The first rugby game comes quite early in the season this time. I think it’s coming at a good time for us as we have close to our full strength squad available. This should allow us to dominate this game and get a win.
Having said that, I’d suggest fans don’t take a win for granted – Arsenal do not have a divine right to win and Blackburn only lost 3 home games last year (Did not lose to Chelsea or United) so it’s safe to say this will be a hard fought game.
I know its early days, but this season Blackburn have the lowest pass completion rate (56%) and Arsenal have the highest (87%). Anyone who follows the league knows that these two teams are at the opposite end of the spectrum. Before we get into tactics and starting eleven for Arsenal let’s look at the system the hosts will use.
This chart from the Guardian Chalkboards shows the 125 passes Blackburn attempted against Everton in their first home win this season. Yes, you read it right and I’ve not made a mistake. The whole team, in 90 minutes, made 125 passes and successfully completed only 63. Nonetheless, they got away with a 1-0 win.
The secret to their relative success at home is simple. They defend in numbers and as if their lives depended on it. They have big players and practice set-pieces a lot so they can concede fouls and corners without much concern as they defend these well. Then at every opportunity they kick it long.
Once they put 15-20 balls into the opposition penalty box and foul the keeper most of the times they can be certain that the ref will miss one or two. It’s also possible that the defending team might make a mistake or two. This is how they try to score. It’s no surprise that 59% of their League goals last year came from set-pieces.
Now with this in mind we need to think of our tactics and starting eleven. Firstly, we need to acknowledge that if you and I can understand this, so does everyone at Arsenal. They know what’s coming and will be prepared for it, but it’s not easy to play football with Rugby rules.
Broadly speaking we have two options. One would be to fill the team with physically strong players. Chamakh and RvP up front, Diaby, Song, Eboue and Cesc in the middle, and the regular back five. That team would be physically strong and technically not that bad. But by doing this we might end up playing into their hands and focussing on their strategies.
The other option for us is to play the Arsenal way. Technical skills and speed are our strengths. If we can pass the ball quickly, have good off the ball movement, stretch their defence, and force them to foul repeatedly there is a good chance we can dominate this game. They’ll try to break the flow of the game, they’ll kick our players and try to force a reaction, and they’ll win most duels in the air. David Dunn will try to shoot at sight. We need to take our free kicks and throw-ins fast, keep the ball moving, take shots from distance, use the width and get in behind as often as possible. Our crosses should be low and aimed for dangerous areas instead of hopeful high crosses that they’ll easily defend. We also need to maintain our focus for the duration of the game and cut out lapses in concentration in our own box.
I think this game will be a big test for Koscielny. I hope his inexperience doesn’t force him into a rash tackle or something that will get him sent off, especially early on. He will also have to read the game and the aerial balls really well. Cesc is another who will have a big game. Now that Wenger has said Fabregas and Van Persie are fit and available “as normal”, I expect El Capitan to be back in the middle. He will have to show that the summer nonsense is behind him and we can trust him to be at his best this season.
I think the following line up will have a decent balance of size and skill,
Almunia; Sagna, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Clichy; Song, Cesc, Rosicky; Chamakh, RvP, Arshavin.
We can bring Walcott for impact or Eboue for balance late on. Although I can see the argument for starting either of them in place of Arshavin, I’ve a feeling they might not be best suited to start this one. Some might also suggest Diaby is a better option in midfield, ahead of Rosicky, especially for an away game. Of course, these are just my thoughts and Wenger has often surprised me in the past so I’m looking forward to the boss’ selection.
Arsenal have not won away from home against a team managed by Fat Sam since 2002. That includes the invincibles period and a few games with Lehmann in goal. So it won’t be a surprise if we don’t get a win tomorrow. On the other hand, three points will send a big message to the other challengers some of whom are sure to drop points at Ewood Park.