Arsenal 1 Blues 1 .. Match Report
On the way back up the M40, an Arsenal fan called '606' and moaned to the despicable Alan Green that Arsenal were used to teams putting eleven men behind the ball, and that's what Blues had done. This guy was clearly a bit retarded, as Alex McLeish picked two out-and-out strikers in O'Connor and Cameron Jerome, and there was also Olivier Kapo (not exactly the most disciplined, defensive midfielder) on the left too, in the place of Gary McSheffrey (woohoo!)
Blues started pretty slowly, and I suspect were guilty of paying Arsenal too much respect, and they soon let their hosts boss the game. It seemed to only be a matter of time before Arsenal took the lead, and sure enough, they did midway through the first half as Adebayor scored from the spot.
In a strange way, I think that going behind suited Blues. As I say, I felt that they were paying Arsenal too much respect, and in going behind you almost sensed that the Blues players felt "oh well, there we go - they'll run riot now" and it seemed to relax Blues. All of a sudden the players were looking to use the ball better and not getting rid of it as soon as they got it. Kapo helped in this respect, as Blues had someone who was happy to receive the ball and look for a decent pass, rather than simply seek to get rid of the responsibility immediately.
Early on in the second half O'Connor's header from a Seb Larsson corner took a bit of a deflection that wrong-footed Manuel Almunia, and Blues had scored away at Arsenal for the first time in the Premier League years. Arsenal, as you'd expect, put Blues under a lot of pressure as the game wore on, but they never totally opened Blues up to produce a gilt-edged chance, with the possible exception of an Alexander Hleb's cross flying across the face of the goal.
Late on Blues brought on Mikael Forssell and McSheffrey for Jerome and O'Connor to give them some fresh legs up front. Forssell held the ball up well and looked lively, and even McSheffrey, whose decision-making was still poor, contributed by slotting into midfield when Arsenal had possession to just make Blues a little tighter as a unit. Blues also had the advantage of Nicklas Bendtner coming off the bench and assisting his former team-mates by finding touch and putting the ball deep into the back of the stand when Blues were under pressure.
Arsenal are an absolutely wonderful side - possibly the best footballing side I've ever seen - and so for Blues to get a point at their place, and to restrict them to only one goal (which wasn't even in open play) is a fantastic achievement. People may cry foul about Arsenal being depleted by injuries and the African Cup of Nations. With respect to the former, there was only really Robin van Persie out, and then they still had the choice of two of Adebayor, Bendtner and Eduardo up front (not too bad). Then, the latter, Alex Song-Billong doesn't really play in the league, Emmanuel Eboue had been playing wide right, but Tomas Rosicky coming in hardly hinders them (and arguably improves them, certainly offensively), and so there was only really Kolo Toure absent in that respect, so it wasn't a bad side.
Blues did have to defend - of course they did - but shouldn't be criticised for doing so. That '606' bloke seemed to suggest that they should be, and Arsene Wenger recently ridiculously criticised Portsmouth for a similar display. What do these people expect? Teams to not bother defending against Arsenal? Teams to just roll over and let them have their wicked way with them? To bombard Arsenal with attacking football and allow them to go 4-0 up after about 20 minutes with some stunning counter-attacks?
After such a display, it's difficult and unfair to pick out individuals for praise, as everyone did their job, but I'm going to anyway. Firstly, after the abuse that I gave Maik Taylor last week after the Huddersfield debacle, it's only fair that I praise him now. He made some very good saves, and whilst his display wasn't faultless, it was much, much better. Blues obviously have a new goalkeeping coach in Dave Watson, and how much of a difference he could have made in two days, well, I don't know. However, Taylor's kicking and distribution was far, far improved (it wasn't hard), and one throw to Kapo sparked an Arsenalesque counter-attack early on, as Jerome was denied by a fine Almunia save. Taylor also came and plucked about five or six corners from the air, which again was a huge improvement. Whether it was a new coach, or simply Taylor having a long, hard look at his performances recently, I don't know, but fair play to him.
Secondly, another Northern Ireland international in Damien Johnson. Johnson is always the source of much debate amongst Blues fans, but I'm sure that no one can question his attitude - he's now played on for Blues in games after breaking his jaw and also fracturing his skull, and he wore a freakish Phantom of the Opera style mask in this game. I'm a huge admirer of Johnson's, and feel it's not just his attitude that is impressive, but his ability to play a variety of different roles in the team. Here, he played the midfield destroyer role very, very well. He broke up and disrupted Arsenal's play, and then played a simple ball to a team-mate. It was good to hear voices in the away end praising him for once - he deserved it.
As for the rest, well, again, they all did their jobs and played well. Stuart Parnaby came on out of position to replace the injured Franck Queudrue, and did an excellent job, and the likes of Larsson, Fabrice Muamba and Stephen Kelly were their usual tireless selves.
Blues have now been away to all of "The Big Four" and picked up points at Anfield and the Emirates, performed extremely well at Old Trafford and lost by the odd goal in five at Stamford Bridge, having led. It's clear to see that Blues can compete with these teams, which is nice. What's not quite so nice is the frustration that by the same token, Blues have dropped points at home to Fulham, Reading and Sunderland. Alex McLeish has mentioned being "baffled" by it, and when you throw in the Huddersfield result, the Jekyll & Hyde-o-meter goes into overdrive.
Blues are desperately short of bodies, and so McLeish does need to be given funds to get some of "his" players in, and then hopefully he can start working on a bit more consistency, because if Blues can find it, I think they'll be ok. They've at least shown they can get good results and put in decent performances, which is better than not showing it at all. It's just about doing it more regularly now, and not just against the big sides.