Arsenal 2—Blackburn 1: Stereotypes Overcome?
Blackburn play the English game with style, while Arsenal show mettle.
Blackburn, the brawny connoisseurs of ugly long ball, provided the first test of whether or not Arsenal had finally acquired the necessary mettle so lacking in recent seasons.
Arsenal’s most recent spring collapse was literally rubbed in their faces by a Blackburn side that successfully bullied them into submission. After going up 1—0, Arsenal gave up two second half goals largely by being generally outmuscled, and acutely so on set pieces. Beating Fulham 4—0 the following week to end the season, could not reverse the near three-month slide that dragged them into the summer. But Arsenal would have the last word on their season, answering their critics by affirming the criticism. When everything has gone wrong, it still can get postmodern in 2010. Either self-reflection can’t get away from this comfort zone or footballers just lag behind on the cultural curve.
The match was presented as a game where the stereotype of caveman vs. esthete would likely prove true once again, but both teams successfully set out to prove the assumptions false. Although Blackburn didn’t divert from their tough, direct style, they displayed how their branded pragmatism, all mechanics and function, could be raised to into style by playing quickly and sharply for 90 minutes. It was truly entertaining long ball.
Aside from Laurent Koscielny knocked off the ball (is it worse that it was by El Hadji Diouf?), which directly led to the equalizer, Arsenal showed consistent strength throughout, matching Blackburn on tackles, challenges, and balls in the air.
This was the first time Robin van Pesie and Cesc Fabregas started a game together since October of 2009. This lasted a generous 20 minutes when van Persie went down injured. The preliminary word is a few weeks sidelined. Really? Will it be that short? It’s puzzling that an athlete with a wiry strong frame could be so fragile. Did his parents forbid him flouridated water? Was hurting himself the only way he could get the attention he felt his parents withheld? Every time he touches the ball or falls to the ground there’s a hushed gasping and murmuring that maybe he won’t notice lying on the ground examining himself.
The occasion where Arsenal shows signs of real mettle could not avoid displaying another kind of frailty. There has been some talk about the psychological repercussions of long-term injuries. The results-driven religion of modern football has compressed the rehabilitation timeline. A player can be out for long periods (although shorter than they used to be), but is expected to regain form quickly once thrust back into the lineup.
A player may spend a disciplined half season or more contracted to a lonely, often grueling and tedious rehabilitation. Light, then full training follows, then a couple of appearances in the reserves, and it’s back into the first team. Then it’s real.
The mental and physical challenge of regaining form has no relation to highly targeted exercises or hours on a stationary bicycle. Eduardo is an example. Exorcising that brief hesitation to strike a ball or commit to a tackle can have an outsized effect, if now residing in the eastern end of Eastern Europe is any indication.
For van Persie, this fresh injury was due to the way he committed himself. He went in softly, leg limp, almost consciously with the thought that if he challenged as forcefully as the Blackburn player, he could injury himself. He had no intent to win the challenge with self-preservation in mind. It’s not uncommon to see a player injured when softly going into a challenge, but avoiding injury can invite it. A more equal force of strength and momentum bolsters all the joints and tendons on impact.
Blackburn provided the first real quiz of the season. It directly addressed the lingering issue of Arsenal’s physical and metal strength. One game does not reverse the long-term problem, but it does carry weight for the next physical encounter. In two weeks time, Arsenal will meet Bolton (a rich man’s Blackburn?), and the quiz will be readministered. But the real test will come in March and April, and if there is no customary collapse, this Arsenal team will look a little bit more like the ones of old.
Game Note: This was the last time I watched a game with my best buddy Will. We watched the entire game without once getting up off the couch. We had a great time.