Well they were yesterday, after the game Robin van Persie confirmed he would have been the man to step in had anything happened to Mad Jens.
On to Oliver’s match report, please bear with the long post this morning…
After the week we have just endured, an actual premier league fixture almost seemed a subplot to the ongoing intrigue.
From the Arsenal Supporters Trust (AST) public expression of dissatisfaction with specific, recent developments; to Arsene’s “come out swinging” riposte at our many media critics; to the chairman’s clumsy (yet – in my opinion – officially sanctioned) put-down of certain sections of support; all against the backdrop of continued name-calling and bickering amongst a deeply polarized fan base.
If this does not paint a picture of a club in crisis – everybody fighting with everybody – then I am not sure what constitutes on. Yet I would not characterize us as a club in crisis at this moment. Few seem happy – which is not the same as willing to settle for something – with how things went over the past month and where we currently stand, but we still have an opportunity to accomplish something here…
So it was against this backdrop that we took to the Bloomfield Road pitch looking for our first league win since February 23rd (midweek 1-0 versus Stoke) – a drought running nearly seven weeks. While we have not lost a league fixture since mid December (0-1 at Old Trafford), we have recently been getting only one of every three points on offer – not championship winning form in any way or shape. Man United, Chelsea and the Spuddies all won yesterday, so once again, we found ourselves staring at a “must win” situation.
Now that the league is the only competition we remain in, the grueling programme which saw a steady stream of weekend and midweek fixtures is a thing of the past. My disappointment at elimination from three Cups in rapid succession remains acute, and the extra rest our players now have seems scant consolation. Yet if we are going to actually win the league this season, then our players will need time to rest and hopefully return from injuries.
We received some good news in Arsene’s Friday press conference, he confirmed that Cesc and Diaby were back and Song still out, with Theo and Sagna facing late fitness tests, and Szczesny and Djourou both close to returning.
Our announced lineup was Almunia, Clichy, Squil, Kos, Eboue (in for Sagna, who was ruled out), Diaby (in for Song), Cesc, Jack, Arshavin, Robin, and Samir.
The bench was Jens, Gibbs, Ramsey, Rosicky, Theo, Nikki and Chamakh.
In an Aaron Lennon at the Bernabeu moment, Al was ruled out just a few minutes prior to kickoff, apparently injuring a knee during warm ups and the conspiracy theorists said “Hmmm…”
Whilst I personally believe that Arsene has used slight injuries as a cover for dropping players – including this particular goalkeeper – previously, I am not convinced that anything untoward was at play here.
There is always the possibility that he saw something he didn’t like during warm-ups, but I am struggling to see Arsene making a last-minute, unforced (i.e. not injury-induced) change in such circumstances. Especially since nobody really knew what we would get from Jens in such a situation.
So I think this injury is legitimate and I can only shake my head as our fourth goalkeeper goes down this season. Only at Arsenal? Indeed. This meant, however, that we could only name six on our bench and if something should happen to Jens, then things would become quite interesting to say the least…
So at 8:30AM (Eastern Standard Time) sharp, I settled back with a fresh cup of coffee to see our latest attempt to claw ground back from the fast-disappearing Man United, and regain our four point cushion on Chelsea.
For a match with such high stakes, we started disappointingly slowly. Blackpool went at us and forced a couple of early corners. In one of them, Evatt sent a header over from point-blank range, where he really should have done better.
It took us about eight or so minutes to find our range, but we gradually started to put passes together and get attacks going. Diaby and Jack played well in midfield, while Cesc looked subdued. Fortunately, this was one game where our captain did not need to carry us.
We took control with about ten minutes in, and had already forced Kingson into a couple of saves before we opened the scoring on 17 minutes. Diaby started and finished the move, intercepting in midfield and feeding Cesc, who picked Robin out. The latter took the ball parallel with the Blackpool area and crossed for Diaby, who finished decisively past Kingson.
This is the sort of counterattacking goal we have not seen that much of recently; Diaby smartly ran into the area and made sure he was available for Robin’s cross, and finished well. While not exactly known as prolific, Diaby has scored goals for us, and if he ever puts it all together and stays consistently fit, he can be a dominant player…
We kept the pressure on and added a second goal just three minutes later. Eboue and Jack combined, with the former blasting a low shot into Kingson’s right hand corner. 22 minutes in and 2-0 up, with our scorers Diaby and Eboue. This goal featured more good interplay and another fine finish.
At this point, we threatened to run riot, but the intensity may have dropped a bit as well. Jack and Southern had earlier been involved in an accidental clash of heads which saw the former down for about a minute, and needing a brief spell of treatment.
Shortly after our second goal, Southern then barged Jack off the ball (not for the first or last time), making no attempt to play the ball; but instead of awarding a foul, Referee Mason bizarrely ordered a drop kick? Blackpool forced a couple more corners, which we able to clear, and then Samir hit the post after combining with Cesc.
We had a couple of more chances before the interval, but couldn’t convert.
We started slowly in the first half, and did similar at the restart. This time it cost us, as Blackpool built pressure and six minutes after the interval, Puncheon sent Campbell clean through. As in the Champions League Final in Paris, Jens brought the attacker down – this time clearly inside the area – but Mason allowed Blackpool to play advantage, and Taylor-Fletcher bundled the loose ball home. This may have been what saved Jens from a dismissal, as Blackpool were able to score a goal from the advantage.
