25 February 2006

Blackburn 1-0 Arsenal

And so it goes. No links to stories, because I can't stand to read about the poor performance I just saw. I'll also avoid Big Soccer for a bit, because I can't stand the self-flagellation after a loss like this. I do understand it, though, because it's painful to see a match like this after such a fine performance in Madrid.

But of course that's not accidental. This Arsenal team has much more trouble with the Blackburns of the world than they do the Real Madrids. I spent much of the second half thinking about why that is -- or more precisely, what's changed since 03/04 that's made such a difference. There are a host of reasons, of course. But I'll talk to three that I've seen.

Tactics. Teams have learned exactly what kinds of tactics to use against the Gunners. The wall built by Rovers was well-designed, and pretty much the same as that used by Bolton et. al. It frustrates the Arsenal passing attack and forces players into holding the ball much too long.

Communication. In the past, Arsenal would defeat such tactics through precise passing and well-timed moves. But that precision is rare these days. I believe that much of it is due to the turnover in the team, from departures, additions, and injuries. Players are forced to rotate to unfamiliar positions and work with untested partners. That would be difficult for any team, but it's mortal for Arsenal's precision attack.

Attitude. As I've said before, I think it's rubbish to talk about a 'lack of desire'. I have no doubt that the team were desperate to win this game, and in fact had probably talked of nothing else since returning to London. But I think the team gets itself into trouble once the match starts, when the disruptive tactics and miscommunication results in frustrated play. Arsenal on form are a well-oiled machine, but matches like this drain the oil from the works... and the friction grinds at the parts. Different players show it in different ways: Henry's quiescence, Lehmann's blowups, Senderos' nervousness, Reyes' recklessness -- and one too many passes for everyone. In any case, they let it eat at themselves, and their play suffers for it.

I think a few inevitable changes will improve things: familiarity for the new, health for the injured, and experience for the young. There's really not that much qualitative difference between today's Gunners and the 03/04 team, and if they can hold on (and sign a bit of support), I don't think they're that far from a return to top form. But the discouraging, disappointing question at this point is whether all that will come too late. What is the chance of Henry staying if Arsenal miss Europe for next year? And, more importantly, how will the players react to losing him? (Hint: look at the reaction to losing Viera this year... but double that.) This team, these very players, are capable of every kind of success. But you feel that if they don't snap together soon, then the setbacks will last well beyond May 06.

We will see. A few thoughts on the players from today. But first, one comment on the tactics: Wenger has to stop playing Fabregas out wide. It's no surprise that our attack truly commenced when Diaby came off -- simply because that brought Cesc back into the middle of the pitch. That's two-thirds of the match where we had almost no possession, and that starves a team like Arsenal. Anyway, on to the players:

Player Ratings:
Lehmann: 6 Difficult to rate, because he was pretty good for much of the game, went mental for about ten minutes, and missed one difficult but saveable shot. Really, his form was mostly fantastic, but he put the team at much too much risk in the second half. I do like his aggressive sweeper-like tactics, but today those went too far. Needs to settle down -- but again, I think this is his frustration hurting his play. And he's not the only one to suffer from that.

Flamini: 6 Not bad, really. Probably tried to do too much at times, taking himself out of position. Not as good as his last couple games, but still he's done better at left back than we could have hoped. Still, let's hope Ashley Cole's return is imminent.
Senderos: 5 Suffers when his calm deserts him. Was decent for much of the game, but his nervousness was obvious both before and after the goal. Missed probably the best chance at an equalizer.
Toure: 7 Continued his fine run of form. Marred it with a few nervous moments, but avoided any serious trouble.
Eboue: 7 Still playing well. Suffered a bit more from the physical play of Blackburn, but still had some good defensive moments, as well as some nice attacking runs. Lauren/Eboue is starting to look like the same depth as Cole/Clichy did last year.

Reyes: 5 Had one too many touches several times. Clearly frustrated, leading to a couple fouls. Wasn't an obvious candidate for halftime replacement (unlike Campbell a couple weeks back), but still was clearly not on his game.
Diaby: 6 Rough. Some very good moments, but suffered from the lack of confidence around him. Willing to get stuck in, but still finding his way with a new team.
Gilberto: 7 Kept up his good form from Tuesday. Kept his passes simple, which helps enormously. However, with he and Diaby in the center, quality possessions were rare. But at least one of our players looks to be returning to form.
Fabregas: 6 Willing but unable on the wing. Doesn't keep his width and leaves the defense exposed. Much better once Diaby came off and Cesc moved to the center. Probably needs to take free kicks for us more often.

Adebayor: 7 Seems to have a rough touch but gets into some good positions. Hampered by a couple of poor offsides calls. Seemed our most dangerous threat for much of the game.
Henry: 5 An anonymous performance for our captain. Hungry for good service, of course, but that was always going to happen with Blackburn. If he had a shot on goal, it was unmemorable.

Subs (times from memory):
Pires: 6 (45' for Reyes) Followed a good Tuesday performance with a decent effort. Has shown at least that he's willing to work hard -- just needs to do it more often. Should have shot rather than passing to Henry.
Hleb: 6 (62' for Diaby) benefited from the improved service generated by a central Fabregas. Starting to show some of the form that brought him to London, but obviously needs more time to understand where his teammates will be.
Lupoli: 5 (81' for Gilberto) Fairly quiet in his first ten minutes of Premiership play. Was hindered by the garbage-time play of both teams (timewasting from Blackburn and chaos from the Arsenal attack).

As for Blackburn? I guess the best you can say for them is that they stuck to their gameplan. Really their attack wasn't generally threatening all that often. Still, the goal was well-worked by Bellamy (though he's still a twit) and their 80% possession for most of the first half was a credit.

Ah well. Let's see if some Thai food will dull the depression.

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