Arsene Wenger was left to count the cost of the Gunners’ morale-denting 3-3 draw with Anderlecht that has severely damaged their chances of topping Group D
Arsenal should comfortably qualify for the Champions League knockout stages once again. That is the good news.
The bad news, as furious supporters made quite plain with their vociferous jeers in the numbing aftermath of a 3-3 draw that felt like a defeat, is that the same old frailties remain.
Defensive carelessness. Tactical ineptitude. Mental fragility. Poor concentration.
English teams had taken a 3-0 lead on 101 previous occasions in Champions League matches and held on for a victory. On this, the 102nd occasion, Arsenal became the first English club in Champions League history to squander a three-goal lead.
That is some statistic. Arsenal have racked up some horrible defeats over the last 12 months but they are normally very efficient at dismantling weaker opponents.
To allow Champions League also-rans Anderlecht to stage such a famous comeback on their own turf was humiliating.
The Londoners still only need one point from their two remaining games – at home to Borussia Dortmund on November 26 and at Galatasaray on December 9 – to advance to the last 16.
But with Dortmund five points clear, their hopes of finishing top of the group and heading into next month’s draw as one of the seeded teams are virtually non-existent.
The cycle of frustration goes on for supporters. In each of the previous four seasons, Arsenal have been pitted against a big gun at the first knockout stage – against Bayern Munich twice, Barcelona and Milan – after failing to top their group. They have lost all four ties.
No marquee club will regard a February tie against Arsenal as one to fear. They will watch the highlights of this latest horror show and roll their eyes. ‘Same old Arsenal’, they will think.
Three goals clear at the hour mark, Arsene Wenger’s team were rampant. With the outstanding Alexis Sanchez driving the team on from a withdrawn striker role and combining especially effectively with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Arsenal looked like they could score every time they bombed forward.
Injury-ravaged Anderlecht, who lost their defensive leader to injury early in the second half, and had a left-back and a central midfielder manning the centre-back positions, appeared there for the taking.
Sure, the Belgian club’s first goal should have been disallowed for offside. But that does not explain why Anderlecht were able to expose Arsenal’s soft centre so easily.
That frailty at the back was exemplified by Nacho Monreal, a left-back playing his fifth consecutive match in the centre as makeshift cover for Laurent Koscielny. The Spaniard looked all at sea as he hauled down Aleksandar Mitrovic to concede the penalty for the second goal.
Anderlecht sniffed a famous comeback and threw everything at the hosts. A more streetwise side than Arsenal would have pulled up the drawbridge in the last 10 minutes.
But, inexplicably, the Gunners continued to commit five players to attacks. The full-backs still pushed forward. It was reckless and they were suitably punished.
Anderlecht were handed acres of room to find the cross that was thrillingly dispatched by the diving Mitrovic after he manoeuvred himself in front of the lumbering Per Mertesacker.
“I was never completely sure we were not in danger because you could see the whole game we did not defend well,” said a downbeat Wenger afterwards. “Everybody is really down tonight because when you give away a three-goal lead you can imagine the consequences it has in the spirit of the players”.
Judging by the mood of the fans, it will take genuine signs of progress over the next three months for them to believe with any conviction that Arsenal can be something other than an attractive adornment to this competition.
Wenger’s team are stuck in a perpetual state of good-but-not-good-enough.
They will never come close to winning the Champions League if history keeps repeating itself.