Eewood park could be the setting for a horror film chronicling the invasion of aliens from the planet anti-football. Fat Sam would play the alien walrus king loading true footballers into a meat grinder while chewing human flavored gum. Regardless of the horrifying possibilities, that’s where we’ll be forced to bring our team tomorrow. Whether we can play our beautiful football there remains to be seen.
Let me provide you with some delightful statistics regarding Blackburn’s “style” of football. In two matches, Blackburn have completed a whopping 252 passes, compared to Arsenal’s 961. While we are completing a league best 86% of our passes, Blackburn are riding the short bus to school with their 54% success rate. Blackburn’s most accomplished passer is Steven N’zonzi. He’s managed to complete 36 passes in two matches. Meanwhile, Arsenal have two players with over 100 passes completed, Abou Diaby and Jack Wilshere.
Clearly, Blackburn take no pleasure in the daintier elements of the game. “Passes” and even “shots” don’t interest them much. This is a man’s game in England. Men tackle, and kick, and push. Men kick the ball long up the pitch and dive in with their studs showing. That’s how men play the game. Or maybe that’s just how a pack of talentless hacks play the game. Particularly when those hacks are lead by one of the great acolyte’s of dirty football, Fat Sam. Either way, we know exactly what to expect.
But regardless of the tactics employed by Blackburn, the fact remains that Arsenal are the better side. The much better side. And even though we will be playing at their home ground, where they lost only three times last season, we should be expecting to win. In order to garner three precious points and some measure of revenge on the Walrus, there are a few simple things we’ll need to do effectively.
First, we have to do everything in our power to avoid giving away set pieces in our own half. Sam’s thugs will take every opportunity to flight the ball into the box. That means every corner kick and free kick within 50 yards of our penalty area will cause trouble. This match should provide Almunia with his first real chance to prove his worth, or his worthlessness. He will be crowded, pushed, punches, tripped and generally harassed at every opportunity. But he can’t expect Chris Foy to protect him. (Foy showed little sympathy for Gomes against Stoke last weekend.) It’s up to Almunia to control his box, and get his defenders to make some room.
What I don’t believe for one second, is that we have to play ugly in order to win at places like Blackburn. Barcelona don’t change their tactics when they play more “agricultural” teams. We shouldn’t either. Blackburn are a slow, plodding, unskilled side and we should be able to pass circles around them. What we will need to do is maintain fierce ball pressure in their half. The stats prove that Blackburn can’t pass. And if we put them under pressure in their own half they’re likely to hoof the ball up the field or gift possession back to us in dangerous positions.
Most importantly, we cannot afford to let Blackburn get the first goal. They will be setup to defend from the opening kickoff. If we give them a lead to protect, then they can really camp in their own half and ramp up the tactical fouling. However, if we manage the first goal, particularly if we can find one relatively early, Blackburn will have to venture forward just a little, and that’s when we should be able to hammer them.
We lost at Blackburn last season and we don’t have a particularly pretty record against Allardyce’s teams. He believes that he has the blueprint for beating Arsenal and until we prove him wrong, he’ll continue with his objectionable tactics. It was the goal keeping that let us down at Eewood park last season and we can’t afford to let that happen again. These are precisely the kinds of games where a confident goal-keeper who commands his penalty area can be the difference between winning and losing. Almunia is a very good shot stopper, but the statistics suggest that he won’t be doing much shot stopping tomorrow. What we really need from him is some strength and courage.
Cesc and RVP are available tomorrow, although John Cross from the Mirror suggests that the latter might find himself on the bench. Admittedly both players looked very rusty in their cameos against Blackpool, but the game was so comfortable that it’s hard to know if they ever really got out of first gear. I expect them to start. The fact remains that they are our two best players and we’re better with them on the pitch. Cesc is captain and his leadership is even more important in tricky away matches. As for RVP, his passing can be even more important than his finishing. And his ability to score from a free kick might be worth the start at Blackburn.
If both players are included from the kickoff, then the selection choices get very interesting. Arshavin will almost certainly start on the left, but it’s anyone’s guess who will be the third member of the attacking trident. I’d like to see Chamakh keep his place. A little more height and strength is always welcome against Blackburn, and his aerial prowess gives us another option to break down the home side’s inevitably defensive formation. We should be able to find room on the flanks and if anyone can deliver a half-decent cross into the box, Chamakh is a good bet to score.
