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Blackburn 4-3 Arsenal: a game of two halves

blackburn_away

Video highlights and reaction

When Arsene Wenger spoke about the need to add consistency to our game, like most of you I thought about a sequence of results and performances which would win points for the football club. I’m pretty sure that he did too, looking to add to the midweek draw and the win against Swansea last weekend.

What became obvious at the final whistle yesterday is that this Arsenal side is not capable of consistency over 90 minutes, let alone from one week to the next. The first, despite conceding an equaliser, was something like the Arsenal of old. Dynamic, attacking, dangerous play, pulling Blackburn apart at times, particularly down our right hand side. The second, Wenger’s Arsenal at their self-destructive worst, casual, sloppy and ultimately punished because of it.

It had started so well. As I said, the first 45 minutes were great to see because it reminded us that when we click we’re a good footballing side. The midfield trio of Arteta, Ramsey and Song were outstanding, while Sagna and Gervinho down the right had Givet pulling his beard out, such was the ease with which they found space and time behind him.

Song set up the first for Gervinho, a lovely ball behind the defence which the Ivorian hit first time back across goal and into the bottom corner. He was involved in the second too, feeding Ramsey who cut it back for Arteta to slam home emphatically. Two first-time scorers for the club, two nice goals. Of course there had been an equaliser between them, Santos and Koscielny played Yakubu onside and his finish was really clever, leaving the onrushing Szczesny stranded.

Then a decisive moment close to the end of the half. Gervinho had waltzed through the Blackburn defence, into the box, and instead of passing to the unmarked Robin van Persie to slot home from 6 yards out, he took a shot which was blocked for a corner. To say the captain was unhappy would be an understatement. Had we gone in 3-1 up at half-time I suspect things might have been different. And I know we always complain about trying to walk it into the net but when the pass is that obvious it has to be made. And on such tight margins can games change.

Whether there was something in the tea at half-time I just don’t know but the Arsenal that came out for the second half was almost unrecognisable from the Arsenal that played in the first. People might talk about us being unlucky, two own goals and an offside goal certainly sounds unlucky, but our woes were of our own making, our defensive frailties all too obvious.

I’m not convinced the free kick awarded against Arshavin was actually a free kick, I thought he got the ball, but when the set-piece was floated in over the players at the near post, it bounded off Song’s thigh and dribbled into the goal. I just can’t understand how a tame ball like that wasn’t attacked by either the keeper or a defender. To let it drop like that, with nobody taking responsibility, was poor.

We then lost Sagna to an injury, replaced by Johan Djourou whose first contribution was to haul down Junior Hoillet after the Blackburn man had gone past him as if he wasn’t there. When Djourou defended well and conceded a corner, Arsenal conceded a third. Wenger spoke before the game about how the new zonal marking system from corners was looking promising. It isn’t. It’s disastrous. Personally, I’m not a fan, and for it to work properly you need a well-oiled, highly organised defensive machine. We’re anything but. For this Arsenal team it does nothing but absolve players of individual responsibility and frankly that’s something we need more of.

There were warning signs in the first half, Koscielny and Santos both beaten in the air by Samba, who should have scored at least once. I guess if a zonal marking system is deployed well then you don’t leave a man free at the back post to fire a shot back across goal. If that man is not free to take that shot then the bloke who is slightly offside can’t tap it in to make it 3-2. Yes, he was offside, and how the linesman didn’t see it I have no idea as replays showed he was right in line, but the defending leading up to it was Sunday League bad.

And it got worse. Blackburn broke from a corner, Djourou slid in on Olsson right on the touchline, and somehow contrived to miss ball and man. At least one of them, preferably both, should have ended up in the third row with the fans. Olsson drove into the box, Song hung out a Denilsonesque leg which he easily sidestepped and his cross was turned into the Arsenal goal by Koscielny to complete a sequence of defensive wretchedness that should be used in manuals up and down the land. ‘What not to do when a team breaks’ by Arsenal FC.

