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Arsenal and Walcott bring Blackpool down to earth with a bump

Arsenal 6 Blackpool 0

Walcott 12, 39, 58, Arshavin 32 pen, Diaby 49, Chamakh 83

Blackpool fans are realistic enough to know they are the Premier League‘s equivalent of the archetypal seven-stone weakling, destined to struggle against the top division’s muscle-men. They will have enjoyed last weekend’s opening 4-0 win at Wigan for what it was: a rare opportunity to kick sand into a bigger boy’s face; a thoroughly enjoyable high in what promises to be a season with more downs than ups. Nonetheless, yesterday’s 6-0 hammering at the Emirates Stadium brought them back down to earth with a bump and ensured their Premier League honeymoon came to a sharp and painful end.

Blackpool fans will at least be familiar with what a rollercoaster ride feels like (image courtesy of cubicgarden)

Two games in, and the Seasiders’ season is already starting to resemble the In Fusion rollercoaster at the town’s famous Pleasure Beach. The ride opened in May 2007, the same month in which Blackpool earned promotion from League 1 to the Championship, from where they ascended after three seasons to the Premier League via a 3-2 playoff final win over Cardiff. If the club can stay on the rails – and the sudden resignation of Karl Oyston, currently involved in a bankruptcy hearing, as chairman this week is not exactly the best possible news – then a 17th-place finish would be regarded as a miraculous achievement by manager Ian Holloway and his under-financed side. When former Aston Villa striker Marlon Harewood and one-time Rangers playmaker Charlie Adam are your star attractions and your ground, Bloomfield Road, has a capacity of less than 13,000 and is currently undergoing much-needed redevelopment, it is understandable that expectations would be muted.

But, make no mistake, Blackpool are not just along for the ride. And as they demonstrated at Wigan last week, they are willing and able to play attractive, attacking football, and will give many larger clubs an awkward 90 minutes between now and the end of the season.

All of which made this the proverbial potential banana skin for an Arsenal side who had scrambled a late point last Sunday against ten-man Liverpool, and who have ‘previous’ in slipping up against newly-promoted sides, with the wounds of a 2-1 home defeat to Hull City – the only other club in Premier League history whose first-choice strip is orange – two seasons ago still fresh in Gunners fans’ memories.

However, from the moment Andrey Arshavin converted a 32nd-minute penalty awarded for a foul by Ian Evatt on Marouane Chamakh – as the last defender, Evatt was sent off, although the foul appeared to occur outside the box – the result was never in doubt. Until then Blackpool, trailing to Theo Walcott‘s 12th-minute opener, had crafted a couple of decent openings – most notably a header that Gary Taylor-Fletcher failed to get on target – to give them justifiable encouragement against an Arsenal defence featuring midfielder Alex Song alongside Thomas Vermaelen.

Theo Walcott scored his first Premier League hat-trick (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Evatt’s dismissal, however, hastened the inevitable, and the visitors quickly found themselves overrun and five down before the hour mark. Walcott notched up his first Premier League hat-trick either side of a crisp Abou Diaby half-volley; his third – a fine run and left-footed finish – being the pick of the bunch. And Chamakh opened his Arsenal account late on with a powerful header from a corner earned after a mesmerising run by substitute Carlos Vela. It was a just reward for a strong, line-leading performance by the Moroccan international, which had been marred only by wayward finishing.

Walcott knows this is an important season for him for both club and country as he attempts to prove his doubters – both among fans and the media – wrong. This was just the performance he needed as he attempts to force his way back into the England side after his omission from the World Cup squad. Each of his goals was the result of neat, composed finishing, and his overall performance was perhaps the best we have seen from him as a starter since the 2008/09 season. Both with and without the ball, his pace provided a constant threat, he drifted in off the touchline to good effect, and his decision-making with the ball at his feet was good. Oddly, his first Premier League hat-trick comes nearly two years after his first England one, but it will have done the 21-year old’s confidence a power of good.

