Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Sunday September 18 2011
As my alarm sounded at 3am Saturday, my flatmate, with perfect synchronicity, walked through the front door after a night out. I was left to wipe my bleary eyes and run the gauntlet of London`s drunken revellers on the night buses of the fair city. It was so early that I had to wait 20 minutes for McDonalds on Holloway Road to open for a cholesterol murdering breakfast. The teeming, sheeting rain should really have been an indication that this was not going to be a day with a happy ending. Indeed, Young Tim`s alarm failed to activate (so he claimed) so he didn`t even make the match. Insert your own joke about the Arsenal defence here.
Having arrived in Blackburn at around 11.30am, we journeyed to our usual pre match watering hole The Fernhurst Arms. Trouble is, the once genteel establishment appears to have been taken over by the Nazi party. A £2 entry fee, match day prices almost double what they used to be and no service at all after 12.15pm. On top of this, the overly fussy bouncers seemed to be intent on telling every last punter exactly where to stand. I didn`t have dare visit the toilets in case some over officious Hitler started prescribing how many "shakes" I was allowed at the conclusion of my urination.
However, there was little regimented about the game itself. Though it appeared to start to script. Blackburn are a side incredibly low on confidence and quality. It showed too in the opening twenty minutes. There was little to no pressuring of Arsenal`s midfielders and it was a matter of time before such tepidness told. Arteta and Song exchanged passes in the midfield; Song played a delightful first time pass into the channel for Gervinho, whose darting run was married with a devastating low finish into the corner of Robinson`s net. The Gunners were supremely dominant as Rovers chins rested on chests. You always get the impression Arsenal need a second goal in that scenario so liable are we to concede under the slightest duress. United dominated Bolton in a similar fashion last week. They were 4-0 up in half an hour.
Arsenal`s new boys were linking again as Rovers wobbled. Arteta found Gervinho again on the right channel; the Ivorian shimmied inside Nelsen before unleashing a shot which was beaten out by the legs of Paul Robinson. But just as the Gunners looked sure to score a second, they contrived to concede a soft equaliser. Junior Hoilett slipped a simple pass between Mertesacker and Koscielny. Mertesacker and Sagna stepped up to play offside. Koscielny stood between two stalls whilst new boy Santos hung back. Yakubu raced through onto Hoilett`s pass and deceived Szczesny with a first time finish.
It emphasised the lack of a distinct voice, as well as understanding in the back line. Four different defenders tried to do three different things. Mitigation might be found in the unfamiliarity between the new look defence; but this has been something of a theme on the absence of Vermaelen, the lack of a commanding voice to act as an adhesive. Nobody talked whilst the move unfolded; nobody spoke up after its fatal conclusion either.
However, Arsenal reassumed the lead shortly before half time with some more scintillating attacking play. Gervinho tucked the ball inside on the right to Song, who again played a magnificent first time, defence splitting pass to Aaron Ramsey in the right channel. Ramsey had the presence of mind to cut the ball back to the onrushing Arteta, who slammed home his second goal at Ewood Park in 3 weeks for his first goal for the club. Arteta was a bright spot on the day, completing 94% of his passes, creating 4 goalscoring opportunities and returning one goal. There seemed to be no erring in the cohesion of Arsenal`s new boys upfront. At half time, you felt the away side had surmounted the blip of the Yakubu equaliser and would eventually blow their hosts away.
But in the second half; unsatisfied with the multitude of methods Arsenal have used to point the cannon squarely at their own stomachs, the Gunners managed to let Blackburn boss the game., Blackburn didn`t even try too hard to do it. Arsenal simply rolled out the red carpet. On 49 minutes the affair was all square again when Arshavin`s challenge on N`Zonzi was harshly adjudged as a foul between the corner flag and the penalty area. Rochina delicately clipped the delivery into the Arsenal area. Koscielny missed his header; the ball hit Alex Song and limply dribbled into the net. A comedy goal. The trouble is, when you let your opponents know that they don`t have to work very hard to score, you encourage them. At the same time, when you know yourself that even the feeblest attack can unbutton you, you shrink into your shell.
It was a diseconomies of scale which has reaped its effects again and again in 2011 and did so again with catastrophic consequences. Blackburn nearly took the lead within 60 seconds of equalising when Rochina`s flick put Formica through on goal with just Szczesny to beat, but the Pole in the goal made a world class stop to keep his team at parity. Having hobbled on manfully following a collision in the first half, Bacary Sagna had to limp off with a dead leg. Arsenal`s defensive cohesion had been troubling enough, but with Djourou in for Sagna, we lost Bacary`s attacking presence on the right- which caused the home side problems in the first half.
