Arsenal 0 Blackburn Rovers 1
The F.A. Cup felt like a really good chance for Arsenal to banish the trophy drought and to perhaps really build the sort of momentum silverware can bring. Barnsley and Millwall went through to the Quarter Finals yesterday, one of Huddersfield or Wigan will be joining them. The chances of a generous draw in the Quarter Final were good too. One of the reasons we are spoiled as Arsenal fans is because we know that every season, we stand a reasonable chance of winning a cup. We can dare to dream. At least, we used to be able to! Champions League qualification and participation is important, we all know the reasons why and most of us accept that. It just seems that the club have built it up to the point that it`s become a paralysing crescendo.
The club conducted a poll on arsenal.com this week asking supporters whether they`d prefer to finish in the top 4 trophyless or to win a cup and finish 5th. Now, I wouldn`t venture that a fairly superficial and not hugely important piece of interface on Arsenal Media dictates the policy of a whole club. But the listless performance yesterday, with the spectre of Bayern Munich and another tight, nerve shredding race for 4th, makes it hard not to believe that the players, the whole club in fact, are just so in its thrall that they are unable to conceive pursuing any other objective in tandem. Bradford ought to have inoculated this lot from complacency for life. Apparently not.
I have no issues whatsoever with the team selection. In fact, I remarked pre match that it was stronger than I thought it would be. I did not expect to see Giroud, Koscielny or Arteta starting. It was plenty strong enough to beat Blackburn in terms of quality. But if your mind is elsewhere and you turn up believing that less than 100% focus is good enough, it really doesn`t matter who`s playing. Blackburn`s tactics were pretty obvious; they played a flat back 8 and hacked everything clear they could. They were right to do it, because it`s a very successful tactic to use against Arsenal. Appleton spoke after the game about deliberately forcing Arsenal into wide areas so that they would have to cross the ball. Even on the rare occasions that the cross didn`t float out of play or into Jake Kean`s midriff, there were usually 6 Blackburn defenders surrounding the isolated figure of Giroud.
Rovers actually created the first half chance when Pedersen`s free kick was grazed Vermaelen`s head and flew to the back post. Fortunately, Marcus Olsson elected to try and use his left foot instead of his right and he sliced his volley wide. Given how heavily Blackburn were squeezing the centre of the pitch and the walking pace tempo Arsenal elected to play with, set pieces quickly became Arsenal`s only obvious route to goal. Given that we played with no attacking left footers, most of our corners from the right were rather pathetic. But if you throw enough sh*t, some sticks and given the enormous amount of corners we had, we created chances with one or two.
Rosicky`s delivery was met with a firm header by Diaby, but Jake Kean thrust the ball over the bar. It was just about the only thing Diaby did all day that was above strolling pace. His is a reputation that disintegrates with every game he plays. Every time he sits on the treatment table, we`re told that he`s the best midfielder this side of Johan Cruyff. The guy is 27 years old now and I think I`ve given up hope that he will ever grow a brain. Another Rosicky corner was floated into the area, Vermaelen connected with a looping header, that Kean batted out. But the real opportunity came two minutes before half time. For once, Arsenal were able to make two relatively simple passes through Blackburn`s lines of men. Diaby to Rosicky, the Czech threaded through to Gervinho who ran clear on goal. To this point, Gervinho had actually played quite well and even appeared to be winning a suspicious crowd over. But as soon as he rolled that easy chance wide, the patience snapped as forcefully as the crowd`s patience. It was a panicked finish and, in truth, not a difficult chance at all.
Profligacy was the only pockmark of last week`s performance against Sunderland. We got away with it then. We didn`t this time. Blackburn were able to stick to their simple game plan and Arsenal had no answer to it, a series of hopeful long shots were about as much as we could muster. The game was unwittingly summed up by an incident in the 49th minute when Thomas Vermaelen, oblivious to the pressing of Jordan Rhodes, nonchalantly rolled the ball to Francis Coquelin. Immediately, Coquelin was in trouble, but instead of releasing the ball quickly with two Rovers players on him, he tried to beat them both and lost the ball. Olsson robbed him of possession and Vermaelen was then forced into a panicked clearance for a Blackburn corner. Complacency personified.
Rosicky was pretty much Arsenal`s sole bright spark and he was desperately unlucky not to open to scoring on 65 minutes. He collected a pass from Arteta on the edge of Blackburn`s box, turned and thumped a swerving shot against the underside of the crossbar. Minutes later he rolled Gervinho free in the right channel, but Gervinho, the confidence sapped from his legs, did not accelerate and Hanley got back to block. He, Rosicky and the once again ineffective Chamberlain were removed for Wilshere, Walcott and Cazorla. I might have taken Diaby off instead of Rosicky myself, but I guess his fitness precludes him from playing 90 minutes at the moment. The substitution would, unintentionally, have dire defensive consequences.
