Blackpool 1-3 Arsenal: Diaby 18, Eboue 21, Taylor-Fletcher 52, van Persie 76.
If this win is to re-ignite Arsenal’s title challenge – a title challenge which had threatened to actually descend into “considerable disappointment” – then it is probably apt that it was a game which displayed Arsenal’s season in a microcosm that invigorated them. Arsenal were exuberant in attack for most parts, picking off Blackpool’s courageously high backline with ease but were profligate in attack; and that, coupled with a sudden inexplicable nervousness, contrived to throw open the game. Blackpool came back into it after half-time and had Arsenal on the rocks for fifteen minutes – a similar spell to the one they had in the first period – but Robin van Persie’s goal finally settled them.
It was by no means a convincing win as Blackpool were denied one penalty but in no way was it also unconvincing. This is Blackpool’s style and they will always create chances against most opponents. At home, they led Manchester United 2-0 before they succumbed to a 3-2 defeat and it was their expansive nature which ensured the game would remain competitive. For a newly promoted team, it would be seen as suicidal to ape Barcelona’s tactics but in an age of winning at-all-costs, Ian Holloway tactics, however much idealistic, must be applauded. On another day, perhaps, Arsenal would not have been as comfortable for surely they were indebted to Cesc Fábregas who was inspirational once again.
Blackpool pen Arsenal back before Fábregas takes control
With two 4-3-3’s facing each other, both with wide forwards with little intention to track back, it was the flanks where there was most space. For Blackpool, it was perhaps favourable that they kicked-off as it allowed them to push Arsenal back instantly. Both Gary Taylor-Fletcher and Luke Varney were able to get crosses into the box and attack the full-backs, of which The Gunners defended rather well. For Arsenal, it wasn’t their plan to intentionally sit back and allow Blackpool to attack before launching a counter of their own but with their opponents pushing so many men forward, they were naturally penned back. Arséne Wenger also likes to push his players up the pitch early on to force the opposition back but this tactic only made it harder to pass the ball out. However, when they did get their first real chance to counter-attack, Abou Diaby made sure it counted as his tackle then finish ended a superb move.
The goal settled Arsenal and soon Cesc Fábregas was able to assume control. The Spanish midfielder continually dropped deep and alternated position with Diaby, allowing the rangy midfielder to get forward and this made it harder for Blackpool to mark him. Forward balls over the Blackpool offside line were a frequent sight as Fábregas threatened to make hay of the space he was afforded. Chance after chance was created by the captain, those of which, Wenger visibly felt, should have been put away. The switching of positions between Fábregas and Diaby was also very effective in the first-half of Arsenal’s 4-4 draw with Newcastle, an explosive period which they scored four goals in twenty minutes.
<Figure 1> Blackpool’s expansive style where they try to mirror Barcelona’s tactics and stretch play wide meant the midfielders had a lot of space to cover. That allowed Fábregas time and space to play the ball and was relatively unpressurised on the pass. Blackpool pushed up looking to squeeze the space and the central defenders were often left marking a lot of empty space and that afforded van Persie the opportunity to get behind. Fábregas made many key passes in the game but no assists; however, he was crucial in both the first and third goal, playing passes that arguably no Arsenal player could. In a league looking for superstars, Cesc Fábregas is surely the top player.
Second-half: Substitutes change game for different reasons
Blackpool upped their intensity again after the interval – it’s amazing how a break in proceedings can reinvigorate a side’s mentality as Blackpool looked demoralised after Emmanuel Eboue had put Arsenal two up. Their improved moral summoned them the energy to force Arsenal back and were quicker to the loose balls around the box. Charlie Adam was able to find his wide men with increased regularity – a key feature of his game that was nullified in the first-half – and it was no surprise that the goal came from Taylor-Fletcher on the right whose run was left unmarked. Blackpool were getting so much joy from the flanks that it would be foolish to tamper with the success – but Holloway did, replacing Varney with Andy Reid.
The thinking was simple; Blackpool had the initiative and with Reid, they could assume more control. However, with the substitute, Blackpool lost a direct threat – Varney, who is a striker on the wings – and that meant less speed for Arsenal to deal. Close to the same time, Wenger introduced Theo Walcott for the ineffective Andrey Arshavin, the Russian failing to track runs, and the winger quickly stretched play. He gave Arsenal an out ball but more than most, Varney’s substitute stripped Blackpool of their quick release of their own. Adam was frozen out; Reid was insignificant and Arsenal kept the ball better. With Blackpool desperately looking to try and win back and Arsenal retaining possession, The Seasiders increasingly pushed forward to squeeze the space but it only gave van Persie and Walcott space to get behind. Both did and the third goal was an inevitability seeing as Walcott has set up the Dutchman for four of his last five goals.
For Arsenal, they rediscovered a zest about their game although Blackpool’s tactics which gave them plenty of room, are unlikely to be mirrored again this season. However, with Fábregas back and Walcott under his wings too, there is reason to be optimistic. Plus Diaby stepped up in place of Alex Song – the first win without the midfielder. It’s now a 14 game unbeaten run in the league. Only seven more to go then…