For 88 minutes in Belgium on Wednesday, Arsenal were dreadful. While for most part the Gunners had a degree of control on the game as Anderlecht rarely threatened, Arsene Wenger’s team struggled to make any impact going forward. Apart from Alexis Sanchez, the team looked laboured, and all the fluency problems that have blighted the season’s performances were on full display in Brussels.
I’ve mentioned the midfield issues numerous times on this blog and on the SMR Podcast this season, and there was nothing to allay my concerns about Ramsey and Wilshere’s ability to play together. With no Mesut Ozil and Santi Cazorla on the left, there was no-one providing a proper link between the midfield and Danny Welbeck up front. There wasn’t a pivot in the team and Arsenal couldn’t get any incisive attacking moves going.
As the game was threatening to meander after an immensely forgettable first half, Anderlecht sensed Arsenal were there for the taking with 20 minutes to go. Some very slack Arsenal defending allowed them to walk down the right side and cross the ball in for Najar to score from a free header.
Moments later, the defending got worse as Vanden Borre shanked an effort against the post. Arsenal were so static and seemed to watch the Belgians try and fail to walk the ball in. Per Mertesacker hasn’t been the same as last season post-World Cup, which he very honestly and candidly spoke about after the game, while we all have discussed numerous times how Nacho Monreal isn’t a centre back and shouldn’t be considered an option there. Against Anderlecht, Calum Chambers also had a nightmare defensively. With no other options and players struggling for form, Arsenal can’t rotate the back four.
It’s not just the back four that’s a concern defensively though. The whole team needs to be switched on, and for ten minutes after Anderlecht scored on Wednesday, everyone in red and white was all over the place.
There doesn’t seem like there’ll be a quick fix to how the team is playing at the moment, apart from just trying to scrape through fixtures and regain form by playing matches. It feels like a vicious circle at the moment as, to get into good form, Arsenal have to play through the bad form. While that’s the case, it’s frustrating not knowing how long that could take.
Until the 89th minute, that frustration was growing as Arsenal seemed miles away from things picking up. Then, as against Hull at the weekend, it took for Arsenal to be on the verge of defeat to wake up. The full-backs finally made a purposeful foray forward to provide some width, Calum Chambers whipped in a fantastic cross and Kieran Gibbs arrived to place a perfect side-footed volley into the bottom corner. At that moment, one point looked horribly undeserved, and it was going to have come about from a moment of real quality that looked out-of-place compared to the rest of the game.
Then, the Gunners somehow found a get out of jail card in injury time. Despite not making any impact on the pitch before Wednesday, Lukas Podolski had boosted his popularity with the fans during the week with a hilarious and honest response to Tottenham transfer rumours on twitter. The German did, however, need to to show his worth on the pitch as well to stop any stories about him leaving the club. When 1-0 down, I was staggered it went past the 80 minute mark before Podolski was brought off the bench. Fortunately, he entered the fray in the nick of time.
Even though the winning goal didn’t have the quality of the first goal, Arsenal suddenly had intensity in their play at the end of the game and got players into the opposition box. Gibbs got forward again and clipped a ball to back post. Alexis Sanchez kept the move alive by powering the ball across the box before the it landed at the feet of Podolski. The German’s first touch was good, and rather than trying to do anything complicated or panicking in front of goal, Podolski instinctively smashed the ball into the roof of the net off his cannon of a left foot. His work rate is often questionable and he does have the ability to go missing in games, but give him a chance on his left foot, and he will score goals. In Arsenal’s current run of form, having someone efficient like Podolski could be what the Gunners need to have a more balanced attack and have someone who makes the most of the few chances that might come his way.
After a horrible performance, Arsenal finally showed some signs of fight. After the last few weeks, it’s hard to care about the performance when the team were able to secure a win. There are issues at the back and in midfield, and I’m not sure when they’re going to end, but it was brilliant to see Arsenal sneak a win. Too often, Arsenal haven’t got what they deserved from matches, so it was quite refreshing to see the Gunners get a win that was immensely undeserved. The win might not be a turning point, but without much else this season, it at least gives fans hope that it could be. While there’s Lukas Podolski’s left foot, there can be hope.