For the second time this season, the heavens opened on a Saturday lunchtime for Arsenal in more senses than one today, and this time around they contrived to be more defensively profligate than on the previous occasion, last month against Liverpool. For all the hysteria in the immediate aftermath of that match, it was plausible to chalk down that loss as having had a element of the freak about it. An own goal and a second on the break with only seconds left to play gave Arsenal’s supporters something to cling to and, while the thrashing at the hands of Manchester United managed to speak for itself, results since then – a scrambled and slightly fortuitous win against Swansea City followed by an honorable draw at Dortmund in the Champions League – offered a fig leaf of respectability to a season that has has largely, thus far, been one of massive disappointment.
Today, though, the fig leaf was washed away in the Lancashire rain. Prior to kick-off, it was the supporters of Blackburn Rovers that were actively demonstrating, calling for the head of their most peculiar choice of manager, Steve Kean. They may even reflect this evening that their team didn’t even play particularly brilliantly this afternoon – rather, they took advantage of the chances that they had, showed a little character in overturning a two goal deficit and were the beneficiaries of two tragi-comic pieces of defending which to helped to turn this match from what was starting to look like it would be a comfortable away win into a result which managed to tell the story of Arsenal’s season in the space of the forty-three minutes between Yakubu’s first Blackburn goal to Laurent Koscielny’s Keystonesque turning of the ball past his own goalkeeper to put the result beyond much reasonable doubt.
The afternoon started with a completely different timbre to that with which it ended. Gervinho gave Arsenal the lead after ten minutes, a goal of the sort of simplicity that is readily associated with Wenger’s Arsenal, and Yakubu’s equaliser had a feel of having been no more than temporary respite about it when Mikel Arteta retook the lead for the visitors nine minutes later. With the lead having held until half-time, Arsenal might have reasonably been expected to have survived their scare for the afternoon, but the jitteriness returned five minutes into the second half when Alex Song, under no particular pressure and with a range of options at his disposal, opted for the worst of the lot in allowing the ball to bounce in off his knee from a cross. Steven Nzonzi’s low cross nine minutes later found Yakubu five yards out (and possibly just offside) to gave Blackburn the lead, before the cruellest of deflections from Koscielny – who didn’t really have the time to move out of the way of the ball – put the result beyond doubt.
It’s not, however, the despair but the hope that hurts the most, and Arsenal gave their travelling supporters a little with a consolation goal five minutes from the end, scored by Marouane Chamakh. There was also time for them to momentarily and half-heartedly appeal for a penalty in stoppage time, but Paul Robinson, who had played as well as any goalkeeper might over the previous ninety minutes, got the benefit of the referee’s doubt and with this non-award the final confirmation of Arsenal’s defeat was rubber-stamped. As the players left the field, we were left to reflect upon an upside-down afternoon at Ewood Park, in which the four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire were largely to be found in the Arsenal defence. Blackburn mustered only five shots on target throughout the match, a figure skewed statistically by Arsenal’s two own goals. The supporters’ protest prior to the match was dampened by the weather, and both sides of the Kean divide amongst the Blackburn support will have interpreted the result and performance entirely differently. Ultimately, though, the club which began the afternoon protesting for the head of a manager that has never really won them over finished the afternoon in a higher league position than the one that was – and arguably still is – expected to compete for a place in the Champions League.
The weekend could yet get worse for Arsenal. They finished the afternoon in fifteenth place in the Premier League table, but three of the five clubs below them in the table play tomorrow and – no matter how unlikely it may seem – if all if them win their matches, Arsenal will be in the relegation places. The league table in September, of course, counts for very little, but what will trouble supporters of the club the most will be the possibility that, based on their performances so far this season, they are not far short of deserving one of those bottom three places. Arsenal have now lost three of their opening five matches of the season, twice in circumstances that can only reasonably be described as shambolic. The loss against Manchester United could arguably be put down to meeting one of the finest club teams in the world on the wrong day to meet all wrong days. There is little justification for this afternoon’s performance, though. This afternoon’s Arsenal performance can only reasonably be explained away as that of a team in serious decline.
This isn’t a crisis, as such, though. What the supporters of Plymouth Argyle are going through right now is a crisis. Arsenal will stabilise in the fullness of time, and in the modern lop-sided Premier League isn’t even too early to write off another Champions League finish for the club, no matter how remote this may seem at the moment. When Liverpool were in this position this time last year, we stated on this site that they would not be relegated and that the team would find a way out of its torpor. Arsenal are in a considerably better position in many respects than Liverpool were at the time, and there were even causes for optimism this aftenoon in that both Gervinho and Arteta managed their first Arsenal goals. The Liverpool analogy has a catch, though. In order to turn their season around, Liverpool needed both a change of ownership and a change of manager. Those of the opinion that Arsenal may need the same in order to match their climb up the table will have seen little this afternoon to dissuade them of their fears.
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