ARSENAL do not do comfort against Anderlecht. After the drama of the first meeting a fortnight ago when they nicked a 2-1 win with two goals in the last two minutes, it had looked like being an altogether smoother ride for ArsÃ¨ne Wenger and his players.
Inspired by the man-of-the-moment, Alexis SÃ¡nchez, they had surged into a three-goal lead and that appeared to be that. But if there had been a looseness to Arsenal at the start, they collapsed in faintly ludicrous fashion, which will surely mean they will not be able to advance to the Champions League last-16 as Group D winners.
When the metaphorical dust had settled, it was possible to see that the damage in practical terms was not too severe. Arsenal remain set to progress from the group as runners-up and, had they won here, it would still have taken an almighty turnaround to pip Borussia Dortmund to the top spot. Arsenalâ€™s proud record should remain intact. They are close to a 15th consecutive qualification from the group phase.
But there were broader questions about how they could have squandered the victory and they touched plenty of nerves for Wenger. To the eternal angst of everyone connected to the club, they raked over painful, old ground. How could Arsenal have failed to close out the win? Largely because they cannot defend properly against decent teams.
Even Wenger admitted the performance in defensive terms had been â€œvery, very poorâ€ but he had to take the responsibility for his tactics. With the scoreline at 3-2, for example, and the nerves jangling, he brought on two attack-minded players â€“ Tomas Rosicky and Lukas Podolski â€“ in the 83rd minute. It was hardly a move to batten down the hatches. Then again, Arsenal have no experienced defensive cover. Their only defender on the bench was the 19-year-old right-back, HÃ©ctor BellerÃn.
Arsenal were extremely open all evening and it did not take the loss of the defensive midfielder, Mikel Arteta, to a hamstring injury at 3-1 to precipitate the crash. Wengerâ€™s team simply continued to play the way they always play and Anderlecht, who grew inexorably in confidence, took advantage of the cracks.
Besnik Hasi brought on Andy Kawaya as a second striker and there was a note of disbelief to the Anderlecht managerâ€™s post-match words when he talked of the spaces his team were permitted. â€œMaybe Arsenal thought that they were on top and they could get more goals and they could have fun in front of the public,â€ he said.
There were individual errors at the back from Nacho Monreal and Per Mertesacker â€“ the former lost the Anderlecht substitute, Aleksandar Mitrovic, before pulling him down to concede the penalty for Anthony Vanden Borreâ€™s second goal while the latter lost Mitrovic on the equaliser. But they were not the only ones to blame. Once again there were question marks over a lack of leadership in the team when the tide turns. Wenger admitted Arsenal had underestimated Anderlecht, which felt ridiculous given the fright that they had given them in Brussels.
The visitors had been the more threatening team in the opening 20 minutes here, when they broke on several occasions and Arsenal looked both sloppy and a little vulnerable. Dennis Praet went close with a deflected effort while Sacha Kljestan created a chance for himself with a bold sprint around Kieran Gibbs. Wojciech Szczesny blocked the shot.
Arsenal took control after what Hasi called the gift of the gameâ€™s first penalty. Aaron Ramsey found SÃ¡nchez and he asked Danny Welbeck to chase a ball that he put in behind Chancel Mbemba. Welbeck did just that, muscling in on Mbembaâ€™s shoulder. Mbemba then fell on top of Welbeck and Arteta chipped home the ensuing stone-wall penalty.
SÃ¡nchez had earlier skimmed the outside of the post after buying himself a yard inside the area and flicking on the after-burners. Arsenalâ€™s second was all his own work. He blasted forward and, when he was fouled by Anthony Vanden Borre, he picked himself up to take the free-kick. The initial effort was poor, hit straight into the wall, but SÃ¡nchez took out his anger on the rebound, lashing it through the wall on the volley and past Silvio Proto.
The game ought to have been over when SÃ¡nchez robbed Kljestan and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain burst clear to finish in convincing fashion. But Anderlecht got the break that their positivity deserved when Kawaya crossed and Vanden Borre tapped home, albeit from an offside position.
Anderlecht strove to make the most of their fortune. The travelling fans roared their encouragement and Mitrovic cause problems. He spun away from Monreal and the makeshift Arsenal centre-half responded with a makeshift challenge, pulling him down to concede the penalty. Vanden Borre grabbed the ball from Youri Tielemans and scored.
The closing stages were increasingly fraught. Hasi did not stop believing and his tactical tweaks were underpinned by a measure of boldness. Then it happened. Andy Najar crossed from the right and Mitrovic muscled past Mertesacker to plant a firm, downward header past Szczesny. Arsenal knew how Anderlecht had felt in Brussels. – The Guardian