Thursday, March 23, 2023

Arsenal 0-1 Blackburn: Dumped, what a mess

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It’s hard to know where to begin this morning. Going out of a cup competition to lower league opposition once in a season is bad enough, but yesterday saw the same thing happen again and it makes you think it’s something far beyond just a horrible coincidence.

Beforehand Bacary Sagna sounded a warning, saying if we didn’t take our chances we ran the risk of repeating what happened at Bradford. He’s a wise man, but you don’t need to be a soothsayer to know that this team has a brittleness to it that manifests itself far too often. Chances are spurned, goals are conceded, games and points are lost and dropped, and there seems to be no way of doing anything about it. The same mistakes are repeated over and over again.

When Tomas Rosicky sent Gervinho through on goal, with just the keeper to beat, everyone in that ground was right to have the expectation of a goal. Leave aside the obvious joke about the player himself, but this is top level professional football. He should score, it’s as simple as that. That he didn’t is because he’s just not a very good footballer. So what if he’s just back from the African Cup of Nations? It was a football tournament, not a three week ordeal in a torturer’s dungeon.

His shot rolled pathetically wide. It brought back memories of Bradford where he missed an even easier chance, scuffing wide from a few feet, and it proved very costly once again. Coming just before half-time, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest it would have made a very different game of it had we gone in 1-0 up. Blackburn were content to park the bus, they’d have to have come out and played a bit, but instead our lack of quality meant they could continue with a system that was, not for first time, frustratingly effective against us.

It’s made all the more frustrating by the fact it’s hardly something new and groundbreaking in terms of tactics. Get men behind the ball, stay organised, boot it clear if in any doubt. That’s all it takes to make life difficult for us, which is a sad indictment of the team and the manager, and the intransigent way he sends his teams out. There was no question of us changing, we’d simply keep tapping on the door and hope they opened up.

That their goal came just moments after the manager had taken off our most effective player (Rosicky), left Diaby to lumber around midfield, and brought on Wilshere, Cazorla and Walcott to try and win it added to the tragi-comedy of it all. Walcott stood watching as a Blackburn player ran past him and took a shot, Szczesny parried it straight into the path of Kazim-Richards, and his mishit shot bounced up and in off the post. Out of the cup to a goal like that? How very Arsenal.

There was a bit more intensity to Arsenal in the last 10 minutes or so, Arteta smashed a shot into the side netting, the keeper saved from Walcott, and once more it was all reactive. It follows a pattern that we’ve seen too often. We go behind, we wake up and start playing. The way we ambled through the first half was that of a team which hadn’t even considered this was a match they could possibly lose; a team that thought they simply had to knock the ball around and eventually Blackburn would wilt and we’d rightfully go through to the next round.

Players with something to prove, to show they were capable of adding depth to the squad, just proved why they’re on the fringes. I spoke about Gervinho’s miss, and while very costly, it’s not to suggest he’s totally to blame. It was a failing of the team, a team that won corner after corner and maybe 20% of the deliveries from those set-pieces was acceptable. That’s annoying, it’s not as if a player is being asked to do much other than kick a goddam football into a decent area, but time and again they were scuffed into the near post. Just not good enough.

I think we all expected some rotation for this game, and on paper that is a team that I believe is capable of beating Blackburn. We only have to look at Bradford, when the manager played as strong a team as he could, to know that picking your best XI isn’t a guarantee of winning. But what gives you a good chance is if you really, really want to win the game. If you want to be ruthless, to turn the screw, to batter the opposition, not stroll around thinking it’s going to be easy.

That mindset has to come from the manager. I’ve genuinely lost count of how many times we’ve heard talk about how there was a lack of focus against smaller teams. You can’t convince me that wasn’t the case yesterday and in the end that was our downfall. You can be quite sure there’ll be a ‘reaction’ against Bayern on Tuesday. Bigger, more glamourous opposition, and they’ll somehow find they can harry and press and work hard on a football field. Which simply makes days like yesterday worse, for me.

Again, it’s reactionary. We lose badly, there’s talk of hurt and pain and sorrow and then in the next game they run a bit a harder, tackle a bit more, get stuck in, and we’ve learned our lesson and turned that corner. Until the next time it happens. And it does happen, like night follows day, and it’s happening far too often.

Maybe the performance was reflective of the team selection. It immediately prioritised the Champions League, a competition we are extremely unlikely to win, over the FA Cup, a prize much more within our grasp. I get the need to rest players and rotate your squad, but what about picking your best team, going for it, and then resting players after an hour when the game is within your control?

The worst part about it all, for me at least, was how stoically I looked on as it happened. There was no shock, no surprise, and while it’s obviously frustrating and a cause of anger to go out of the cup so embarrassingly, it just felt like something inevitable and unstoppable. Par for the course these days. We are the Murphy’s Law of football.

Many will look at the squad and the team from yesterday and believe there are players far too comfortable at this club. That may well be true, you can draw conclusions from lack of urgency and desire, but if they’ve got it relatively easy then so too does the manager. There’s no pressure on him beyond that from fans, and we all know that he pays little attention to that. The entire club exists in a corporate-speak comfort zone at times, and that’s what brings about days like yesterday.

But days like yesterday will damage us off the pitch as well as on. You couldn’t fail to notice the swathes of empty seats yesterday, people are already voting with their feet. We hear talk of the Arsenal ‘brand’, how we need to protect that and exploit that and make money from that, but lack of success and apparent lack of ambition will damage it to no end. We do not, and have not for some time, come across like a club that is serious about winning things. Make commercial revenue from that, fellas. Who wants to sponsor a team that continues to fail in increasingly spectacular ways?

Out of the League Cup to Bradford, out of the FA Cup to Blackburn, 21 points behind the league leaders – however you try and explain it or rationalise it it’s simply not good enough for a club like Arsenal. And we can talk about oil money or unlevel playing fields all we want, but we are where we are because of us, nobody else. We made the decisions, sold the players, bought the players who continue to fail, we refuse to invest the money we have to make the squad better (except in moments of panic – Monreal another ‘reactive’ signing), we suffer the consequences of having a weak squad reliant on players who’d have been shown the door elsewhere.

This is Arsenal’s mess, Arsene’s mess. And it’s about time somebody did something to try and sort it out.

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