However, if the Moroccan keeps his place in the starting lineup, that means Theo heads back to the bench. Some reward for a hat-trick the week earlier. But I think I’m okay with Theo playing the role of super sub. Blackburn will expend a lot of energy chasing the ball on Saturday considering that we are likely to have an overwhelming advantage in possession. Theo’s pace is troubling to defenses at the best of times, but after chasing shadows for 60 minutes, Blackburn might simply be too exhausted to cope with him.
What is certain, is that some of our offensive-minded players will have to give way this weekend. I thought Arsene made his thoughts very clear when asked about how he would deploy his attacking options. He said, “I don’t know what I will do yet, but one thing is for sure. You cannot play 4-4-2 with Arshavin, Walcott, Van Persie, Fabregas and Chamakh. That is not a system, that is suicide.” Clearly Arsene understands that discretion is often the better part of valor.
In the midfield, Alex Song should return to his natural holding role for the first time this season. It will be a delight to see him there again. (And I understand he might have made some exciting hair alterations for the away fans to enjoy.) I’ve watched the Blackpool game a few times this week and the more I watch, the more impressed I am with his performance. It wasn’t flashy, but it was solid and composed. He’s developed a real confidence in the way he tackles and holds the ball up. He provides a calming influence and it’s precisely what we need in the middle of the park. I imagine Cesc will start alongside Song on Saturday, leaving one spot left in midfield.
The most obvious choice to fill the third midfield role is Abou Diaby. While his selection is likely, I hope Arsene considers starting Tomas Rosicky instead. The general consensus is that Diaby adds strength and size to the team. But with Chamakh, and Koscielny and Van Persie and Song in the side, we’re not the mighty mites that we were at times last season. Moreover, Diaby might be big, but he doesn’t play in a manner befitting his size. He’s all finesse. Diaby’s inclusion in the midfield is not certain to provide us with any added solidity that we would lose with Rosicky.
Including the czech, on the other hand, could give us the dynamism that we need to break Rovers down. Rosicky does things at a higher tempo than Diaby, has a better work rate, and could be a better partner for Cesc. Rosicky is in top form and it’d be a shame to sit him on the bench just as we’re starting to see him at his old best. Diaby also has a habit of lingering longer on the ball. With Rovers snapping at our ankles tomorrow, time on the ball will be at a premium and give aways in midfield will be a cause for concern. Rosicky tends to move the ball a little quicker and that could make all the difference.
We could have a bench tomorrow that includes the likes of Denilson, Diaby, Walcott, Vela, and Jack Wilshere. And that’s with Nasri, Ramsey and Bendtner all out injured. It’s nice to know that we have that kind of depth in the squad. Few teams can boast anything similar. There were many times last season when Arsene must have looked at his bench and thought, “I have no one here who can change this game.” But at the moment, that is far from the case.
There’s always a chance that we’ll turn up tomorrow, get kicked, never hit our stride, and watch Almunia cost us another match. But I don’t think that’s what’s going to happen. I think Blackburn are getting us at the wrong time. We’re feeling good after our victory over Blackpool, we’re relatively healthy, and the weather should be fine for proper football. I think Chris Foy will have had a look at some of his missed calls on Gomes last weekend and maybe decide to protect us a little more than he might have done. It’s been a long, long time since the spine of our team has been in tact. But tomorrow it should be put right. And last season we were a very difficult team to beat when Alex Song started in the holding midfield role.
I don’t believe that any one game determines the outcome of a long season. This game is not some litmus test that will decide if we have championship potential. But it is an important opportunity to show that we can win away matches against physical opposition. If we destroy Blackburn tomorrow, maybe it will force other teams of their ilk to second guess the traditional notion that you have to kick Arsenal to beat Arsenal. I think we have what it takes to put Blackburn to the sword. They’re not a very talented team, and if we apply ourselves, we have more than enough quality to put them down.
I’m expecting a rampant victory that results in Sam Allardyce choking on his ridiculous ear-piece. Not too much to ask.
Come On You Gunners!