Manager Arsène Wenger was delighted with his performance:

He is more electric than he has been to date because he is sharp. I like today the fact he mixed well the final ball and the finishing. That is always a sign that the player is always more mature. Let’s not forget that what he does is at a very high pace, so it’s not always easy to make the right decision, but today I think he got many decisions in the final third right.

The challenge for Walcott now is to reproduce this kind of performance on a more regular basis, and particularly against better, more physical opposition than he faced yesterday. If he can achieve that, he will be back in the England side on a regular basis again.

Wenger also praised the contribution of Tomáš Rosický, whose Arsenal career has been frustratingly injury-prone:

[Rosický is] a player who had a proper preparation. He was 18 months out and it takes a long time to come back and after when you do you have little problems. I believe when he came on at Liverpool he had a big impact on the game and he looks physically ready and sharp as well.

The Czech player ran and passed with great intelligence, providing valuable impetus from midfield which was largely missing at Anfield until his arrival from the bench. Arsenal fans (myself included) are often frustrated by his alarming susceptibility to long-term injuries, but it easy to forget that Rosický is a player very much in the Paul Scholes mode – a great runner from midfield with excellent vision and a hammer of a right foot. If he can stay fit, he will be a critical cog in Arsenal’s attacking machinery this season.

Unsurprisingly, Blackpool manager Holloway branded as “ridiculous” the penalty decision which reduced his side to ten men, but conceded his team were already heading for a likely defeat by then:

Arsenal are a team full of fantastic players. They way they try and play, pass and move is an education. We were doing OK until the referee deemed Ian’s challenge to be a sending off. I thought it was a penalty at best but then to send him off was ridiculous – it absolutely ruined the game as a spectacle. But we’d probably have been beaten anyway. Some of the football Arsenal played was world-class and they could have scored more. After the red card it was damage limitation and they damaged us all the way to the end.

Even Wenger agreed the call was marginal:

From where I was I thought it was outside the area but I think the linesman gave it. I saw it, but from the bench it is difficult to see if it was inside or outside. The referee has no choice, unfortunately, because it was not a malicious foul, but denying a goalscoring opportunity is clear. I feel many times a yellow card would be enough.

Finally, the manager made cautious but positive noises regarding potential signings before the transfer window closes in just over a week’s time:

I am confident we will add at least one, maybe one plus one. It is difficult to predict because the market is very quiet but I know that in the last five days it gets crazy and then it gets completely mad.

He also put the lie to Fulham boss Mark Hughes‘ complaints about Arsenal putting unfair pressure on want-away goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer, to whom he has always attempted not to refer directly:

I believe it has to be as quiet as possible. We always respect the decision of the clubs if they don’t want to sell. They do not need to come out in the press with that. If they don’t want to sell they say that and we respect that. It’s the same with anybody.

Overall, despite the limitations of the opposition, this was an encouraging performance by Arsenal, if not one to get too carried away about. The movement from midfield was much crisper (albeit against a bedraggled Blackpool back line) than the previous week, and for Chamakh to get his first goal under his belt was every bit as important as Walcott’s hat-trick. Jack Wilshere generally sat relatively deep in midfield, but like captain Cesc Fabregas did at a similar age, he impressed with an ability to find time on the ball when everyone else around him is haring round like madmen. And both Fabregas and Robin van Persie were able to enjoy a light workout as they continue to ease their way back into the side, coming on as substitutes for the final half-hour. Both looked bright and eager after their World Cup exertions and (in the case of Fabregas) on-off transfer sagas.

There will be bigger challenges to come – starting with a tricky visit to Ewood Park to take on Blackburn on Saturday lunch-time – but Arsenal’s season now feels like it is properly under way. Only time will tell if this is the start of a title challenge, or another false dawn.

Finally, and without meaning to sound in any way patronising, it was great to see Blackpool’s fans not only stay to the very end, but continue to sing long and loud as their team battled on desperately. They are a credit to their club, and they will undoubtedly win many friends this season. I wish them well.

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