Arsenal headed to the graveyard that is the North-West for the second league game of the season, on the back of a battling victory in Prague. Our opponents too were involved in Europe midweek, and had a day’s less rest than we did. Could we capitalise?
With Eboue and Rosicky out injured and Eduardo and Denilson being available after knocks, Le Boss was faced with selection questions, both tactical and personnel-wise. Would he stick to the so-far successful 4-4-1-1? Would Eduardo make his debut? How would Wenger shuffle the injury problems out wide? All was revealed when he decided to field Walcott wide right, with Hleb dropping back into a left-midfield position thus allowing Eduardo to make his bow. Quite an attacking lineup in all honesty, I had fully expected Denilson to fill in somewhere along the midfield, never thinking that Wenger would field both Eduardo and Theo. Thankfully the defence was unchanged, hopefully letting them build up a decent understanding and continuity at the back.
We started brightly enough, Theo cutting in from the right flank and speeding through a few challenges before sliding in a beautifully-weighted ball behind the Blackburn defence. Eduardo got there before the onrushing Brad Friedel, but instead of turning it goalwards he tried to poke it past the keeper, unsuccessfully so. I mentioned this in my pre-season reviews: he does seem to take a touch too many when through on goal, and here was no different. With Friedel coming off his line and the ball on Eduardo’s left peg it seemed the perfect opportunity to dink the ball over the Yank, but he didn’t take it up. Maybe it’s a confidence thing, because he is new to the team? I hope so anyway.
Former youth-teamer David Bentley had an effort from 25 yards which went over the bar, and then Jens went down after a collision with Kolo when coming for the ball. Ouch. The goal came after 18 minutes when good work from Alex Hleb saw Cesc get in behind their defence. He was forced wide and layed it off to Clichy, who put in a decent cross to the back post which was only half cleared. Theo nodded the ball back into the danger and it nearly fell for Eduardo, ricocheting off him to Friedel who dropped a clanger before somehow Cesc didn’t put in the net. After some pinball the ball broke to Robin on the 6-yard box and he duly buried it with his trusty left foot. 1-0 to the Arsenal. My description befits the goal itself: messy. Before the game I had been watching the Manchester derby on Sky and Andy Gray remarked about how United had ‘done an Arsenal’ – that is, trying to walk the ball in the net before being caught with a sucker punch. Thankfully, Arsenal decided to do a Chelsea and get the scrappiest of goals despite not being at their best.
Not long after we received a big blow as skipper Willy Gallas went down under a challenge from Santa Cruz. I couldn’t tell whether he turned an ankle or pulled a muscle, but he knew immediately that he couldn’t continue and signalled to the bench that he’d need to come off. At the time I write this there’s still been no word on the severity of the injury, so hopefully no news is good news.
With Gallas off the pitch and the change yet to be made we were temporarily reduced to 10-men. Instead of kicking the ball into touch Mad Jens knocked it upfield to Robin, who in trying to hold off Bentley was wrestled to the ground. In WWE terms, I think its called a double-leg take-down. Not only that, but as he was on the floor he had that wanker Savage and Bentley himself standing over him and giving it large, as these British thugs…I mean, ‘honest’ footballers seem to do. It was symptomatic of Blackburn’s play in the first-half: they tried to do a hatchet job on us but it didn’t quite work, with the young Guns newfound ability to stand up for themselves coming to the fore.
When Blackburn did attempt to resemble a FOOTBALL team in the first-half they did come close to grabbing an equaliser. Predictably it was from a set-piece as Samba (he is a beast of a man) headed Bentley’s deep free-kick back into the mixer and Ryan Nelsen headed against the post. This was most definitely a warning of what was to come in the second-half. However we could have wrapped it up before the second 45 as Theo was sent racing through on goal. I don’t know if it was indecision or poor execution, but either way his attempted square ball to Robin was too high and fast for the Dutchman. He could’ve taken it on himself but looked to be caught in two minds, and at half-time I was thinking to myself that I can’t remember Theo ever being through one-on-one with the keeper (except for his only goal in the Carling Cup final of course). I would love to see how he would fare in such a situation, because from seeing his stuff on YouTube he seems a very cool customer in front of goal (especially his brace for the Under-21’s against Germany). With 5 minutes of injury time thanks to Willy’s injury there was enough time for Savage to get booked (finally) and for Senderos to have a goalbound header deflected wide by Samba.