Bradley Orr hit a raking long ball from right back to Pedersen on the left wing. He outleapt Coquelin to flick the ball to the edge of Arsenal`s area. Walcott stood and watched as Olsson strode forward and shot straight at Szczesny. The Pole has been criticised for not turning the ball wide, but the shot was hit at his midriff and it`s very difficult from that angle to do anything other than beat it out in front of you. But where Vermaelen had had to move out of position to cover Walcott and try to block Olsson`s shot, now Colin Kazim Richards was totally unmarked in the area and he hit a bouncing, scuffed effort which bounced comically in off the post. A quite ridiculous goal for a team of our level to concede.
As is usually the case nowadays, going a goal down is the only motivation that our players seem to understand. They finally began to play with some urgency. Wilshere`s free kick flicked off of Dann in the area and caught Giroud by surprise in the area, so he handled it six yards from goal with nobody marking him. Coquelin found Diaby`s run in the channel and he blasted a shot from the angle at Jake Kean. Wilshere injected some purpose into Arsenal`s attack. His aggression and work rate just make it so apparent how far those two ingredients had been missing from Arsenal`s play. He wedged a delicate pass to Monreal, who had overlapped forwards from left back, but he could only hack the ball over the bar from a narrow angle.
Theo Walcott ought to have done better after Cazorla and Wilshere combined, Jack clipped the ball into the area from the touchline and Walcott should have made amends for his earlier defensive negligence, but could only direct a free header straight at Jake Kean. The Gunners had one last effort in the 93rd minute. Wilshere again beavered his way to the touchline and cut the ball back for Giroud, his shot was blocked by Dann and ran to Arteta on the back post, but unusually, the Spaniard panicked and blasted the ball into the side netting when, for once, there were a host of options in the area for him to pick out. It was a desperate end to a desperate afternoon.
The final whistle sounded to prolonged and sustained booing. The team the manager picked should have had more than enough to beat Blackburn. Indeed, on chances created we should have beaten them anyway. But what`s alarming is that, once again, Arsenal lacked focus against lower opposition. You can draw a line right back to the Hull defeat in 2008. Complacent, below par performance, several interviews from the players, saying they`re sorry and they`ve learned their lesson, improving for 6-8 weeks before it happens again and we get the "ver` sorr` sur" interviews again. Minds were clearly on Bayern on Tuesday, which is strange because many of the players were out there precisely because they`re not going to be f*****g well playing against Bayern. But it sums the club up, they`ve paralysed themselves into believing that the Champions League is the only thing worth a damn. Qualifying for it that is.
You have to ask big questions as to why, time and again, motivation lets this team down. Even if you don`t think the manager is a great motivator, surely professionals of this standard should be self motivated enough to do the job? Arsene is a manager that puts a lot of trust and liberty into his players and it has seen him bring the best out of players many, many times before. Perhaps that approach only works with a certain level of player though. Perhaps with the quality of player we have now, they do need to be told, "This IS important today. DON`T let, me or yourselves down. This opposition WILL be tough and you`ll only beat them if you give it 100%. The F.A. Cup IS important. Forget ranking your priorities, you`re playing for something that IS important today." The likes of Wilshere and Rosicky, who I would class as two of our highest quality players (a fit Rosicky might be a rarity, but a fit Rosicky is one of our best footballers), didn`t need that message transmitting. They played appropriately.
Many of the others? I`m not so sure. We`re a club stuck in an infinite loop and the trophy draught will go on. We`re in a horrible catch 22. We`re not good enough to beat the likes of Chelsea, Manchester City or United if we draw them. When we do get a plum draw, we`re not focussed enough. In that respect, perhaps Swansea was the perfect draw for the 3rd Round. A team that we could beat but we were forced to take seriously. Maybe we`d be in the hat for the 6th Round if we had drawn Everton or someone of that ilk. I don`t really know. I do know that there are far too many games occurring far too regularly where the manager can`t seem to get his team to focus. He needs to take a very long and serious look at why that is. We`ve had new captains. We`ve had new coaching staff. We`ve had new owners. We`ve had new players. Nothing changes. But there`s one common denominator. LD.
ARSENAL: 1.SZCZESNY, 22.COQUELIN, 6.KOSCIELNY, 5.VERMAELEN (c), 17.MONREAL, 8.ARTETA, 2.DIABY, 7.ROSICKY (10.Wilshere `68), 15.CHAMBERLAIN (19.S.Cazorla `68), 27.GERVINHO (14.Walcott `68), 12.GIROUD. Unused: 3.Sagna, 9.Podolski, 16.Ramsey, 24.Mannone.
BLACKBURN ROVERS: 34.KEAN, 2.ORR, 16.DANN(c), 31.G.HANLEY, 3.MARTIN OLSSON, 6.LOWE, 7.WILLIAMSON, 12.PEDERSEN, 14.MARCUS OLSSON (35.Bentley `64), 39.KAZIM RICHARDS, 11.RHODES (25.Goodwillie `82). Unused: 5.Givet, 7.Nunes, 21.Nuno Gomes, 23.Rekik, 30.Usai.