I had high expectations from this game and it did not disappoint. Both teams played positively and created numerous chances. We saw four goals and it could easily have been double that. More importantly, while the game got a bit tetchy at times, there were no horrific tackles, cynical elbows, or any other form of cheap tricks that have become commonplace these days. I consider such games to be glorious examples of the beautiful game rather than the much hyped all-action style that is more a mixture of wrestling, rugby and hoof-ball.
Blackpool deserve enormous credit for the way they played and I sincerely hope the Seasiders survive their debut season. If I’d been a home fan in this game I’d have been furious with the ref. But I’m not and with my red-tinted glasses the luck Arsenal got seemed fairly deserved even though it was harsh that it came at the expense of a team like Blackpool.
As expected, the game started at a bright tempo. The home side were pressing hard and Arsenal struggled to get out of their half in the first five minutes. Holloway’s men were able to get some crosses in but the Arsenal defence dealt with it.
The first real chance fell to Van Persie. Fabregas found the striker with a ball over the top but the Dutchman attempt to chest it in his path didn’t work out and the ball skidded towards Kingson in goal.
This was the first of many occasions when Fabregas passed behind Blackpool’s backline with sublime vision and impeccable execution. Watching this, one tends to wonder why Arsenal don’t use this strategy more often, especially when the teams do come out and play a high line. I’ll leave the analysis of this issue for another post as it is a more general discussion and not limited to this game.
The opening goal came in the 18th minute. Diaby intercepted the ball inside the Arsenal half. He played it to Cesc and charged forward. Fabregas produced another gem that put Van Persie clear on the left edge of the penalty box. The Dutchman had the awareness to look up and play the ball across goal where the marauding Diaby tapped it in.
Arsenal controlled the first half from this point on. The second came within minutes as Eboue finished with a left-footed blast after playing a neat one-two with Wilshere.
There were plenty of chances for the Gunners to make it three but Nasri’s strike against the woodwork was the closest they came.
Blackpool forced a clearance off the line in the first half stoppage time in a sign of things to come.
In the second half I sensed a change in tactics from Arsene. It seemed Diaby was playing a bit higher up the pitch and Cesc was playing in a deeper role. It turned out to be a big mistake as the opening fifteen minutes of the second half were Blackpool’s best period. Arsenal missed the physical presence, height, and reach that Diaby offered in front of the defence. Cesc and Wilshere didn’t make a good defensive pairing and it allowed the hosts to find some spaces.
The Tangerines got one back on a quick counter attack. Arsenal had bodies forward for a set-piece but there was a huge gap between those in the box and the defenders. Blackpool managed to move the ball at pace as Wilshere committed a late foul. The ref did well to play advantage. Campbell made a good run into the box but Eboue should have done a better job of tracking him. Lehmann brought the striker down but Taylor-Fletcher was on hand to score in an open net. The German, and Arsenal, were lucky that the goal was scored otherwise Lehmann might have conceded a penalty and seen red.
I liked the way the ref handled this move and loved the way Blackpool kept going without theatrics. Their fans would certainly have preferred a penalty and Arsenal down to ten but sometimes it’s that bit of luck that can turn games.
Arsenal were all over the place for a while as Fabregas continued struggling in a deeper role. The Tangerines might easily have had a penalty when Koscienly went in on Taylor-Fletcher. The ref let the game flow and the Gunners got away with it.
After a while I saw Diaby return to his deeper role and normalcy returned. Blackpool were still trying but weren’t looking as threatening as in the opening minutes of the half.
On the hour mark Arsene introduced Walcott for Arshavin and that provided a fresh threat for Holloway’s side. That threat finally sealed the game but a number of players deserve credit for the third goal.
It started with a great sliding interception by Squillaci inside the Arsenal penalty box. Diaby then showed strength and composure to work his way out of a tight corner. His chipped pass was flicked on, first-time, by Cesc, again showing superb awareness and technique. Walcott raced onto the pass and played it across to Van Persie for a tap-in.
Funnily enough, Arsenal have scored plenty of goals on quick counter attacks this season but some fans just refuse to acknowledge this.
After the third goal the game petered out as the Gunners held on for a much-needed win.
One aspect that I liked about this game was that Arsenal didn’t try to play too high a line for long periods. The defence dropped back and that countered the pace that Blackpool had in the form of DJ Campbell. This tactic has worked fairly well in away games this season.
Lehmann: one excellent save, decent on set-pieces, didn’t have much else to do in terms of saves. Was lucky Blackpool scored else he might have seen red.
Eboue: Good finish, decent defensive shift, might have done better for the Blackpool goal but it’s hard to blame him for not chasing the run. I have seen him on his off-days and am glad this wasn’t one of those.
Squillaci: Had a good game and deserves credit for doing the simple things right. Played a critical role in the third goal.
Koscielny: On another day he might have conceded three penalties but I thought the Frenchman read the referee well and took calculated risks.
Clichy: Good game on the left. Made a couple of timely tackles, picked his forward runs well, did a good job of defending the flank without consistent support.
The back five weren’t exceptional but were mostly effective. The only period when they looked shaky was early in the second half when the midfield wasn’t offering the right support.
Diaby: Not close to his best but had a good game defensively and offensively. Excellent interception and run for the first goal, and good work for the third. I’d like to see him dominate the pitch as he did last year but that will take a few games.
Cesc: Played some amazing passes. Didn’t look at his sharpest but offered more than enough in terms of control and creativity.
Wilshere: Struggled during patches and was involved in some of the game’s physical moments. Loved his attitude and spirit as he never gave up. Needs to offer more from deeper areas and can learn a lot from his Captain in that regard.
I thought the midfield was decent but could have done better defensively in the opening minutes of the second half. We saw another example of Cesc lifting the level of those around him.
Nasri: made some good runs, unlucky not to score, could have done more in attacking areas.
RvP: Not at his usual clinical level but still managed a goal and an assist. Loved the way he played on the shoulder of the last defender. Excellent movement and awareness.
Arshavin: Wasn’t involved in the game as much as I’d have liked. Wilshere wasn’t able to bring him into play and Cesc was often looking for Van Persie. It might have been a better idea to play him further up the pitch rather than in a no-man’s land i.e. neither defending nor completely attacking.
The front three played well but should have done better with their finishing.
Subs: Walcott made an impact and got an assist. Ramsey and Gibbs didn’t get much time on the pitch but it was good to see the defensive substitution.
Wenger: Picked the right team. Made the right substitutions. Got the players to use the space in behind the high line. I’m not sure if it was his decision to push Diaby forward in the second half but otherwise there isn’t much to say against the manager.