When will Arsenal learn to DEFEND?
There can be little doubt that this is the question Gunners fans are asking themselves right now after Arsene Wenger’s side squandered a 2-1 half-time advantage to lose 4-3 against Blackburn Rovers.
Two goals from Yakubu and own goals from Alex Song and Laurent Koscielny cancelled out clinical first half efforts by Gervinho and Mikel Arteta, before Marouane Chamakh finished the scoring with a consolation goal in the final minutes.
It was a ridiculous game; a match Arsenal should have won, looked to have lost, nearly drew but were still defeated. It is another painful blow in a season which has now included three defeats and seen fourteen goals conceded, including 12 in two trips to the North-West.
Buoyed by Wednesday’s gritty showing in Dortmund, Arsenal started well at Ewood Park, knocking the ball around with patience, carefully testing the Rovers defence and taking full advantage of a slick pitch.
From very outset Arsene Wenger’s men put special emphasis on attacking down the right hand side, with both Sagna and Gervinho making great headway against the bearded Gael Givet. The Gunners looked comfortable if not clinical in the final third, with crosses played into the box being easily cleared by Rovers.
Then after ten minutes Gervinho notched his first competitive goal in an Arsenal shirt. Played in by a nicely weighted ball by Song, the Ivorian darted diagonally across the box past Christopher Samba before reversing a low shot into the bottom left hand corner past a stranded Paul Robinson. It was a lovely goal and a great show of intent from the summer acquisition, starting his first Premier League game since his sending-off against Newcastle on the opening day of the season.
Increasingly confident on the ball and with good movement up front, the Gunners continued to threaten, but as always against Blackburn and their penchant for long diagonal balls there is rarely room for overconfidence.
Arsene Wenger had spoken earlier in the week about the positives and the negatives of introducing a new zonal marking policy to defend balls into the box. In the 18th minute his defence showed that they were still coming to terms with the new strategy. Failing to track the run of Christopher Samba,the giant centre-back appeared unmarked at the back post and seemed destined to equalise only for his header to fly wide. It was a sign of things to come.
Having totally dominated, it seemed typical of the season that Arsenal should concede out of nothing. As the rain poured down, an interception by Song fell kindly to Junior Hoilett on the edge of the box. The tricky Canadian quickly fed a ball to Yakubu who, having escaped Koscielny, clinically flicked a shot past Szczesny before the Pole had a chance to react. Replays showed that Andre Santos, making his full debut, had been the man playing the Nigerian onside – the type of mistake that happens when a defence hasn’t played together. All square and it was game on again.
In the next five minutes Samba twice more came close to scoring as Szczesny nervously contested for more long balls arrowed into the box. Weathering the storm, Arsenal continued to exert pressure on the break and finally scored a second. Having again targeted the right hand side, Aaron Ramsey broke into the box pulled a ball back to Mikel Arteta. The Spaniard, whose last kick for Everton had been to score a penalty against Blackburn, crashed home a finish into the top corner. At half-time Arsenal looked good value for their 2-1 lead.
Unfortunately, as has so often been the case in recent seasons, Arsenal’s inability to defend from set pieces proved costly.
Twice in the space of the first 15 minutes of the second half the Gunners failed to deal with balls into the box and twice Blackburn scored. The equaliser from Alex Song was something of a freak, the ball just hitting the Cameroonian midfielder after a looped free-kick fell at his feet.
Rovers’ third though was further evidence that the zonal marking system is a risky strategy. As a corner fell to the back post, the ball was flashed across the six yard box and Yakubu tapped in. He was offside, it shouldn’t have stood, but given the manner in which Arsenal had not defended, it was a suitable punishment.
While you hoped and sensed Arsenal had enough quality about them to react in a positive manner it wasn’t to be. After a period of concerted pressure, Blackburn punished the Gunners on the break. Martin Olsson carried the ball out of defence, was fed the ball back down the right, escaped a lackadaisical challenge by substitute Johan Djourou, raced into the box, pulled the ball back and watched as Koscielny deflected the ball into his own net. You couldn’t make it up. It was the club’s third own goal in five games –as many as they had conceded in the last two seasons combined.
The last twenty minutes of the match passed in something of a daze. If brittle confidence had been rebuilt in the last seven days, it was again in pieces. Arsene Wenger looked dejected on the bench, the Arsenal away fans look horrified in the stands and Gooners on Twitter were stunned into cyber silence. Only numbness seemed to stem the pain.
Robin van Persie did his best to keep the team going coming close with a couple of chances, before in the 84th minute whipping in a great ball for Chamakh to crash home an unstoppable header. At 4-3 there was still the outside chance of snatching a draw from the jaws of defeat. In injury time Per Mertesacker, Van Persie, Chamakh and Walcott all had guilt edge chances to do just that, but somehow failed to convert before the referee called time.
Arsenal have won only three of their last 16 league games and unfortunately, no matter how many dodgy decisions, injuries and other excuses that may include, there is no hiding from the fact that the run is the worst since the mid-eighties. We are in serious trouble. Of that there is no doubt.
What happens next is anyone’s guess…