Arsenal won their first game in over a month as they beat Blackpool 3-1. An efficient counter attack coupled with a high Blackpool defensive line saw Abou Diaby, Emmanuel Eboue and Robin van Persie score as Arsenal keep their small title hopes alive.
Arsene Wenger was without Bacary Sagna and Alex Song, so Emmanuel Eboue and Abou Diaby started. Ian Holloway made 4 changes to the side that lost to Fulham last weekend, and significantly, played both Luke Varney and Jason Puncheon as wingers with DJ Campbell, giving Blackpool pace on the counter, and pace to attack Sebastien Squillaci.
Early Blackpool Pressure, Followed by Arsenal Dominance
Blackpool, as the home side and and the side fighting relegation started off the better side. They put pressure on in the midfield, not allowing Fabregas and Wilshere to play out of the midfield. They didn't get anything from the first 15 minutes of pressure, and Fabregas, as he so often does, dropped deeper to get the ball. Thus, in the attacking phase, Abou Diaby was often the further forward midfielder, and we were faced with two teams that weren't playing traditional defensive midfielders. It lead to a very fluid shift among the front 6 for both sides, which suited Arsenal.
Blackpool were playing a ridiculously high offside line, and, as we've seen many times with Arsenal, when teams play a high line but don't press, they're easily taken advantage of by long balls over the top. After the first 15 minutes, Arsenal were doing that with ease, and Fabregas' passing was very direct. After Abou Diaby made it 1-0 from a brilliant counter, Emmanuel Eboue finished off a passing move to make it 2. Eboue hasn't gotten a lot of starts for Arsenal in the Premier League this year, as, defensively he is a weaker player to Bacary Sagna. On the attacking side, however, he may be better than Sagna, despite the Frenchman's two goals this season. Eboue prefers to cut inside, and this gets him into better goal scoring opportunities. While his crossing is not as good as Sagna's, the addition of an extra man from deep does give Arsenal another option when facing teams that defend deep, and this is something that should be considered for the rest of the season.
After the break, Blackpool played similarly to the way they did in the first half. They put pressure on the Arsenal midfield, and they used pace to attack the back line. They also defended deeper than they had in the first half; while still a relatively high line, it made it harder for Arsenal to play through, and also meant other midfielders had to push up. Thus, when Arsenal lost the ball they were vulnerable to the counter attack, and Blackpool executed it perfectly to make it 1-0. Soon after, Southern had a chance to make it 2-2, and perhaps Blackpool should've had a penalty. The high tempo was bound to fizzle out again, as they were pressurizing beyond their fitness levels (something that Arsenal are very good at) and Arsenal, in a repeat of the first half, began to control the game again. Blackpool were still pushing for an equaliser, but they were still holding a deepish line and the Fabregas ball to van Persie wasn't as frequent as it was in the first half.
The introduction of Theo Walcott was a key change for Arsenal. Andrey Arshavin had struggled in the second half, and Walcott brought pace and stretched the play so Arsenal could create gaps in the Blackpool line. He also gave Arsenal a potentially devastating option on the counter, and that was eventually shown with the third goal. When Diaby found Fabregas, Blackpool were playing higher up than they had in most of the second half, as the ball was initially deep in the Arsenal half. Walcott was thus left with lots of space and was able to pick out van Persie to make it 3-1. Arsenal, despite one mistake from Gael Clichy, were fairly comfortable afterwards.
Closing down of Charlie Adam
One of the main features of Blackpool's play are long diagonals to the wide areas. The usual providers of these diagonals is Charlie Adam, but today, he was closed down by Jack Wilshere and Abou Diaby, and failed to have the influence that Blackpool required. Only in the second half, when he dropped deep was he able to influence himself on the game, and Ian Holloway reacted to that by bringing on Andy Reid, who is a similar type of player to Adam. Reid, however, failed to have the desired effect, and Blackpool lost some of their initiative by taking off Luke Varney, whose pace had caused the Arsenal backline problems.
A solid win for Arsenal, and a good tactical win. Arsene Wenger correctly identified Blackpool's main threat of Charlie Adam, and had his midfield close him down. The introduction of Theo Walcott was good, as it allowed Arsenal to stretch the play, as Blackpool had dropped a little deeper. For Blackpool, their defensive line was suicidally high, but their attacking play was as good as ever, and if they are to remain in the Premier League, it must be by attacking play. Similarly for Arsenal, with a weaker defence due to injuries, attack very well might be the best form of defence.