We got one back, Chamakh’s first league goal since November, and had chances to equalise. Mertesacker headed over from 6 yards, van Persie had a shot saved, Chamakh headed wide when he should have got it on target at least, but it wasn’t to be. Blackburn, a team who had one point going into this game, having scored 1 goal at home, scored 4 against us. Blackburn, whose fans protested against their manager before the game, ended up above us in the table at the final whistle.

Afterwards, Arsene said:

It is terrible, it is just not good enough. Of course we are very frustrated, the spirit in the team is quite willing but if you look at the number of goals we have conceded that is not good enough.

Overall we created many chances, even in the second half but we had a lack of focus on what we knew they were strong at – corners, free-kicks.

It’s quite astonishing that just five games into the new season, and with a clutch of new, enthusiastic players at his disposal, that the manager is admitting there was a lack of focus, especially when talking about Blackburn’s threat from set-pieces. Everyone knows they’re strong there, so why on earth was there a lack of focus? Were they reading the piece on the official site about how much better we were at corners now and thought ‘job done’?

I’m not going to go trawling through the archives but I can clearly remember a number of times when players (Sagna and Clichy) and Arsene have spoken about a lack of focus in games we’ve dropped points. These guys are only asked to concentrate for 90 minutes at a time, twice a week. If that’s beyond them, or if it’s beyond the manager to get that out of them, then something has to change. That admission is staggering, the more I think about it.

Arsenal’s start to the season now reads: 2011-2012 P5 W1 D1 L3 F6  A14 GD -8 Pts 4

To put that in perspective, check out @7amkickoff‘s ‘By the numbers’ post on Arseblog News. We have never had a negative goal difference before, let alone -8. The numbers are startling, for this season alone, and when you take into account the run we’re on from last season it’s even more worrying. Just 3 wins from our last 16 league games.

By any standards that’s a concern, by the high standards Arsene Wenger has set at the club, it is, as the manager said himself, terrible. And the longer this run goes on the more you have to question if Arsene is capable of getting us out of it. If the team lacks focus, if the same defensive issues are present regardless of new signings and changes of system, doesn’t it suggest the problem lies much deeper than players and systems?

Of the back four that started yesterday, only Koscielny started the game against United at Old Trafford. New personnel haven’t solved the problem because the problem is much more fundamental. At Old Trafford we conceded eight to a very good United team, yesterday four against a Blackburn team that really aren’t up to much. As Arse2Mouse says, we embolden other teams. We fill them with confidence with our brittleness.

Defensively, we are a shambles. We have been a shambles for some time now and clearly what’s happening on the training ground and with the chequebook isn’t working. A lack of focus at set-pieces against a team like Blackburn is unforgivable and it suggests, to me at least, that the team is not responsive to the manager.

You can’t expect to win games if you concede four goals. We’ve gone away from home in the last few months, scored 3 goals and lost. We’ve scored 4 goals and drawn. The bottom line is that we let too many goals in, we let too many goals in because we can’t defend, we can’t defend because the team is not taught well enough how to defend, and while I’m certainly not privy to everything that goes on behind the scenes, all attempts to solve this problem have thus far failed.

I hear people talking about how we need a new defensive coach. I’m really not sure that’s the answer. It probably wouldn’t hurt but ultimately it’d be like zonal marking, absolving Arsene of the responsibility. The finger could be pointed at the defensive coach, if things went wrong, and not the manager. Anyway, Arsene has resisted all previous calls for an addition to his coaching squad, to do so now would smack of desperation.

Yesterday’s result left me strangely bemused, that if there’s a ludicrous way to lose a match then somehow we’ll manage to find it. This is a team, and more tellingly, a manager really, really struggling right now. If the team can’t find consistency over 90 minutes, what chance over 5 games, or 10 games?

Much as I would like to see Arsene turn it around, and I really would, sometimes it takes a seismic change to make things better. The longer this abject run continues, and the longer the obvious problems we have remain unsolved, the closer the time comes for that change to be made.

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Fan of Arsenal, Robert Pires and most everything to do with rum and whiskey. Writer, podcaster, ace flintknapper, sluggish centre-half. Smiter of those that ought to be smote.