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Monday, April 11, 2011

Five Things We Learned after the Blackpool-Arsenal Game

Arsenal has been at the receiving end of skepticism since they lost to Birmingham in the Carling Cup in February with justification. In the last three-four years, February and March have proven to be the stage of the marathon in which Arsenal struggles to find remaining sources to make the final push.
This year didn’t look any different.

After three consecutive draws in the Premier League, their only remaining trophy to fight for, the Gunners have done to themselves what others cannot do—surrendered their title-winning aspirations for Manchester United to decide. It, now, depends on how United perform in their remaining six games. If they slip, Arsenal will have to show what they have failed to show this season so far—champions’ mentality.

A result of 3-1 over Blackpool may have provided a necessary injection of self-confidence that they so much need, but they still have some way of going back to their winning ways. In fact, it was a game of two faces: the second parts of the first and second halves, in which Arsenal controlled the game, and the beginnings of the halves in which Blackpool dug deep to defy the odds.

Here are a few key points worth discussing after Blackpool-Arsenal.

Jens Lehmann is a grandpa who knows how to keep the ball out of the net

The wacky German was the backbone of the Arsenal defense against fighting-relegation Blackpool. His close-to-perfect positioning and authority at the back, along with his aerial superiority, injected his team-mates with calmness and assurance.

But his football skills were only the tip of the iceberg.

At 42, Lehmann is experienced, very experienced. While he was ostensibly out of playing form, he showed the real importance of having the right mentality for the goalkeeping position. Scary and commanding as Lehmann is, he yelled every time when someone in front of him made a mistake making sure the players in front of him knew when they did wrong—and they did know.

Something else became evident as the game progressed. At one time, DJ Campbell received a through ball, but the assistant referee raised his flag to signal an offside situation. Having little time to respond, Campbell went on trying to go around Lehmann. What was strange was that the German keeper did what not a lot of other keepers would do: he made a full stretch to deflect the ball away from the feet of Campbell. Why did he do that?

It was psychological. By not allowing the ball to roll into his net even after the game had been stopped, Lehmann was sending a discouraging message to oppositional attackers. It’s that kind of mentality that a decade of football can teach you.

In the end, Lehmann signified what Arsenal has been lacking for a couple of years: someone who knows football is being played by ordinary men, who, in the end, can be influenced by ordinary things.

Fabregas’ passion has been waning

The Blackpool game was just another primary example of a lack of commitment by none other than the current Arsenal captain Cesc Fabregas. Last summer, amidst huge speculation that Barcelona wished to sign the Catalan-born Arsenal captain, Cesc filed for a transfer request.

After serious talks with Wenger, Fabregas decided to stay. But for how long was a question hanging in everyone’s mind. His attitude throughout the season has hinted that the most likely answer to this question is for only one more season.

Against Blackpool, Cesc was not his usual passionate self. While he distributed short passes, long and through balls in his usual brilliant way, there was something lacking in his desire to keep possession of the ball or win it back from the opposition. He made way too many mistakes trying to build up the Gunners’ game.
Blackpool turned the tempo up in the beginnings of the first and second halves. They became more aggressive and more direct—a tactic that is known to work against Arsenal. The Arsenal midfield desperately needed to raise their game, but mostly they desperately needed for someone to step up and throw his legs in the grinder and attempt to take the ball forward.

Surprisingly, and yet not so surprisingly, it was not the captain who did that, but Jack “Brave Heart” Wilshere. He received a few painful kicks, in the second half, but his dribbles did what they were supposed to do and eventually Arsenal regained control of the game.

Despite having suffered from nagging hamstring injuries this season, Cesc had to work harder and take more responsibility. He failed to do so and understandably was outshone by two other Arsenal players: Jack 
Wilshere and Samir Nasri.  

Arsenal have been incredibly unlucky in the defensive department

Yes, it’s an observation more true for the entire season rather than for the match against Blackpool. They have been deprived of the services of one of the best defenders in the Premier League, Thomas Vermaelen. The two new signings, Sebastien Squillaci and Laurent Koscielny, have been good, but somehow failed to form an effective partnership with each other. On top of that, a defender on the rise, Johan Djourou, suffered an unlucky injury to his shoulder which would rule him out for practically the rest of the season.

Having been restricted by unfavorable turn of events, Wenger needed to relocate his hopes to the potentially problematic partnership between Squillaci and Koscielny. The Blackpool game was yet another example of that.

This time it worked, but mostly because the cogs of the Arsenal machine turned well everywhere for most of the time. Defenders can shine, but only when other departments of the team do not work well. Squillaci and Koscielny had the chance to deal with dangers in a more chaotic environment when Blackpool took the initiative in the beginnings of the first and second halves.

This time, the healing wound of the Squillaci-Koscielny partnership withstood the test of being rubbed with salt yet again, but it was risk Wenger had to take.

Gael Clichy can make costly mistakes

Gael Clichy has been a pretty consistent left-back with tendency to make costly mistakes in the last two years. The 25-year-old Frenchman made an error of judgment against Blackpool early in the second half by keeping the ball, trying to dribble it out of danger. While his decision did not cost Arsenal a goal, mostly because of another brilliant Lehmann intervention, it was a schoolboy error.

Clichy is no stranger to making costly mistakes.

Earlier this season, he was at fault for Barcelona’s goal at the Emirates in the Champions League. Gael ruined the offside trap, set up by Johan Djourou, to allow a through ball to release striker David Villa.

In September last year, Clichy was also at fault for allowing Sunderland to score a very late goal, through Darren Bent, to equalize. In a melee in the dying stages of the match, the French left-back made a sloppy clearance and subsequently remained back while his team-mates attempted an offside trap. The result followed: three Sunderland players left alone in the box and Bent scoring the dramatic equalizer.

While Clichy can be consistent, at times, he can be sloppy and disoriented. He sometimes makes tactical mistakes and gets caught off his position. Against Blackpool, it was a mistake of a different sort though. He had all the time in the world to clear the ball or pass it to a team-mate, but failed to do so.

Jack Wilshere is one step closer to PFA Young Player of the Year, but Samir Nasri is one further

Jack Wilshere, once again, proved he is the revelation of the season by pulling off a great performance against Blackpool. The 19-year-old assisted Emmanuel Eboue for Arsenal’s second goal. On top of that, his dribbling and fearless attitude was a major factor for Arsenal to regain control of the game following a Blackpool inspiration early in the second half.

The performance is sure to put him one step closer to winning the PFA Young Player of the Year award for 2011. His biggest threat for that accolade will come from Nani and Javier Hernandez who also had a great year.

Samir Nasri, on the other hand, was not his usual self. Samir raised the bar a mile higher with his performance in the first part of the season, but against Blackpool, it was not his day.
He managed to miss a couple of very good chances to score and lost possession of the ball a bit more than usual.

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