Arsenal’s fresh start is already tinged by the familiar odour of decay. After scraping past Swansea and nicking a point from Dortmund, our shortcomings were once more horribly exposed in a 4-3 defeat to struggling Blackburn.
It was, without doubt, one of the strangest games I’ve seen. But Arsenal conspire to make the strange familiar, and the impossible plausible. Only we could twice blow a lead at Ewood Park, conceding four goals to a side that, until today, had managed just the one. It means that Blackburn, whose manager was the subject of protests calling for his sacking prior to the game, have now moved above us in the league table.
The result is made all the more baffling by our dominant first-half display. Gervinho and Mikel Arteta both netted impressive first goals for the club, sweeping home after moves which both involved incisive passing from Alex Song. Song, Arteta and Ramsey were dominating the game, and ahead of them the movement of the Ivorian winger was causing havoc in the Blackburn back line.
The Arsenal strikes sandwiched Blackburn’s first equaliser, which gave warning of what was to follow. Arsenal, the replays hsowed, had a neat defensive line – unfortunately it was on a diagonal rather than a horizontal, and both Koscielny and debutant Santos were playing Yakubu onside as he raced through to toe-poke brilliantly beyond Szczesny.
That said, we still looked comfortable, and should arguably have gone in at half-time at 3-1 – Gervinho choosing to shoot rather than square to an unmarked RVP after a brilliant burst from an in-form Arshavin. The news boys were slotting seamlessly in to our swashbuckling style, and I expected us to come out after the break in search of the crucial next goal – the one that would define the pattern of the game.
That goal, as now know, went to Blackburn. Andrey Arshavin was harshly penalised for a backtracking slide on the left-flank. When Ruben Rochina clipped the resulting free-kick in to the box, Scott Dann’s flicked header was turned in to his own net by Alex Song. Arsenal’s new zonal marking system, which had looked ropey in the first half, relies on preventing a Blackburn player from reaching the ball. It does not, however, legislate for our own men accidentally putting the ball in the net.
Blackburn couldn’t believe their luck, and began to play like a team believing it might be their day. Within nine minutes, they were ahead. Another set-piece, a corner this time, found N’Zonzi unmarked at the back-post. He fired across goal and Yakubu – offside – tapped in.
There was worse to come. From an Arsenal corner, substitute Martin Olsson broke at breakneck speed, hurdling challenges from Santos and Johan Djourou, who had a nightmare as a replacement for the injured Bacary Sagna, to see his cross turned in to his own net by Koscielny. Our third own goal of the season – more than we have chalked up in the past two years combined.
In a game as surreal as this, and with the way we had played in the first half, rescuing the tie didn’t seem impossible. Theo Walcott and Marouane Chamakh were thrown on, and with five minutes to go the latter provided some hope with a thumping header – his first league goal in almost ten months. We had chances to equalise, too: Mertesacker and Chamakh again spurning presentable opportunities created by crosses from Santos, who unsurprisingly looked better going forward than back.
All that history will record, of course, is the result; the cause of which will surprise no-one: some apocalyptically bad defending. Today we learnt what most of us already knew: that adding new personnel won’t change the fundamental problems of organisation and coaching that dog our defensive displays.
Arsene seems to admit that we were in dire straits at the back:
“It just looked like we had a lack of focus for what we knew they were good at – corners and free-kicks.
You cannot say you are not worried when you see the performance we put in today. It’s just not defensively solid enough.
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.”
Staggering admissions from the manager, and one only hopes he has some idea of how to combat the malaise. Signing Santos and Mertesacker is all very well – although both struggled today – but the one addition many fans were crying out for was someone on the coaching staff to provide a bit of guidance and discipline. It hasn’t happened, and the likes of Martin Keown will continue to dissect our errors on the sofa of the BBC when they could be doing so on the training ground.
By the end of the weekend we could be eleven points behind the league leaders, after just five games. We’ve now conceded 14 Premier League goals already – in 1998/99 we conceded 17 in 38 games. Last season in took us until mid-November to ship that many.
There’s a lot of rage out there on the internet. Fuming fans are looking for someone to blame, and inevitably their ire is turned on the manager. Myself? I’m more calm. I’ve taken a lot of stick over on Twitter for being “out of touch” and “in denial”, but I think it comes down to having already adjusted my expectations.
From the moment we lost Cesc Fabregas, we ceased to be title contenders. Losing Samir Nasri merely compounded that fact. A clutch of knee-jerk signings on deadline day boosted the squad, but not enough to change our status in an evolving league. City, Chelsea and United have got the top three sewn up. We’re part of the scrabble below, hoping to maintain fourth place and our Champions League status.
That’s as high as my sights ago. We can not and will not win the league, or indeed Champions League. We might have a stab at a domestic cup, but even the hunt for an overdue trophy has to be below fourth spot in our list of priorities. As Arsene suggested on Friday, we are at the start of a new cycle. Whether or not he’ll be here to see the completion and fruition of it, we can’t know. What we do know is that retaining the financial fillip and elite status provided by Champions League football is essential to help this club get back to the top. Without it, we genuinely run the risk of slipping in to a period of obscurity.
If you’re insistent that Arsenal must achieve more this season then I suggest you switch off now, because the next eight months will be rather pointless viewing. The realistic aim, that fourth spot, remains very much on the table. I believe that come the end of the season, we will be in contention. In fact, call me crazy, but I still think we’ll get it.
There were, amidst the chaos, positive signs. In the first half, and right at the end of the second, we played the best football we have mustered this season – possibly since around February last season. Arteta and Gervinho looked fine additions, and I began to see just how Arsene might manage to pull us out of the fire.
There was misfortune, too, in the goals we conceded. Any side that wins a game courtesy of two own-goals will hold their hands up and say they were a tad lucky – and therefore, by default, we were a little unlucky. Yakubu, too, was offside, and Arsenal had a decent shout for a penalty denied in the dying moments. We had 24 attempts to Blackburn’s 10, and 13 corners to their two.
I can’t sit here and tell you that Arsenal defended anything other than dreadfully. Nor can I tell you that we’ll turn this round and become title challengers. What I can tell you is that I saw signs today that we are perfectly capable of finishing fourth in this league. It will take a lot of work, and a few changes, but it can happen. And if you care about the future of this club you had better hope it does.
The manager will not walk away. Nor will he be sacked. Like it or not, he is here for this season. You may believe that this mess is of his creation, and I’d probably agree. However, I still believe he can get us out of it.