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Same old Arsenal, always conceding

Blackburn 4 Arsenal 3

Yakubu 25, 59, Song (og) 50, Koscielny (og) 69; Gervinho 10, Arteta 34, Chamakh 85

Eight seasons ago, Arsenal‘s ‘Invincibles’ went through the entire Premier League season unbeaten. The current side, however, is better suited to the moniker ‘Indefensibles’, as a promising first half performance disintegrated after the break and they succumbed to defeat against the division’s bottom team Blackburn. Arsenal can point with some justification to the misfortune of conceding two own goals and another which was marginally offside, but this was a defeat born as much of individual and collective errors at critical moments as it was bad luck.

Arsène Wenger made three changes from the side which earned a battling 1-1 draw in Dortmund on Tuesday. New left back André Santos was given his first Arsenal start, with Aaron Ramsey and Andrey Arshavin also returning to the line-up. With Alex Song and Gervinho available again after their domestic suspensions, Kieran Gibbs, Yossi Benayoun and Theo Walcott all dropped to the bench.

Szczęsny

Sagna – Mertesacker – Koscielny – Santos

Song – Arteta

Ramsey

Gervinho – van Persie – Arshavin

Arsenal won the equivalent fixture 2-1 at the end of August last year thanks to goals by Walcott and Arshavin, in what proved to be Thomas Vermaelen‘s last match of the season.

Chamakh's late header could not save Arsenal from slumping to defeat (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Arsenal finally start to look like Arsenal …

Gervinho's first Arsenal goal capped an energetic performance (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

The visitors started with a confidence and vitality which has been visibly lacking so far this season. The new partnership of Bacary Sagna and Gervinho showed early promise down the right flank, and it was the Ivorian international who opened the scoring on ten minutes. Arsenal prodded and probed inside the Blackburn half before Alex Song picked out Gervinho’s run with a subtly angled through ball. The forward did not hesitate, swivelling and hitting a low first-time shot which took a slight deflection off Christopher Samba‘s leg before nestling in the far corner for his first Arsenal goal.

Blackburn were under the cosh, but the next decent chance fell their way. Samba worked himself space at the back post for a free header from a free kick, only to head wide.

Arsenal’s quick passing and intelligent movement continued to drive Blackburn’s back four to distraction as they regularly profited down both flanks. Andrey Arshavin wriggled his way into the box, but his shot was deflected over. Paul Robinson then had to be at his sharpest to deny first Arshavin’s 25-yarder and then Gervinho after a mazy dribble.

However this is an Arsenal side who will always give opponents chances. And it came as little surprise when new boy André Santos was the guilty party as Yakubu sprang the offside trap after being played in by Junior Hoilett. His immediate shot across goal was too quick and precise for Wojciech Szczęsny – a great striker’s finish.

Arteta has now scored for both Everton and Arsenal at Ewood Park this season (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Arsenal were undeterred though, continuing to play with a tempo and purpose more in keeping with the early part of last season than this one, and they soon regained the advantage. Song, belying his reputation as a mediocre passer, played a lovely ball for Aaron Ramsey through the inside-right channel. The Welsh captain drove to the by-line and pulled it back for the arriving Mikel Arteta, who measured his shot beyond Robinson. It was the second consecutive home game in which Blackburn had conceded a goal to Arteta – the Spaniard scored an injury-time penalty in Everton’s 1-0 win last month.

Although they continued to look vulnerable to long or diagonal balls played into their box, the visitors ended the half firmly on top. Debutant midfielder Jason Lowe, forced to deputise at right back after an injury to Michel Salgado, was skinned by Arshavin. The Russian squared the ball for Gervinho who should have played in Robin van Persie but instead opted to shoot, taking one touch to many and allowing Scott Dann to get in a block.

Nonetheless, Arsenal’s half-time advantage was fully deserved after their best 45 minutes of the season so far.

