Blackpool FC 1-3 Arsenal: Three Certain Points in Uncertain Times

Bloody's all happening now, isn't it?

Before we get to off-field events (I imagine we'll have something in mid-week or so once we have a little more information to go on), I don't want to overlook a game in which three crucial points were obtained. I am on record on multiple occasions as saying that I don't think we have much of a chance of catching Manchester United, and I stand by that. However, should United falter at any point over the next few weeks, then a win here was the minimum requirement for such a blip in form to have any relevance for us. Blackpool gave the league leaders all they could handle last time they played, so this wasn't ever going to be the same kind of walkover that the reverse fixture was early on in the season.

The big news was in between the sticks, as Manuel Almunia fell "ill", paving the way for the unlikeliest of returns. Yes, that was Jens Lehmann back in the Arsenal goal, with detours in Stuttgart and in retirement. Somehow, I get the sense that this illness is somehow related to the "shoulder injury" that led to Lukasz Fabianski donning the gloves earlier in the campaign. His influence was immediately felt, with mostly positive results. For one thing, the defense of Gael Clichy, Sebastien Squillaci, Laurent Koscielny and Emmanuel Eboue (in for the injured Bacary Sagna) on the whole performed better than they have in the past. There were still some shaky moments (and the Blackpool goal was absolutely farcical), but there is no question in my mind that the crazy German screaming instructions at them was a contributor to that improvement.

Oddly, the match didn't follow the usual script in the first 10 minutes. As the hardcores who trekked to the Blind Pig at 8:30 on a Sunday morning ordered their first pints through our bleary hungover eyes, Blackpool seized momentum with the immediacy of a club that is two things: Perilously close to the relegation zone, and absolutely committed to a philosophy of swashbuckling, cavalier attack. Arsenal could barely get hold of the ball, and the men in tangerine created several half-chances to put the shaky Gunner defense on the back foot.

Still, it was Arsenal who almost hit first off the counter. For once, it wasn't us who had the dodgiest keeper on the pitch. Richard Kingson is an international only because Africa as a continent is not one that is known for a production line of goalkeepers (go ahead - name one good one other than Egypt's Essam El-Hardary...and he's 38 and almost retired). The Ghanaian came haring off his line to collect a long ball over the top, and made a total hash of it. The ball came to the resurgent Andrei Arshavin with the goal at his mercy, but his finish was every bit as awful as Kingson's goalkeeping.

Up the other end, the old Lehmann was in full effect as he angrily reacted to Luke Varney crashing into him as he caught a high ball. I have missed the Jens Lehmann Angry Wagging Finger more than you can possibly imagine, especially when the alternative is the Manuel Almunia Droopy Dog Face of Despair and Self-Loathing.

After the initial period of possession from their opponents, Arsenal got more into the game and even adapted tactics a bit to take advantage of Blackpool's woeful back line. Not only are they disorganized and playing in front of a manic keeper, but they are also especially lead-footed. Arsenal exploited that with simple long balls (not exactly a typical staple of ours, but effective here) which caused no shortage of havoc in the penalty area. Robin van Persie had a half-chance from one, with Kingson again absolutely nowhere.

How easily it could have been 1-0 to the home side, though. Koscielny, who has perhaps conceded the most number of unfair penalty kicks in any Premier League season, finally got the rub of the green on this occasion. Gary Taylor-Fletcher was in the area and definitely fouled by the Frenchman, but referee Lee Mason waved play on. Remember that one if we by some trick of fortune win the title.

If that had raised Blackpool manager Ian Holloway's ire, imagine how angry he was when Arsenal were up 2-0 inside of seven minutes after the penalty shout. For the first goal, the wonderful Abou Diaby (when was the last time one could say that?) started and finished the move. He won the ball in midfield, and laid it off to Cesc Fabregas. The captain picked out van Persie with a long ball, leaving the Blackpool defense for dead. He probably could have taken the shot himself, but he saw Diaby making the run to the back post, and found him for the easy tap-in. I don't mind saying what a blessed relief that goal was, too.