The nerves were immediately apparent, and Blackpool cut us open just a minute later, with Kos bringing Taylor-Fletcher down inside our area. I’ve been furious when Arsenal have been denied clear-cut penalties – think Vela at Braga and Arshavin vs. Sunderland – so I have every sympathy for Ollie and his players.
We got away with one there and Blackpool should have had the opportunity to level from the spot.
We attacked quickly and won a free kick. Robin sent a nice delivery in but Kingson was equal to it, punching it away. Jack tried his luck with the rebound, but shot wide. Blackpool came again and Southern failed to get a head to the ball from point-blank range with the goal gaping. That should have been 2-2.
Arsene made his first in-match change on the hour mark, with Theo replacing Arshavin, and this move proved inspired. We started to regain control with him on, as he was able to get into good positions and stretch their defence.
With 15 minutes remaining, we restored our two-goal cushion and Theo was, predictably involved. Blackpool pressed on the edge of our box, when Squil made a great tackle to rob Campbell. He quickly fed Cesc, who made a great pass to spring Theo down the right. He crossed for Robin, who had a simple task of converting from a couple of yards out. This was another instance we counterattacked with speed of thought and movement, and didn’t try to bog the move down with extra passes.
Blackpool, as expected and to their full credit, came back at us. Two minutes later, a dawdling Clichy was robbed, and Campbell was put through again – this time Jens made a fine, one-on-one save. Blackpool had another chance later, with Evatt getting in a header which forced Jens into another save.
As the match wound down, Arsene replaced Samir with Gibbs and Cesc with Ramsey. Blackpool could not muster any further clear chances and Theo drove a free-kick narrowly wide. The final whistle went and we could breathe a huge sigh of relief.
Blackpool are now 17th in the table, just a point ahead of West Ham. If they should go down, they are going to do it their way, attacking and trying to score goals. As we are now quits for the season, good luck to them in their survival efforts. It has not been a great Premiership season, but they have certainly been one of the bright spots.
Ollie was understandably fuming over the non-penalty award, but seemed measured in his comments…He did not make a big fuss over the non-red card to Jens, but if Mason had sent our keeper off, Robin confirmed that he would have gone in goal. After seeing his five-year old son score on him recently, I shudder to think of what Blackpool might have done.
That comment is, of course, jocular. But what would not be funny is a straight red for Jens – that comes with a ban (two matches?). With Al’s apparent knee injury, would James Shea have to start against Liverpool? Thankfully we won’t need to consider that, not yet, anyway…
So the winning feeling is back, and hopefully it is not temporary this time. While we looked extremely shaky during and for several minutes after Blackpool’s goal, there were many positives. For one, we were far more direct and incisive than in recent matches, and it paid off with three goals. We counter-attacked quickly and instinctively and shot on goal.
Our first two goals came from largely unexpected sources. Diaby had an excellent first half, and even if he was largely anonymous after the restart, he still contributed a lot early on. Robin showed his poachers side, tapping home our clincher after Squil, Cesc and Theo did the heavy lifting.
There were a few negatives, notably the slow starts in both halves, the shaky nervous defending following their goal, and the over-elaboration late in the first half, when we have several great chances to add a third goal. But few wins are perfect, and after a prolonged winless run and difficult week, three points are most welcome. As the saying goes, win this now and look good the next time.
We still have an awful lot to do to win the title, and we have put ourselves in a huge deficit. The odds are firmly against us; regardless of how it ends up, I think we will make it interesting and get ourselves into a position where we have a reasonable chance of winning it.
What we do from there will be down to the players. I offer the modest suggestion that they – as a group – keep the chatter down.
Liverpool is up next, just focus on business.
No need to talk about how we need to show the “DNA of champions” – that should be fairly evident by now. Just focus, take it a game at a time, and cut back the comments.
Arsene can help there as well – he praised the team’s “mental strength” after the win this afternoon. That is fair enough – they dug in and showed grit to hold Blackpool off and come away with the win. But now that he has done that, perhaps he can shelve the lavish praise and let the results speak for themselves.
Other than Arsene’s (Governor) Palin-esque attack-mode press conference, there was minimal yapping out of London Colney this past week and we got a result. I do not necessarily think that is a coincidence.
Our players are already under-fire for the poor run of results; by keeping quiet for a change they avoided heaping extra (self-induced) pressure on themselves. There is plenty of time to talk once the season has ended…
Shortly after the final whistle, speculation mounted that Mr. Kroenke will launch his long-speculated takeover attempt in the very near future. We’ll have to see how this shakes out.
If he does take the club over, perhaps he can involve himself in player acquisition. I say this because, as Denver Nuggets owner, he reportedly negotiated directly with New York Knicks owner James Dolan over the Carmelo Anthony trade.
I cannot confirm what was said during the negotiations, but I do know that the Knicks were absolutely fleeced in the deal, giving up way more than necessary in a negotiation where they held most of the leverage. I have my own suspicions that much of that was down to Dolan’s desperation to land Carmelo, regardless of cost, but few can argue that Denver got several good players for one (and a past-his-prime point guard) who could dictate where he would go by either signing/refusing to sign an extension, and possibly walking for free in the off-season…
Seriously, if he does take control of the club, the best thing will be for him to put/retain good people in place and allow them to do their jobs…
Not much of the season left but we are still there and still have a chance…
One goal at a time, one match at a time, three points at a time.
Let’s see where that gets us…
Written by Oliver