… Complete with familiar failings

Song had a good game, but his unfortunate own goal put Blackburn back on level terms (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

However, if Arsenal’s first half performance had been their most impressive of this young season, their second half showing was their most abject. If Wenger’s side thought they had the game under control they were quickly disabused of that notion. Arshavin fouled Lowe wide on the right, and Ruben Rochina‘s dinked free kick pinged off the unwitting Song’s thigh and dribbled apologetically into the net.

Four minutes later Mauro Formica was played in behind the visitors’ faltering back line but Szczęsny was off his line in a flash, standing tall and wide to make a vital save. One-on-one, the young Pole’s demeanour is reminiscent of Peter Schmeichel.

Nonetheless the away side were behind for the first time, and again it was a set-piece which proved their undoing. A corner was cleared only as far as Steven Nzonzi, whose driven cross was turned in from close range by Yakubu. The Nigerian striker was a foot offisde, but the goal stood. It happens.

Stunned, Arsenal struggled to fight their way back into a game they should have killed before half-time. Van Persie flashed a header wide from a corner. Theo Walcott replaced Arshavin, with Gervinho switching to the left flank. But the changes came to nothing. An Arsenal attack broke down, Martin Olsson sprinted up the right flank, skipping over a feeble attempt at a tackle by substitute Johan Djourou and fizzing in a cross which Laurent Koscielny – very much an innocent party – could only help in.

Blackburn had scored four goals despite having had only three shots on target at that point.

Chamakh gave Arsenal late hope, but they were unable to capitalise (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

As a final, desperate roll of the dice Wenger sent on Marouane Chamakh in place of Song, and the Moroccan striker gave Arsenal a sliver of hope with six minutes left, rising between two defenders to meet a magnificent van Persie cross with an equally proficient header into the far corner. It was his first Premier League goal since last November.

It set up a grandstand finish, and Arsenal fashioned four meaningful chances in the four minutes of stoppage time added by referee Andre Marriner. First Santos crossed to the back post where the giant Per Mertesacker directed his header on to the roof of the net. A fierce angled effort by van Persie was parried by Robinson. Chamakh put another header wide. And then, with the clock having just passed 94:00, Walcott raced into the box, flicked the ball across the face of goal and then collided with Robinson. The Blackburn keeper did not have his arms extended, but there was definite contact which upended Walcott. Sky’s commentators and pundits were divided in their opinion – for me it was a clear penalty, although not a deliberate foul which required Robinson to be cautioned or dismissed. Marriner, however, waved play on, and seconds later blew the final whistle.

The four goals brought Arsenal’s total conceded to 14 in five games. That is just one fewer than the 15 given up by Chelsea in the 2004/05 season. Wenger faces problems on many fronts as his team struggle to recover from their terrible start to the season, but this one statistic alone tells us everything we need to know about where the biggest challenge lies. Wenger will look for – and demand – an immediate improvement, with Tuesday’s Carling Cup tie at home to Shrewsbury now taking on added importance, even though he is likely to field a completely changed side for that fixture. Fringe players such as Korean striker Park Chu-Young could easily force their way into Wenger’s thinking with a strong performance – it would be hard for them to be any worse on the basis of today’s game.

Post-match reaction and analysis

Arsène Wenger admitted that his team had lost focus at key moments, allowing Blackburn to take advantage on set-pieces:

It’s difficult to explain [the second half performance]. I feel overall we created many chances, even in the second half. It just looked like we had a lack of focus for what we knew they were good at – corners and free-kicks.

He also admitted that the team’s defending – 14 goals conceded in five league games – was a growing cause for concern:

You cannot say you are not worried when you see the performance we put in today. It’s just not defensively solid enough. When you are 2-1 in front against Blackburn and you know that you are solid defensively, we will score goals.

At the moment we do not have the capability to focus defensively for 90 minutes to win games. It is important you do not give cheap goals away like we did.

