing minutes against Burnley, he volleyed shots in jaw-dropping (if not decapitating) style, one an amazing ninja-like scissor-step in the 84th minute that sadly was straight at the keeper and t’other a laser-beam that very nearly separated Ramsey’s head from his body before perhaps permanently denting the post. It’s what he does. It’s perhaps all he does, which is why I’d suggest he not start but come in late in the match. Would Arsène agree to make a substitution at around the 70th minute? Worth an ask, I’d say. Podolski doesn’t seem able to deliver a full, ninety-minutes, at least not one chock-a-block with effort. He seems to be at his best in 10–to-20 minute bursts, ideally against defenses already run ragged by other, more-industrious types. With all of this in mind, I’d suggest Poldi come on to replace Rosický on the left late in the match.

And that brings us to Joel Campbell, who’s much more of an enigma. He’s only made a few cameos here and there, the longest one 71 minutes against Southampton in the league cup. Like Alexis, he’s a dynamic, lightning-fast attacker who seems to love going directly at a defense. Unlike Alexis, he’s apparently not yet earned Arsène’s trust. A squad like Anderlecht might give Campbell a chance to do that. His ability to wreak havoc on a defense was on full-display during the World Cup, when he propelled Costa Rica to a stunning group-stage win over the likes of England, Italy, and Uruguay. With the ball at his feet, he’s a dervish who drives deep into the defense to create chances for himself and for teammates. If we’re to rest Alexis, well, Campbell might be the poor man’s imitation. Let him run helter-skelter on the right side and see what he can do to unlock Anderlecht’s defense, such as it is. I have a feeling that Campbell is chomping at the proverbial bit to show what he can do, and if it is in fact merely a facsimile of what Alexis has done so far, he could do far worse.

So, if we’re agreed that Alexis won’t start, and we can’t send in Wilshere or Özil, who’s to play through the middle? Send in Santi, who’s been at his best for us when he’s played as CAM. However, his fluffed sitter against Burnley suggests a player bereft of confidence and form. Whereas Alexis needs a break, Cazorla should benefit from a chance to play a more-vital role. With Rosický and Campbell on the wings harassing and hustling, Cazorla should find lots of room to operate. Then, as Anderlecht fade, we bring in the reinforcements: Podolski on the left, Walcott on the right. Each of them needs time on the pitch to refind their form, all the better to divsersify and deepen our attack.

Yes, Alexis has been sexy and scintillating and sensational. However, if we expect that to continue, sadly, we have to relegate him to the bench here and there. If this gives others like Cazorla, Podolski, and Campbell a chance to shine, so much the better.

What do you think? Can we afford to rest Alexis against Anderlecht, or has be proven himself irreplaceable? Share your thoughts in the comments-section below…

Arsène is a diabolocial, passive-aggressive sadist. There. I said it.

After yet another dramatic, death-defying, last-minute positive result (we’re counting draws as positive results these days, if only because there are so damned many of them), I’ve come to a startling, perhaps shocking realization. It’s so stunningly simple that I’m surprised none of us have hit on it before. All the pieces fit. It all makes sense, if only in retrospect. Many of us can find no fault with Arsène: he’s a purist and a paladin but a victim of darker, fiendish forces beyond his control. Just as many of us can find no virtue in the man: he’s an anachronism bereft of new ideas and ossified to old ones. Somewhere ‘twixt the two, however, lies the truth. That truth? Arsène is playing us all, even his opponents and nemeses, as patsies, as pawns in a much larger game. Even as I put these words to print, I can hear the hired goons tromping up the steps to silence me, but the truth must be told.

Think about it. We’ve conceded the first goal now in eight of 14 matches. That’s right: 57% of the time, we’re on the back-foot, usually before halftime. In those eight matches, one might expect us to drop all three points. However, a shocking trend emerges instead. We’ve somehow managed to find the points we need, thanks to three wins (Crystal Palace, Besiktas, and Anderlecht) and three draws (Everton, Man City, Tottenham). How? In these eight matches, we’ve scored a goal in stoppage time four separate times, converting draws to wins, losses to draws, and losses to wins. It’s madness.

Two goals in stoppage time to win at home over Crystal Palace. One in the second leg against Besiktas. Another one to salvage a draw at Goodison Park. Another one to scrape a win at Anderlecht. It’s becoming such a pattern that it’s impossible to ignore. It’s such a pattern that it almost seems to be…a plan. We’re through the looking-glass here, people, peering past the façade to look reality straight in the face, perhaps for the first time. The scales are falling from our eyes, and we can see anew.

What do we see? Pieces assembling themselves, as if by magic. All of these last-gasp goals. The razor-thin fourth-place finishes. Deadline-day signings. It’s almost as if Arsène is toying with us, daring us to lose faith only to restore it with a dramatic comeback win or a jaw-dropping signing. He even has his Machiavellian foil in Mourinho, who brazenly parades his signings and dares opponents to score first. In this new understanding it is Mourinho who is the buffoon and puppet, Arsène the puppeteer. It is no coincidence that Chelsea under Mourinho’s management have been our bêtes noire, for he has served as Arsène’s cartoonishly distorted doppelgänger, remorselessly amassing talent while playing boring, stultifying football.

Again, this is no coincidence. It seems abundantly clear that Arsène is playing with us, daring us to love him, inviting us to hate him, by leading Arsenal to just enough success to sustain our faith while flirting with just enough failure to fuel our fury. It’s as if he’s manipulating us to see just how far he can push us, testing our devotion and rewarding us only as often as is necessary. Newcastle 0-1 Arsenal. Mesut Özil signs £42m deal. Arsenal 3-2 Hull. Alexis Sanchez signs £35m deal. And on and on.

The pattern is so prevalent and so pervasive that we’d be patsies to pass it by. How often can one club flirt with disaster, entice and allure, but fail to deliver?

Even our most-dramatic signings reek of this kind of passive-aggressive recrimination. Arsène signs Özil, perhaps the paradigm of Wengerball, but plays him wide left instead of through the middle or wide right. Arsène signs Welbeck and Alexis, players who remind us of Henry and Pires (perhaps a bit unfairly) but doesn’t adapt our attack to their strengths.He flirts. He teases. He revels in our Sisyphean miseries.

How else to explain the artful dodges, the near-misses, the rope-a-dopes? Surely, it is all part of a master-plan. Surely…