05 November 2014

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.