And he recognised that Arsenal’s start to the season was simply not good enough:

It’s just not good enough and, 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 it is just not good enough. You cannot come here and concede four goals the way we did today. On the other hand I believe that the group will take off but it is important that we can get results. 

No doubt this game will be dissected endlessly in the forums and blogs online, with fans blaming Wenger, various players, the board, owner ‘Silent’ Stan Kroenke, the lack of a specialist defensive coach and the alignment of the stars. So, rather than conducting a detailed post-mortem, let me make a few high-level observations.

Firstly, although it should not in any way be used as an excuse for the defeat, Arsenal were unlucky. After 70 minutes Blackburn had scored four goals despite having had only three shots on target. Both own goals were unfortunate in terms of there being no blame attached to the players – Song and Koscielny – who scored them, although there were clear defensive failings in the lead-up to both. And on another day Yakubu’s second goal would have been correctly called back for offside. It was bad luck. But the fact is that when a team is playing poorly, bad things tend to happen to them. That’s life.

Secondly, this game highlighted that bringing in better players is only half the solution. Better organisation is also required. With so many new players this will inevitably take time – witness Santos being on a different wavelength to his teammates for Yakubu’s first goal – but the need for a specialist defensive coach (or, at least, a part-time consultant) becomes ever more urgent. Academy coach Steve Bould is one possible solution, as is Martin Keown. Both would bring a wealth of experience, and instil immediate organisation and toughness into a group which so often plays well for 85 minutes and then commits two or three howlers per game. Several players had good games here – Gervinho, Ramsey and Arteta in particular. Much maligned in recent months, Walcott notably elevated Arsenal’s threat level in the final quarter of the game with his directness, pace and a series of searching crosses. Santos looks like he will add width and plenty of crosses in attack, although his defending is not the best. The building blocks are all there.

My final point is that all this change takes time. Established players do not suddenly change their entrenched behaviours overnight. And new players need time to bed in, just as someone starting a new job would not be expected to be up to full speed immediately. Arsenal have shown signs of improvement in their stuttering win over Swansea, the battling draw in Dortmund and even the first half here. Consistency of performance will develop only gradually, and the performance of some – Djourou in particular – suggests that there is still some minor surgery to be done on the squad in January to excise those players whose tendency to commit bad errors at the worst possible time renders them a liability.

More than anything, time is what Wenger needs. But, with fan impatience growing by the week, how much time will he get, and can he take the significant actions that need to be taken to accelerate his team’s improvement?

Arsenal man of the match: Mikel Arteta. Hard-working defensively, efficient with the ball at his feet. A well-taken goal and also created four chances.

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

16 Responses to Same old Arsenal, always conceding

  1. MistaKen says:

    When I think of the transfer policy over the last 6 years I come to one conclusion. Any one who says Wenger will change this policy is living in denial.

    • Tim says:

      While I think Wenger must shoulder a significant proportion of the blame, I don’t think his transfer policy is the only problem (although it is one of the biggest ones). Tighter finances than the board would like to admit, poor negotiations (which have little to do with Wenger), the lack of defensive focus on the training pitch, the machinations of Darren Dein turning the heads of key players – take your pick, really.

      He has already shown signs of change this summer, even if much of it was last-minute (although I strongly suspect several of the deals were less last-minute than we have been led to suspect). For me the question is not “can Wenger change?” – he already has to some extent – but “can he change enough?”, and can he change his modus operandi to incorporate defensive coaching help.

      Wenger does not deserve blind praise, but I do think he deserves some time to sort out problems which are only half of his own making, and which cannot be sorted out completely in the space of a week or two.

  2. i am very very sad and wenger takes majority of the blame cos if he had signed players in june the players would have blended by now but he waited till august 31st and you can see the results now secondly he got his priority wrog by signing a 17 year old kid chamberlain for 12 million instead of samba for 10 million and scott dann from birmingham for 5million both samba and dann played center half backs for tottenham today and you can see their fighting spirit and what arsenal missed paricularly in samba you can see why i am mad at wenger for spoiling my weekend at this rate arsenal is out of the top four

    • Tim says:

      I think you mean Blackburn, not Tottenham!

