Posted by Sonuvagun
Splash splash splash inhale splash splash splash exhale splash splash splash. Hear that ye doubters? That was the sound of Arsenal swimming…
Blackburn at home. This game was billed by many, including us at COTA, as the first real – sink or swim – test of whether the latest Arsenal ensemble were in fact any sturdier, more experienced, steelier and generally more suited to the task of finally winning this goddamn league than any of the recent previous editions…
Fat Sam made no bones about the fact that he was going to play to our weaknesses, and even Arsene acknowledged before the game that Blackburn had every right to challenge us physically, and he in turn challenged our players to live with it:
“We have a good opportunity to send a strong message. I tell my players to be committed – that means to deal with every single challenge. For us it will be important that we are strong in the air because they have some players who are good in the air and they favour that style. They have Paul Robinson who kicks the ball very long, they have long throws. It’s important in England if you want to win the championship you have to deal with that. It will be a little bit a confrontation of two styles but it’s important that we dictate our style.
We have more steel. A few years ago we were a bit too immature with that kind of game. I don’t feel anymore that we are.”
I’m not sure about a few years ago… it was only a few months ago that Blackburn completely bullied us off the park, and on the surface not much has changed in our line up since then. If anything we have a got a bit more lightweight, with Koscielny playing where Gallas – and in the latter stages of the season – Campbell played. However today’s game just goes to show that, with the right manager and attitude, a team can learn and progress. For me it was always going to be a case of defensive discipline and holding our nerves as much as displaying physical strength or aggression… it’s easy to lose your concentration when the one millionth long ball is hoisted into the area, or to freeze/panic/lose faith when things start to look dodgy.
Thankfully today team Arsenal did none of those bad things; and whilst it was rarely as comfortable as us Arse-lovers would have liked, overall it was precisely the kind of mature, robust and confident performance that evaded us at times last season. As expected (after a good move saw Blackburn’s Grella have to clear Diaby’s shot off the line) Blackburn wasted little time in starting their aerial bombardment of our goal, buoyed by the home crowd – and no doubt a large dose of smug confidence arising from last year’s fixture. Our tactic in negating their set piece/long ball threat was to throw virtually every man behind the ball, which – whilst good for dealing with the immediate danger – also made it hard for us to play our way out of pressure. Throw ins led to corners, which led to clearances, which had no one on the end of them, which led to long balls back into our area, which led to more corners and throw-ins… you get the picture. Fabregas had to jump high and quick to clear off the line in the 9th minute to prevent a Blackburn goal, and you wondered if, despite the coming-of-age talk from AW, this might not be a long afternoon from the Arse perspective.
But then our suck-it-up-and-strike tactics paid off. Arshavin played it to Van Persie, who played a delightful ball inside the defender for Walcott to run onto. Last year you would have put money on the youngster fluffing his lines, but his cool finish from a very tight angle not only made mincemeat out of Paul Robinson it also broke the side-netting. Get in Theo! (If any one player symbolises Arsenal’s growing maturity, then the erratic-wild-card-thrown-on-as-a-last-ditch-attempt-to-win-a-game turned number-one-danger-man and leading striker is surely that man!).
The goal really settled us and suddenly it was classic Arsenal as we moved the ball around the pitch easily and began taking the game to Blackburn and knock on their door. You sensed that the hard work had all been done already…
Sadly this was not the case. Incredibly frustratingly we were soon back on level terms after Koscielny failed to deal with an easy one-on-one situation with El Hadji Diouf. Perhaps underestimating the Senegalese’s strength he chose to try and shoulder the Blackburn player off the ball, lost out and got mugged. The rest was simple… he only had to cut it back for another Diouf (Mame Biram, on loan from Man Yoo of all people) to finish into empty net (Almunia was forced to run out and tryo to close down Diouf number 1). For me this isn’t the time to rip Koscielny to shreds, criticize his rather slender torso and say he’s unfit to play in the Premier League. He was always going to fuck up, given his relative youth and inexperience at this level. The important thing is for him to learn. The situation demanded a classic English ball-and-man slide tackle, so let’s hope that’s what we see next time. Otherwise the Franco-Pole had a fairly solid game.
The Blackburn goal took the wind out of our sails. Heads went down (way too easily) and almost the first thing we did after kicking off was gift Blackburn another goal-scoring chance after Alexander Song played a kamikaze ball across field. The danger was snuffed and thankfully we woke up. Unfortunately on the 34th minute Van P went down holding his leg. No great surprise, and it was the second time in the game. Chamakh came on and thank God we bought him. I was of the school of thought that Van Persie, Bendtner and Vela is surely enough to compete for one position. But Wenger probably knows by now that Van Persie can only be counted as a bonus player. If he’s fit great… but we can’t rely on it. Selling Adebayor proved that, when VP became our only established striker and it definitely cost us points last season. Anyway the point I’m trying to make is that having someone of Chamakh’s quality and stature meant that we didn’t notice VP’s absence too much. Indeed kudos to the Moroccan for his excellent manhandling of Samba when defending set pieces. It was a joy to watch.
The second half started 1:1 and I was feeling confident. Blackburn hadn’t had too many out and out chances and we always looked capable of producing something. It took excellent determination by Sagna (one of the day’s star performers) who, chasing up the right flank, just about kept the ball in play. His first touch was perfect and took him into the heart of the Blackburn defence. A cut back for Fabregas and you sensed it had to be… his shot hit Walcott however, but fell to Arshavin. The Russian’s kept his nerve, despite a desperate lunge by Paul Robinson, and sidefooted precisely into the right hand corner. Suck on that Fat Sam!
A one goal cushion in this type of contest is always dangerous, but with Fabregas growing into game after a rather rusty start, we started to dominate possession. But then Wenger made a mistake replacing him with Rosicky. The Czech maestro has had a strong start to the campaign but still lacks Captain Fab’s poise and strength. Rosicky proved too lightweight to be our lynchpin and Blackburn started to run over us. I think Wenger noticed because shortly afterwards he brought on Wilshere for Arshavin and moved Rosicky out left, and we seemed to regain our momentum a little. Nonetheless neither team were able to dominate the last 10 minutes and there were some nervy moments as Dunn (on as a substitute) evaded our defenders, only to shoot straight at Almunia, whilst Wilshere had a golden chance to put the game out of reach on the 89th when Chamakh fed Walcott who slid the ball across to young Jack. However he slipped as he shot and the ball went out for a corner.
The game finished 1:2 to Arsenal, and – despite the hype and little-love-lost between managers or teams – it was actually a very clean game. Only a cynical tug by Givet on Walcott (after Theo had turned him inside out like a pair of pants at Cub Camp) was deemed worthy of a yellow by the ref.
So there you have it. As always there’s no point going over board about one match, and the difference between this year and last could be as much down to luck, or us actually being able to field a nearly full strength team for once (tellingly, with no Fabianski!), as down to anything else. In truth the game was more about dealing with their aerial threat than being physical and riding dirty challenges (as I just pointed out there was only one yellow and it was for a tug). But, reading as little or as much as you like into the result, playing Blackburn away is always a test and – regardless of anything else – I think we all desperately wanted to stand up and stick it to Fat Sam after what happened at Ewood in May. So thanks boys for doing just that!