Blackburn 1-2 Arsenal: Arsenal’s passing game prevails
Arsenal emerge with the points after a professional display in a decent match.
Sam Allardyce chose to use the two Dioufs either side of Nikola Kalinic upfront, and continued to use Phil Jones ahead of the back four, in a very defensive midfield role. Vince Grella also came into midfield – Allardyce seems to see him as a ‘big game player’, since his three starts in 2010 have come against Arsenal (twice) and Manchester United, and the two before that were against Tottenham and Liverpool.
Arsene Wenger selected Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie for the first time this season. Laurent Koscielny returned to the side after suspension, so Alex Song moved back into his preferred deep midfield role.
The game started – and panned out – largely as expected. Arsenal tried to keep possession in midfield, whilst Blackburn pumped long balls into the box from every angle. Morten Gamst Pedersen’s throw-ins were dealt with reasonably well, but Arsenal’s backline had slightly more trouble with Paul Robinson’s huge punts into the area from his own half, and were guilty of both dropping too deep, and letting the ball bounce in the area.
Arsenal were fluid in midfield – it was surprising how often Fabregas dropped deep to link play, and it was also interesting how frequently Alex Song found himself in advance of Abou Diaby. The shape was rather more 4-2-1-3 than it was 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 – Theo Walcott and Andrei Arshavin played high up the pitch and looked to press the full-backs rather than forming two banks of four, whilst Fabregas acted as the link player.
The second point of interest about Arsenal’s shape was van Persie’s inclination to come short to meet the ball, playing the false nine role he perfected at the start of last season, before his injury when on international duty. Blackburn were reasonably well set-up to deal with this, with Jones ahead of the back four, but van Persie still found space to operate in, and his excellent ball in behind the full-back for Walcott’s finish (a classic Walcott goal) demonstrated the value of a striker dropping deep, and two wingers looking to make out-to-in runs.
Blackburn’s goal may have been atypical of their approach play, since it involved the ball being passed along the ground, but it still fitted with their general gameplan of playing direct football. Christopher Samba moved out of defence and hit a good ball to El-Hadji Diouf, who beat Koscielny before squaring for Mame Biram Diouf to tap into an empty net. Arsenal had been slightly caught out by quick balls into wide areas throughout the game, and Allardyce’s use of two quick, direct wide players worked well here.
After half-time the game continued its general pattern, though van Persie had been forced to leave the pitch through injury, Marouane Chamakh his replacement – the Moroccan offered a slightly more direct option, but Arsenal didn’t change their approach. With Fabregas not quite up to speed, the main threat was from the wide players, and in particular from Walcott. Gael Givet had problems with the Arsenal winger all day, frequently getting too tight to his man, which meant Walcott could use his pace to get in behind the defence, rather than having to beat Givet with a trick on the ball.
Walcott again important
It was Walcott that created Arsenal’s second – not by his involvement in the deflection that found its way to Arshavin for the finish – but by his intelligent off-the-ball run into the centre of the pitch, to bring Givet inside and open up space for Bacary Sagna, who delivered the ball into the box. Walcott’s “footballing intelligence” has been criticized recently, based on the fact his final ball isn’t always good enough.
But this overlooks what Walcott does off the ball – he frequently makes very clever runs to draw defenders out of position, and Arsenal’s second was a good example of a goal stemming from that. This is an area where his lightning pace is vital but is not always appreciated – take his sideways run to take Nemanja Vidic away from the centre of the pitch for Samir Nasri’s goal against Manchester United – the idea of the run is the key factor, but Walcott’s pace is also key – had he not been so quick, Vidic wouldn’t have been so out of position, and may have got a block on the shot.
Arsenal reasonably comfortable
Blackburn were surprisingly subdued at 1-2 down, and Arsenal controlled the game well by keeping possession of the ball. Allardyce tried to introduce some guile in midfield by bringing on David Dunn, but he probably would have been better simply sticking to the long ball route, as the game completely passed Dunn by. Allardyce’s decision to remove Kalinic also seemed strange considering he eventually resorted to his classic Plan B of shoving Samba into a striking role.
Nevertheless, Arsenal clung on well, with Manuel Almunia commanding his box more effectively than some may have expected. Koscielny was guilty of making a mistake in the lead up to Blackburn’s equaliser in the first half, but was excellent in the second, and his overall tackling/aerial battle success rate was exactly what Arsenal needed in a fixture like this:
With two such differing styles, this game was about how effectively each could deal with the other’s gameplan. All too often Arsenal have struggled away against Sam Allardyce’s sides, but today they were much more assured defensively, and the win will be a good confidence boost for similar trips to sides which offer a more ‘physical’ approach than Arsenal would like.
Blackburn, however, struggled to deal with Arsenal’s movement off-the-ball – van Persie and Walcott’s runs into unusual zones caused problems for both the goals, although the second was rather fortunate. Blackburn have seemed too one-dimensional in their opening three games, and their goal showed that a similarly direct – but more sophisticated – approach might help them score more goals.Blackburn 1-2 Arsenal: Arsenal’s passing game prevails