      To be fair, I don’t think Blackburn’s fighting spirit was much in evidence when we were running rings around their back four in the first half. Of course, that underlines how much we should have put the game to bed before half-time.

      Wenger certainly carries a significant proportion of the blame, but it’s certainly not all his fault. The vast majority of big signings are done at the back end of the window. I know United did their business early, but it’s a different situation when you’re the defending champions – people want to go to you urgently. And remember that Wenger has nothing to do with transfer negotiations. We have a team of lawyers who do that, and the evidence of this summer is that they don’t understand the unique rules of football’s transfer market very well.

  3. The BearMan says:

    Mr. Wenger if you by chance get hold of this, my final flea. Recruit the best defensive coach and give your team a chance to develop!

    • Tim says:

      Brilliant though this blog is (naturally!), I suspect Arsene has many better things to do with his time. But a defensive coach would be an extremely welcome addition. Mind you, Mark Lawrenson was taken on at Newcastle as a defensive consultant at one stage, and the Toon’s defence got worse!

  4. Woolwich Wackos says:

    First the 2-8 raping in Manchester, now another 4-3 arse thumping, gooner fans, sing hip hip hooray! hip hip hooray!

    muahahahahahahahahaha!

    (I think the Goons might just be relegated this season!!!!!)

  5. Tse says:

    Tim, Arsenal’s problems have been coming and it will take even longer to rectify. The solution includes either or both of Arsene Wenger leaving the team and the team being overhauled. Take it from me, both are quiet some process. The Gunners will have to work on closing the gap between themselves and Liverpool and Spurs. It will even be harder trying to catch up to Man U/ Man C/Chelsea. At this stage, at this rate, Arsenal will be light years in the new campaign, and Wenger knows this and he will not be the one to mend the spaceship. (www.tsendex.wordpress.com)

    • Tim says:

      This is exactly my point. There have been some major changes over the summer but even more are still needed, and there are no quick fixes. However, Liverpool have shown that it is possible to rebuild – even though it took them two managers and 18 months to do. Anyone who thinks that it as simple as a few new signings and sacking Wenger is sadly deluded. However, I do believe that Wenger can turn things around enough this season to get the all-important top 4 spot.

    • Tim says:

      Actually, scratch that. 18 months and £100m-odd later, Liverpool are still rubbish.

  6. Shrek2be says:

    Our confidence at defending is reflected by the fact that whenever a throw is made from deep in our own half , there is no one near Sagna or the LB willing to take it or fight for the header.I simply think we dislike the ball being up in the air.I think we should adopt a 4-1-3-2 or a 4-1-2-2-1 formation where the back four remains the same ,DM would be Song/Frimpong , Arteta/Rosicky and Ramsey/Wilshere the CM/CAM .The main question arrives on the position of RVP. Do we choose to play RVP as a lone striker or a winger?If we play him him with Chamakh/Park , one of the wide forwards will have to work harder than usual to help with the defence.

    • Tim says:

      While I’d welcome a change of formation, at least as a plan B, I doubt it will solve our defensive issues, which are more about attitude than systems.

      I do think we need to stop playing RvP as a lone striker though. Personally I would like us to play an out-and-out striker up front with RvP in the hole, maybe as part of a 4-4-1-1. Then you would have Gervinho and probably Walcott wide, and Song and Arteta/Jack in midfield. (Frimpong isn’t ready to carry the midfield yet.)

      Fundamentally though it doesn’t solve our defensive issues. No matter what the scheme at set-pieces, we don’t attack the ball well enough in every minute of every game. Only doing it in ‘big’ games doesn’t cut it. The team seem not to have noticed, but every game is a big game right now. It is this inconsistency of intensity that I think is frustrating Wenger more than anything. He knows we can play, but he doesn’t know how to get the team to play at the same level every week.

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