5 minutes into the second-half and Savage should’ve been off. Not for a horrendous tackle, but for a blatant dive. Everytime I see someone (usually an ‘honest’ Brit) go over like he’s been shot I always hark back to the flak that Robert Pires got for his Swan Lake impersonation against Portsmouth at the very beginning of the unbeaten season. He was widely castigated in the press, and rightfully so I guess. Yet Savage did the exact same thing today as he flicked his foot out at Kolo’s and went over like a sack of spuds. No penalty was given, so where was the yellow for simulation? From there on the game became very scrappy and Arsenal could barely string two passes together. As soon as the ball went forward to Eduardo or Robin, straightaway it came back as Blackburn (by fair means or foul) won possession and pumped it forward. In my opinion this was the perfect time to bring on Nicklas Bendtner to hold the ball up and bring the midfield runners into play, but Le Boss persisted with Eduardo, who to be fair looked sharp in the first-half with two good efforts from outside the box.
Not only were Blackburn ploughing it forward but there were a few occasions where they cut through our midfield with some neat one-twos. We sorely missed Gilberto and his ability to make interceptions and cut-off angles along with his added height in defending set-pieces, where once again we looked decidedly dodgy. When Chelsea concede a free-kick or corner, do you think their fans automatically know that either their keeper is gonna have to make a save or a defender is gonna have to clear it off the line or the ball is gonna go agonisingly wide? No. So why do we Gooners have to go through it time and time again? Speaking of set-pieces, our inability to convert them is also frustratingly annoying. We are surely the most fouled team in the league, and we get our fair share of corners too, yet we don’t make the most of nowhere near enough of these opportunities. No surprise then that we failed to extend our lead when Phil didn’t make enough connection with a Van Persie free-kick. That was our only chance for a long period of time as Blackburn had us under the cosh. At the start of the half I was thinking that we needed a second goal before they brought the cavalry on (McCarthy and/or Roberts), but right now we were clinging on to our slender one-goal advantage.
The equaliser came on 72 minutes, but surprisingly it was not from a set-piece. David Dunn exchanged passes with Santa Cruz before firing it goalwards on his weaker left-foot. It was straight at Jens and a decent height too, a regulation catch one would have thought. Not Jens though, as somehow it slipped through his hands and into the top corner. Twice in two weeks our German stopper has made serious gaffes, and despite his heroics against Sparta midweek, keepers are always remembered for their mistakes. Ask Dave Seaman if you don’t believe me…
Blackburn pushed for a winner with supposed Arsenal target Morten Gamst Pedersen striking the side-netting. We were most definitely holding at the point, but did manage to break forward ourselves. A move which petered out on the edge of the Blackburn box saw Cesc go down clutching the back of his head. Replays showed that Pedersen had in fact stamped on the Spaniards head, and whether it was intentional or not, it was still dangerous and an overspilling of ‘controlled’ aggression. With 5 minutes left Bendtner flicked on for Robin who looked to have gotten the better of Nelsen. He was tugged down and the Blackburn skipper was given his marching orders with his second yellow as the tide turned back in our favour. Cesc clipped the resulting free-kick over the bar, but with a man extra Arsenal looked to grab a priceless winner. It nearly came too, the dangerous Bendnter breaking forward and causing an uncharacteristic error from the usually sound Friedel. With the keeper off his line the Dane squared for Van Persie but it was inches ahead of him. The clearance fell to Alex Hleb on the edge of the box and with two goals in two games you would’ve thought he had the confidence to pull the trigger himself, but instead he teed up substitute Denilson whose eventual shot was beaten away by the recovering Friedel. Then the final chance came deep into injury time as Robin set Bendtner up on the edge of the box but his shot swerved not too far wide of the post. It was a shame that Blackburn weren’t down to 10-men for longer as our pressure was beginning to tell, but full-time came and both teams had to settle for a point.