Photo: The Guardian

A few minutes later, the Gunners doubled the lead. There are several aspects of life in the Premier League that can be difficult for newly-promoted sides, and one them is unquestionably the gut-punch feeling that comes with dominating a favored team and going down 1-0 against the run of play. Teams like this tend to be vulnerable just after they've conceded (and incidentally right after they've scored), and sure enough they paid for it here. This time, Super Jack Wilshere played creator, threading a fine pass through the Blackpool rearguard to the onrushing Eboue. Our fullbacks are not noted goal machines, but you would be forgiven for believing otherwise as the Ivorian cut inside and scorched one past Kingson (who by the way might have had a shot at it if he hadn't been caught guessing the wrong way) and into the corner for a 2-0 lead.

I don't do ratings for opponents as long-time readers know, but their keeper would have been in the 3-4 range on the day if I did.

Photo: The Guardian

Much of the starch went out of the Tangerines after the goals, and the possession stats settled into the normal 60-40 rhythm that Arsenal normally enjoys against lower-end clubs. Still, I hate to say it, but this one should have been killed off before the interval. van Persie fired a tame shot right at Kingson after another long pass over the top, and another long ball resulted in Samir Nasri hitting the post. A third promising one went astray when RVP got the ball tangled up after rounding Kingson, and a fourth was in the net before the Dutchman was called offside.

The win is nice and I don't mean to be That Guy who finds something to complain about on a happy occasion, but Blackpool were asking to be torn to pieces and once again, we didn't do it.

The home side almost pinged one back right before halftime, which would have made things entirely too interesting. They were thwarted only by a combination of Lehmann and a little luck. Taylor-Fletcher was again in the center of things, as it was his pass that found its way to Varney. The former Norwich man's shot was deflected by DJ Campbell, and then again off of Squillaci. Lehmann had already begun his dive and was going the wrong way, but managed to keep the ball off the line with his trailing leg. That was a fantastic save and frankly one that I could never see Almunia making.

The break came at the perfect time for Blackpool, as they were able to stop the bleeding somewhat. Arsenal seemed to take their foot off the pedal a bit, and were duly warned when Varney missed an absolute sitter. The warning went unheeded though, and a minute or so later the home side were back within one. In fact, on another day it could have been an absolute disaster for Arsenal.

Jason Puncheon (oddly, on loan from Southampton) rampaged down the center with no obvious resistance. His through-ball eviscerated the Arsenal central defense, and Campbell did his part by rounding Lehmann. For all of his good play on the day, Mad Jens was slow coming off his line and clipped Campbell, sending him down. It was shades of 2006 all over again, as it very easily could have been a penalty kick and a red card. Instead, the ball came out to Taylor-Fletcher, who rolled the ball into the vacated net. While it was unfortunate to give away a goal so cheaply, what any Gunner would give for the abominable Terje Hauge to have shown the same level of discretion and common sense as a guy in Mason who is arguably in the lower half of Premiership referees.

Photo: The Guardian

It didn't end there, though. Koscielny again escaped conceding a penalty when one probably should have been called, and George Southern missed a wide-open header. I know I said that Lehmann had probably helped improve the Arsenal defense in this game...and what an indictment it is on them that I stand by that even with a promoted team having all these chances.

Blackpool couldn't find the equalizer though, and eventually their resistance faded. Arshavin came off for Theo Walcott, which helped keep them honest with a counter-attacking threat. In fact, he played a part in the goal that killed the Tangerines off, but not before Squillaci had to make a fantastic saving tackle to prevent Campbell from having a free look at goal. Eboue won the ball off the restart and found Fabregas, who in turn got it out to Walcott. He turned on the afterburners and left the Easter Island statues in the Blackpool defense in the dust, and dished it to van Persie on the back post for a tap-in much like the first goal of the afternoon.

Game, set and match...right?

Almost, although typically shoddy defending from the rapidly-decaying Clichy gifted Blackpool with a chance to immediately hit back. Once again, Lehmann was there to mop up, saving again with his legs.

That done, it was game set and match this time.

So then, a win that could potentially be big, or could potentially mean absolutely nothing. In reality, the sum total of the day's work is that the window is still open a tiny, tiny crack. If we go ahead and beat Liverpool, perhaps it will give our friends oop norf something to think about.

The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:

Lehmann 6, Clichy 5, Squillaci 7, Koscielny 5, Eboue 7, Nasri 7 (Gibbs N/A), Diaby 8 (MOTM), Fabregas 8 (Ramsey N/A), Wilshere 7, Arshavin 6 (Walcott 7), van Persie 7