Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Sunday April 3 2011
Yesterday began quite well. I managed to catch the first half of the West Ham v Manchester United match shortly before leaving for the ground. Two penalties saw West Ham assume an early two goal lead. My thoughts as I left for Highbury were that United would probably peg them back, but even if the match finished a draw, that would still represent points dropped and a chance to blow the title race wide open. By the time I was on the train, United had pegged it back to 2-2. By the time I got to Victoria tube station, it was 4-2. The comeback seemed to knock the stuffing out of the day before the game had even started. Even so, we knew the pressure was on and anything less than a win would probably spell curtains for the title race. The reaction to that particular gauntlet being tossed at the team`s feet was a really rather painful sight.
A moving tribute on the big screens to David Rocastle was a wistful way to begin the afternoon. Cesc Fabregas was restored only to the bench, with the manager very worryingly revealing after the game that Fabregas still had a psychological problem following his hamstring woe. Alex Song and Theo Walcott returned. Despite the restoration of key cogs in the team, the display we were treated to was of a team that can`t wait for the season to end. The Gunners created the odd half chance in the first half, Clichy`s cross was met by a Nasri header that sailed over, the consequences of which left Nasri with an unsightly bump on the side of his head via an accidental collision with Nelsen`s forearm. Arshavin looked to be one of Arsenal`s sparkier players- not that that`s a huge commendation based on the collective performance- he caused Robinson to flap with a snap shot from long range.
There was only one move of any note that carved Blackburn apart, as Wilshere carried the ball forwards, released van Persie on the left, he slipped a disguised pass into the channel for Nasri, Nasri sent a low cross which found Wilshere unmarked inside the area, but he turned it well wide with his left foot. The chance would have been much more easily taken on Jack`s right foot, but we all know Jack would rather eat a jar of wasps than even touch the ball with his right foot. Big flaw in the young man`s game that I hope is being worked on. Truth is, the best chances of the half went to Blackburn. Firstly when Martin Olsson moved towards the edge of the Arsenal area unchallenged, his low shot took a slight deflection, but Almunia made a pig`s ear of the save and fumbled it through his fingertips, only just past the post. Almunia looks a haunted man. Like he just cannot wait for his Arsenal career to end.
That said his handling and quick thinking from a Blackburn corner set Walcott free on the right, he ran at Nelsen, eked out some space but dragged a low shot well wide. But as the Arsenal side ambled on towards half time, Rovers very nearly snatched the lead when Robinson`s high, floated free kick sailed into the Arsenal penalty area, Almunia came and got nowhere near it and Steven N`Zonzi headed agonisingly wide. Half time was something of a blessing, it had been rather disappointing fare. The second half wasn`t much of an improvement. After a rather insipid start to the half, Wenger called for Fabregas, replacing Arshavin. That was an incredibly strange move considering, for once, Arshavin wasn`t being a complete liability defensively, wasn`t playing badly, yet Song was limping and, by and large, completely redundant anyway.
Arsenal continued to toil, but Blackburn didn`t have to do anything superhuman to keep us at bay. Wilshere teed up van Persie, whose shot was well held by Robinson. Rovers were reduced to ten men for the latter stages after Steven N`Zonzi put a reckless two footed challenge on Laurent Koscielny. A deserved sending off and an unnecessary manner in which to contest a 50-50. But the away side being down to ten men doesn`t tend to make a huge difference when the game plan is that defensive. Really it needs to happen earlier in the hope that you can work the ball and tire the reduced side out with possession. At that stage of the game, it was never going to make a significant difference. Wenger bought Bendtner and Chamakh on for a clearly rusty Walcott and a dazed Nasri. It was rather confusing to see Bendtner deployed on the right when he is our most potent aerial threat. Seeing him stranded next to the touchline as cross after cross was tossed hopefully into the box was just baffling.
The Gunners did threaten when van Persie`s clever back heel released Wilshere in the area, he moved towards the touchline and cut back to Chamakh, but his effort was brilliantly blocked by Olsson. From there, Bendtner headed a van Persie cross over, and then had a header cleared off the line by Salgado from van Persie`s corner, whilst van Persie headed Bendtner`s cross over the bar in injury time. But the truth is, the Gunners never looked convinced they could break Blackburn down and I think Rovers will have been pleasantly surprised by how easy a job they had containing Arsenal yesterday. The performance lacked any urgency and was totally flat. In his post match comments, Wenger was as candid as I can ever remember, refusing to protect or make excuses for the players and admitting to being very worried by what he`d seen.
Now there is an air of mutiny around the ground, a great many have completely lost their faith. It seems to be becoming an annual event as predictable as Christmas that Arsenal will fight and claw their way into great positions, but when the time comes for the crunch, when the last hurdle is in sight, they capitulate. One bad result sees them indulge themselves in a binge of moon faced shoe gazing. Yet another season has completely melted away into a shapeless sludge of self pity. A lot of easy answers are being proffered forth by some keyboard warriors this morning. Vague, empty phrases such as "leadership," "winning mentality", "more purchases" echo up and down the interweb. Really, these are just unquantifiable buzz terms used to help us all mask the fact that none of us really know why this team can`t jump that final hurdle. We are in the microwave culture after all, the thought that there isn`t just an easy quick-fit, off the shelf solution to everything is not acceptable. Nor is it desirable on the anonymous intellectual battle ground of the internet and its armchair managers to say, "You know what? I haven`t got a clue what it is and even less of a clue how to solve it." But really that`s the position we are all in. That`s fine.
What`s worrying is that the manager doesn`t seem to have cracked the problem yet. His post match interview was weary, a man who believes he is preparing his team correctly but that keep letting him down when the pressure is on. We knew full well before the game started yesterday that anything less than a win would probably see us exit the title race in any serious way. To produce a display as listless and one paced as that is quite unbelievable. A season of fighting and scrapping- and the team have fought and scrapped to get here. You don`t get into the title race in April without doing that. But they`ve precociously tossed away a season`s work due to self pity that has poured out of the team since the Carling Cup Final. I was thinking about the home game with Everton in February, in which we were wronged by an official so flagrantly and faced a solid, stubborn Everton side. We fought tooth and nail to win that game, by hook or by crook. We don`t seem to be able to muster up those same resources once the clocks go forward. It all rather has a feeling of Groundhog Day about it.LD.
1.ALMUNIA, 3.SAGNA, 18.SQUILLACI, 6.KOSCIELNY, 22.CLICHY, 17.SONG, 19.WILSHERE, 8.NASRI (52.Bendtner `78), 14.WALCOTT (29.Chamakh `72), 23.ARSHAVIN (4.Fabregas `58), 10.v.PERSIE(c). Unused: 2.Diaby, 7.Rosicky, 13.Lehmann, 27.Eboue.
Follow me on twitter @LittleDutchVA
Date:Sunday April 3 2011
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