In all honesty, it was probably a fair result. We had control of the first-half without ever creating too much, and then Blackburn predictably had the better of the second as they pressed for an equaliser. Despite all our shoddiness at defending set-pieces, it was again a goalkeeping error which saw us concede, just like last week. Last week I feel was a forgivable one – we all know that Jens is a bit of a nutter when the ball is at his feet and is liable to make such a gaffe – but today’s one was unforgivable. Jens can at times flap a bit at crosses and his positioning can be dodgy too (see the Quedrue goal at Highbury in 04/05 or the David Thompson free-kick in the last game at Highbury), but handling errors are a step too far. It was straightforward and straight at him, I didn’t detect any untoward movement from the ball either. Did he lose his concentration? Was it so simple a save that he’d already begun to think about catching it and building another attack from the back? Whatever the reason, the outcome was unforgivable. We need a solid citizen behind our defence, not a mercurial maverick. When Jens got dropped in 04/05 after the Invincibles came crashing down I don’t remember him making any obvious mistakes to warrant the dropping. So doesn’t that mean these errors should see Almunia or Fabianski (who both looked reliable during pre-season) come into the lineup? Yes we can indulge him and give him the benefit of the doubt, but in this day and age can we afford to concede points in this manner? And can we afford to risk doing so on a weekly basis? I think not. I dunno whether he will be between the sticks next week against Man City, but I am certain that he won’t be number 1 this time next year, and may even be permanently ousted by the end of the season. Arsene certainly has an unexpected dilemma here, that’s for sure.
Onto the physicality of the game. Watching it on my admittedly crap feed it was plain to see that this game had the potential to boil over at any opportunity. That there was only one red card (and even that was for a professional foul, not for ‘violence’) was quite surprising. With the likes of Savage goading away at our players and the ref, the boys did extremely well to keep their heads in the main. The only incident I can remember when we nearly lost our cool was when the already-booked Robin was having words with Mark Hughes. First Cesc last season and now Robin, Hughes doesn’t half like getting involved does he? I wasn’t overly happy at the referee, not because he didn’t censure the Blackburn players enough, but because it was obvious that he had his head turned by the Blackburn players and crowd at half-time. With the baying chants of ‘1-0 to the referee’, I knew that he’d favour the home side in the second-half when it came to the 50-50 decisions.
A quick word on Gallas and Gilberto, in the second-half we missed their presences. Whilst Flamini is an asset to the squad with his tireless running, he is no natural holding midfielder. Positionally he is nowhere near as astute as the Brazilian, and he is not as disciplined either. He tends to vacate his spot too much, and sure when it comes off and he gets us a goal it’s great, but when we’re 1-0 up away from home and backs to the wall, he should be mentally aware of the need to sit more. That said, I’m glad he is staying and is happy to be at the club, every title-winning team needs a scrapper like him. We also missed Gilberto’s calming influence on the pitch, ironic I should say that seeing as in the corresponding fixture last season he saw red, but true nonetheless.
Gallas was a big miss in the second-half. His replacement Senderos did fine, I have no qualms with his performance, but had the skipper been on the pitch I doubt he would have let us be penned in our own half for such long periods. We missed his cajoling and coaxing – a sure sign that he is growing into his role as captain. Hopefully his injury is not too serious, otherwise we’ve got problems at centre-back, especially with the loan release of Djourou to Brum.
All in all, I’m still unsure as to whether it was a point gained or two dropped. Compared to last season, it is indeed two dropped. However the performance here last season was more the exception rather than the rule away from home, with a wonder goal from you know who sealing things. Speaking of which, did anyone else see resemblances of TH14 in Torres’ goal? But back to Arsenal. We were bullied today, but we didn’t back down. In years gone by this kind of intimidation would’ve seen us retreat into our shell and concede the game. But not today, for we stood up to it and gave as good as we got. Blackburn did deserve a point for their second-half pressure, and before the red card we were hanging on a bit, which makes me feel like it was a point gained in the face of adversity. But having gone a goal up, and having not conceded from a set-piece but instead from a goalkeeping howler, it makes me feel like two points dropped. All the more so because this is the type of game any team harbouring title ambitions has to win – away from home, crowd on your back, referee being a homer, intimidation from the opposition. Had we won that game it would’ve been massive. Instead, it is a juncture on the learning curve for the kids. The kids did their job – but can they continue to carry the eldest statesman on their backs for much longer?
LATE UPDATE: According to Sky Sports, Willy has done his groin and could be out for up to 3 weeks, during which he’ll miss games against league-leaders Man City and Pompey, along with the return leg against Sparta Prague. The team needs him and his fighting spirit so hopefully he comes back on time, unlike last season where his injury layoff went on and on and on…