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Sunday, 18 September 2011

Blackburn 4 - 3 Arsenal - this is a relegation battle

Arsene Wenger's final Arsenal squad picture?

Arsenal Football Club is facing a relegation battle this season. There, I've said it. The last time we were in this kind of dire straits was 1995 and it signalled the end of George Graham's reign (make no mistake, if Arsenal had been top of the table then he would never have been kicked out, and Arsenal were saved by Chris Kiwomya's only three goals for the Club in successive wins against Nottingham Forest and Crystal Palace). It gives me no pleasure to face up to this particularly sad fact. Before the game yesterday my Dad, my brother, and I all said that nothing would make us happier than for Arsene Wenger to show us all that we know nothing, that he does indeed "know" and that in him we should have always trusted. However, we also said that we couldn't see that happening. By the end of the game, as we trooped back to the car, we knew it was all over bar the shouting. Arsene Wenger's reign is coming to an end and, for my money, it will not get past the next fortnight (again, I'd love to be proved wrong, but I just don't see it). I'll come back to this point at the end of the post.

I like going to Blackburn. It's a long way (330 miles from my front door), and it meant a 4am alarm call yesterday morning, but I like the stadium and the people are far more friendly than you encounter in most of the northern outposts you might visit with Arsenal. I got asked by www.winkball.com what I thought would be the score before the game and I predicted we might get a hard-fought 3-1 win. I should have realised that we would concede more than one. What happened in the second-half made for a horribly long drive home in some completely atrocious rain.
It all started so well. Arsenal attacked their fragile opponents at will and Gervinho completely destroyed Givet throughout the game (it kind of summed up Wenger when Walcott came on with the instruction for Gervinho to move to the other side of the pitch). We scored a lovely goal, set up by a fabulous through-ball by Alex Song, finished well by Gervinho. We should have had more. Then Blackburn came forward for the first-time. Song failed to challenge on the edge of the area and Koscielny lost Yakubu completely, 1-1. Unusually Arsenal's players seemed unfazed and just continued their attacking. Arteta's goal was another super team effort and put together with the chances missed throughout the first-half we should have been out of sight.
On Tuesday evening, after the draw in Dortmund, Wojciech Szczesny said something that struck me as being quite telling of Arsenal's dressing room. He told how "Pat Rice can motivate us. He shouts at us." We all know that Wenger has banned raised voices but perhaps, with him not allowed in the dressing room, Pat gave them a few home truths at half-time. The result, of course, was the best defensive effort from an Arsenal team in a long time. Pat Rice has taken a lot of stick from Arsenal fans lately (and I'm as guilty as anyone) but perhaps we have been doing him a significant disservice. With Wenger back to do the half-time team talk yesterday we saw a typically insipid display, lacking in effort and efficiency from back to front. I really think there is something to this.
The loss of Bacary Sagna early in the second-half was a significant blow. It was ridiculous to bring on a woefully out of form centre-back to play out of position in his stead - Francis Coquelin was on the bench and he has actually played games in Arsenal's first-team as a right-back, but we all know substitutions are made on seniority at Arsenal. What happened was Djourou got himself booked immediately and then sold himself completely in the build-up to the fourth goal. Even if you are having to play out of position, this was basic defending that a Sunday League player should be ashamed of. As for Song's contribution with his "tackle" on Olsson in the box, well the less said the better perhaps.
The two goals from the set-pieces showed our complete lack of organisation of tactical awareness. Nobody attacks the ball, nobody marks up. We've seen it time and time and time again, yet nothing changes. Why the hell not? Wenger told us in May that this was a problem easily sorted. Even if we leave aside the fact that it took him five years to acknowledge the issue you have to say that he has again failed to do anything about it. The only thing to say in Arsenal's favour (I won't say defence as that seems to be a dirty word for our players) is that neither goal should have stood. The first one, Song's own-goal, came from a dubiously awarded free-kick (the officials were shockingly bad for both sides throughout the game) which was then taken quickly in a failed attempt to score at the near-post (not picked up by television apparently) and yet Blackburn were allowed another bite of the cherry. The third goal was, of course, offside. That's offside, not "a suspicion of offside" as they said on Radio 5 and Match Of The Day, or even "technically offside" as Dean Sturridge put it on Sky's Football First. Offside, clear as day, simple as that.
For some reason, at 4-2 down, it took another ten minutes for Marouane Chamakh to be called back to the bench in order to come on. When he did come on we suddenly became dangerous again. He scored one, and should have had another. Van Persie (who was awful throughout the game) should have scored. Mertesacker missed when it seemed easier to score. Walcott missed when one-on-one with the last kick of the game (I'm not having it that it was a stick-on penalty - nobody on the pitch, or behind the goal, claimed it at the time). Sadly, it was far too little, much too late.
The Arsenal fans once again filled the away section yesterday. The Darwen End was a sea of red and white, and as vocal as ever in its support of the team. Once again we were badly let down by what happened on the pitch.
I started this post by saying how I believe we are in a relegation battle. If conceding four goals to a team who are certain to be among the candidates for relegation isn't clue enough then I don't know what is. Many teams have been considered to be "too good to go down" over the years. Any team than can not defend is going to be in significant danger. This season we are that team. Three wins since February is relegation form, make no mistake about it.
I now want to return to what I said about Arsene Wenger's future. I think we are now in the final throes of his reign. That makes me sad. Under Arsene we have experienced the very best of times. That is what makes these current events so unbelievably disastrous. We had greatness seven years ago. We now have dire straits. On Tuesday evening a weakened Arsenal team will come up against a very much in-form Shrewsbury Town in the League Cup. This fixture is made for a giant-killing. I can see us being beaten on Tuesday, and such a result would surely herald mass protests at the Bolton game next weekend. I believe we will get a result against Bolton, possibly a narrow win. However, we then go to Tottenham a fortnight today. I believe that, if Wenger makes it that far, Emmanuel Adebayor will provide the coup-de-grace to his former mentor's reign. Can you honestly see this team being able to handle Gareth Bale and a motivated Adebayor? Right now I can only see a crushing defeat by at least three goals. Wenger might have survived conceding eight goals at Old Trafford, but he will not survive a humiliation in the North London Derby. As I said before I hope I am wrong, because there is little worse than losing to Tottenham (especially when they're not particularly good themselves), but I fear the end is nigh. Bad times. Very bad times.

I'll try to do a preview of the Shrewsbury game tomorrow evening, but it all depends on the time I have available. Check out the new poll on Arsene's future on the right of the page - at the start of the Summer the same question got a 50/50 response - will it be the same now?

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