Monday, 19 September 2011

Back-four blunders a cause for concern

A disappointing performance from the Gunners on Saturday, made worse by the wary optimism that had been engendered by the team’s last two results. Fans were expecting further signs of encouragement and some improvement throughout the team, but instead got a display that at times bordered on shambolic. Two own-goals showed not just a lack of defensive focus but also sheer ineptitude. Rather than displaying signs of progression, however small, Arsenal instead exhibited a worrying inconsistency, not just over a run of matches but within the ninety minutes. This must not become a trend.

Paradoxically, Arsenal actually started the match quite brightly. Sagna and Gervinho initially combined well down the right, the pair of them playing deft one-twos past Gaël Givet with an insouciant grace – Bac might as well have tugged the hirsute Frenchman’s beard on the way past. The Gunners’ first goal was well deserved, Gervinho chalking up his first Premier League strike courtesy of a precision-guided ball from Alex Song played perfectly through the Blackburn defence. It all seemed to suggest the Arsenal of old, and halfway through the first 45 it looked as though the away support was in for a pleasant afternoon.

Yakubu quickly shattered this, however. ‘Feed the Yak and he will score’, as the Everton fans used to sing, and Arsenal should have known better than to let him in for a clever close-range finish. The lack of understanding between Koscielny and Santos, starting his first game at left-back, was perhaps understandable, but this worrying error was the first of a litany of defensive mistakes. With the ball, however, Arsenal looked better. Although the football was by no means free flowing, there were decent spells and another good build-up resulted in a goal for Arteta, nicely finished after Ramsey’s intelligent cut-back, which put us 2-1 up. We should have had another, with Gervinho bursting purposefully into the box and captain Robin van Persie screaming for the ball. The Ivorian, however, had his blinkers on and shot straight at Robinson. RvP was not best pleased, gesturing at his feet and shouting some choice words – including the phrase ‘look up!’ – at Gervinho. Robin was right, and this is one of the most visible drawbacks in Gervinho’s game, but van Persie’s evident frustration with his new team-mate was not particularly constructive and perhaps hinted at discord in the side.

There was certainly no defensive unity discernible in the second half. There had been awkward and tense moments at the back in the first half, but straight from the kick-off Blackburn looked more determined, while Arsenal seemed to deflate completely. Losing Sagna to an injury only exacerbated this. Without Jenkinson named as a substitute Djourou had to step into the breach, and his unfamiliarity with the full-back position was sadly evident as he struggled to contain Junior Hoilett. Our hitherto productive attacking threat down the right-hand side was also negated, and with that avenue closed, Arsenal’s attacking players dropped out of the game almost completely.

The first own goal, deflected into the net very tamely from a relatively unthreatening free kick was a poor one to concede. That neither Szczesny nor a defender got it to it was unforgivable. Indeed, after being man of the match a couple of times already this season, the Arsenal keeper’s performance was not one of his best. He wavered in his decision-making and failed to either command his box or marshal the back-line adequately. Then again, the men in front of him were equally culpable. Blackburn’s third, despite Yakubu being marginally offside, showed a lack of discipline and focus that again should concern Wenger and whoever is supposed to be teaching our back four how to defend. They are also presumably responsible for the newly-introduced zonal marking – a system for which Rafa Benitez was heavily criticised during his Liverpool tenure – which also showed its limitations.

Arsenal, buckling now under sustained pressure, then conceded a fourth goal through some decent Rovers counter-attacking that nevertheless should have been dealt with by Djourou, who missed an important tackle, and then by Song, who should have showed Olsson safely to the by-line and away from danger rather than meekly extending a leg. Failing that Szczesny should have come quicker and dived at Olsson’s feet, preventing him from making the cross that Koscielny turned into his own net, our rather accident-prone centre-back’s positioning and reactions letting him down once again.

Wenger, who had already brought on Walcott for the increasingly anonymous Arshavin, then subbed Chamakh for Song and the Moroccan did pull one back with a decent header via route one football that suggests Arsenal do now have a rudimentary if unsophisticated ‘Plan B’. It was, alas, too little too late, despite a frenetic last five minutes, with a flurry of chances including a free header that a man of Mertesacker’s stature ought to have buried. He could have made himself an instant Gooners hero in the process too, which would have helped silence those who are already voicing concerns about his abilities at the back.

Overall, a lack of leadership was clearly evident. This is inexplicable when you consider that Arsenal have no fewer than seven international captains in their squad. Only three of them were on the pitch yesterday, but still, no-one seemed to take charge. Logically you would look to the man with the armband, but although van Persie can spearhead the attack he is not ideally placed to marshal the defence. Neither Mertesacker and Koscielny looked willing or able to assume command, let alone lead by example. To a certain extent this is understandable – most of this team have only played a couple of games together. Obviously they need more playing time to become a cohesive unit, but even in this interim or transitional period you would still expect players of their quality to get the basics right. This was entirely absent, and is the most concerning aspect of the performance – without a stable base to build on, there’s no way the team can rebuild in order to challenge for the top four again. Furthermore, the defending seemed to expose a whole array of issues rather than a couple of identifiable easy-to-fix weaknesses. We certainly do not seem to be ‘90% there’, as Arsene commented in the post-match press conference.

On the other hand, Arsenal scored three goals (in the right end, anyway), and continuing in that vein would be one positive to take from another game to forget. We are, surely, not going to concede two own goals every time we play, either. Added to which, Blackburn were full of fight – their team and their manager have been under almost as much pressure as ours in recent weeks – and despite many Gunners fans labelling them ‘relegation fodder’, they are stronger than last season and do look to be improving, despite popular discontent with Steve Kean. Added to which, we do find it tough to beat Blackburn – Arsenal didn’t win at Ewood Park last season (the Gunners lost 2-1 thanks to a Christopher Samba winner back in May 2010). In that sense, this loss should again be put in perspective. It’s probably not time to stage our own ‘manager out’ protest just yet (although there are many AMGs who are keen to do so) but Wenger has again heaped pressure back on his and the team’s collective shoulders.

No comments:

Post a Comment

What do you think, Gooners?