Sure enough, Arsenal crumbled even further into despair when Junior Hoilett`s corner sailed to the back post. Koscielny again misjudged his header; the ball came to the feet of N`Zonzi, who had time and space to control before lashing a low cross back into the six yard area, which Yakubu was on hand to sweep into an empty net. "We want another refund" came the brief, ironic taunt from behind me. The Gunners won a corner in their haste to equalise, but their desperation would be their undoing. Rovers cleared the corner easily and Hoilett broke; finding Yakubu on the right, Santos got too tight to Yakubu, allowing him to play the ball down the line to Olsson. Djourou then reeked of desperation as he dived in on Olsson but missed his challenge. The Swede prowled into the area, where again, Alex Song sold himself far too easily, allowing Olsson to skip round him to the by line and toe poke the ball into the area, off of the hapless Koscielny`s leg and into the net. Haste and panic gripped Arsenal`s rearguard action from inside their own half. Again, Blackburn didn`t have to work too hard to breach it.
But with 5 minutes remaining, Arsenal grasped a lifeline. Robin van Persie popped up on the left and lashed an inch perfect cross into the Rovers area for Marouane Chamakh to power a close range header past Robinson. His first league goal in 10 months. If anything is to come from the wreckage of Ewood Park, let`s hope our Moroccan will at least be buoyed to rediscover that early season form of yore. Arsenal pressed in vain for an equaliser. It was nearly the triumvirate of new boys that combined to steal a point. Gervinho found Santos on the left, the Brazilian`s cross sailed to the back post and Per Mertesacker climbed above his marker but somehow put his header agonisingly over the crossbar.
The Gunners mustered another opportunity in the last 5 seconds of the game. Koscielny`s long ball was flicked on by van Persie and Walcott steamed onto the scraps, lifting the ball over Robinson, only to be denied by a Ryan Nelsen interception as the ball travelled goalwards. Robinson appeared to take Walcott out and the referee might easily have given a penalty, but I can see why he didn`t to be honest. The final whistle just sealed our despair. After the building blocks of Swansea and Dortmund, we now have to start again. Just as we did when we thought we`d turned the corner against Blackpool. Just as we thought we had when we beat Manchester United.
This weekend we sit in 17th position, with the worst goal difference in the league, having effectively garnered 4 red cards and scored three own goals. We just find new and imaginative ways to cock the pistol at our temples. Blackburn are a poor team on a poor run. Yesterday, they barely raised their game but still found 4 goals, still managed to turn over two deficits and win the game with three shots on target. This is a seven month funk now and even though a good deal of the personnel has changed, the same old mistakes are being repeated. Different cast members are fluffing different lines. Are the players simply not listening to the manager anymore? Arsenal showed their baseline qualities against Swansea and Dortmund. They weren`t at their flowing best, but they reset their priorities and did what was needed to get a result. Just as they did against United and Blackpool- our only other 2 league wins since February. So why did they revert to the keystone cops stuff again?
Whatever you think of the current squad, they are better than 17th. They are better than a six goal defeat at Old Trafford and they are better than the Premiership`s bottom side. Yet for the last seven months, limited teams are time and again able to beat us with simple tactics. This means that the manager is currently not getting the best out of the players he has and hasn`t been for some months now. With every comedy goal concession and every boomerang result, we invite more pressure onto ourselves as teams face us with zest and confidence. They know that if we go ahead- even by as much as four goals- they have every chance of getting a result. I can`t pretend to know exactly what the problems are. We all wanted a big, domineering centre half. We bought a 6 foot 6 German international. We all wanted an experienced left back. We bought one. Defending is ultimately about more than just buying defenders though. It`s about more than just the back four and too many just aren`t taking the responsibility of defending from the front. I can`t pretend to know the answers. I don`t think any of us can. But the manager has to find them and sort them. Very, very soon. LD.
13.SZCZESNY, 3.SAGNA (20.Djourou `53), 4.MERTESACKER, 6.KOSCIELNY, 11.A.SANTOS, 17.SONG (29.Chamakh `76), 16.RAMSEY, 8.ARTETA, 27.GERVINHO, 23.ARSHAVIN (14.Walcoitt `64), 10.v.PERSIE(c). Unused; 9.J.Y.Park, 15.Oxlade-Chamberlain, 21.Fabianski, 39.Coquelin.
Follow me on twitter @LittleDutchVA
Date:Sunday September 18 2011
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