A dim and flat Arsenal welcomed relegation-threatened Blackburn to the Emirates today but could not create a way to overcome a Rovers team determined to sit deep and absorb attacks. Despite dominating possession, Arsenal failed to sustain pressure on goal, and Blackburn occasionally threatened to get in behind the Gunners' high line. In the end, a scoreless draw was what the match merited, and it is a draw that sees Arsenal's hopes of catching Manchester United burning very low.
Arsenal started out with the lion's share of possession, the first decent chance coming six minutes in as Theo Walcott burst in on goal only for an onrushing Paul Robinson to block his low effort. Jack Wilshere looked industrious in the opening forays, bursting forward from deep in the midfield and trying to play 1-2s with Nasri and Walcott. Thirteen minutes in, Nasri tried to meet a header from a Gael Clichy cross, but instead met the head of Ryan Nelsen. Receiving treatment for a enormous knot on his forehead, he would play the rest of his match with a bandage wrapped around his head.
Blackburn had gradually worked their way into the match, asserting control over an increasingly scattershot Arsenal midfield. David Hoilett played Martin Olsson through, the defender shooting wide of Almunia's near post, as the Gunners' high line was slowly being exposed by Blackburn through passes. Sebastien Squllaci and Bacary Sagna in particular were caught out by the young pacey left side of Hoilett and Olsson, a route that Rovers clearly favored.
Arsenal's best chance of the half came a half hour in, when a driving run from Wilshere allowed him to spring Nasri free on the right. As the Frenchman worked his way towards Robinson, he elected to square it, hard, back to Wilshere, who didn't appear to expect the return, the ball bouncing away harmlessly off his shin. Blackburn came down to the other end, Manuel Almunia misjudging a routine shot and managing to nearly whiff on it, the ball in the end going just wide off his left pinky. Hoilett cut inside unchallenged a couple of minutes later, slicing his shot badly wide, fortunately for Arsenal.
As halftime approached, Robinson lumped a long ball forward from a free kick that Christopher Samba headed only just wide after beating Almunia in the air. Two minutes later, Wilshere did excellent work again, finding Song with a nice pass, the latter bulldozing his way towards the area before laying the ball of for Nasri, whose shot was blocked by Samba. Halftime loomed, Arsenal managing only to scrap the occasional chance, most of their play inexplicably coming through crosses towards van Persie.
The failure to use width as they often do, working short passes in from the flanks, had many supporters wondering if the lack of creativity would see Cesc Fabregas introduced at the restart, but the 46th minute brought no changes for either side. If Arsène Wenger had any halftime advice for his wards, it didn't show, as Arsenal opened the second half with a series of aimless crosses, too low to matter, to nobody in particular anyhow.
There was a brief glimmer of light, happiness, and children laughing in the 54th minute as mental-patient-Nasri danced with glee through the midfield, but his innocence came to an end after the corner that he won was headed towards goal by Laurent Koscielny only to fall into the hands of dark grey ogre Robinson.
Wenger sensed that change was needed and finally readied Cesc Fabregas, who came on in place of Andrei Arshavin. It was a curious substitution, as Arshavin had been playing centrally for much of the second half and looking most likely to create something for the home side. Nevertheless, Fabregas immediately went to work, chipping passes over the Blackburn defense, nearly putting Robin van Persie in two minutes after coming on. Blackburn made a change as well, Roque Santa Cruz coming off for old Arsenal foe Jason Roberts.
On 65 minutes, van Persie shot, only to be saved. Arsenal tried to make more intelligent use of their width, but any hope of that faded as Wenger brought on Nicklas Bendtner and Marouane Chamakh, each of who tried to cross to the other, van Persie now pushed out wide. Theo Walcott and Samir Nasri both came off, depriving Arsenal of a potent wing threat and their best dribbler. Chamakh nearly found a breakthrough after shooting from a Wilshere square, only for Samba to block.
The match, at this point, had transformed into a shapeless mass of steel-cut oatmeal. Arsenal tried to head home a couple of times, Carlos Salgado clearing at the far post on a corner in the 90th minute, but their creativity had deserted them. Wenger didn't have his best match tactically; if it is the manager's job to put the pieces he has in the best position to score, it is valid to ask why he put his best scorer on the side of the pitch while having his tallest forward lumping crosses to the far post, where theoretically, he would be better suited to be standing. Arsenal's last gasp deep in stoppage time saw van Persie head a cross over the bar. The match drew to a close, a disappointing effort by Arsenal.
Wenger summed up the action thusly:
"It is difficult to identify one special thing. I felt we started OK and after our game became flat. Very few players looked to have the resources to put the pace up in the game. Part of it is down to the fact that Blackburn defended well but I don't put the majority of reasons down to that. I feel it is more down to our poor offensive performance today."
In fairness, Blackburn defended very well, even after Steven Nzonzi saw a straight red card towards the end for a two footed lunge on Laurent Koscielny. They allowed for no space in their area, and Arsenal couldn't pull them around to give room for any kind of attack.
Arsenal now sit seven points behind leaders Manchester United with a match in hand, but time is running short. Today's draw hurts, but it was unlikely that Arsenal would win nine straight matches anyhow. There is still hope, but the team will have to play much better and more creatively than they did today if there is to be triumph at the end of the season.