Blues tend not to go to places like Chelsea Chelsea and get beat 6-0 (as Albion did this season), but then again, they don't tend to go to places like Arsenal and go 3-0 up, before winning 3-2 (as Albion did this season). Blues turn up, very occasionally sneak a draw, but otherwise, as I say, are gallant losers. (Please note that I do not include Liverpool in the same category of club as Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United, before people start pointing out our good record at Anfield.)
And so, it happened again. To be honest with you, I was fearing a drubbing pre-match, given Arsenal suffering defeats in their previous two league games. Whilst people may have felt Albion's stunning result at the Emirates gave Blues hope, I felt it did the opposite - it just ensured lightning wouldn't strike twice. Teams like Arsenal often suffer one home embarrassment a season, but rarely suffer two. It's even rarer that the two are in consecutive home games.
So, given that I feared a drubbing, a 2-1 defeat for Blues wasn't too bad really. It was a decent game too, with plenty of needle and some decent football. Some Arsenal fans commented to me afterwards that they felt they were lucky to win and didn't deserve the three points. I disagree. I felt Arsenal clearly did deserve the three points, but Blues did alright and weren't embarrassed.
With Cameron Jerome apparently injured (although I personally question whether it was just a decent opportunity to rest a striker who has had to do a lot of work this season in advance of some more winnable games), as expected, Nikola Zigic came in up front. Otherwise it was the same team who were (apparently) so poor against Everton. The formation was, I think, slightly different though in that it was 4-1-4-1. There's been so much talk about formations and, in truth, so many modern-day formations aren't rigid anyway, but Blues certainly started off with Ferguson clearly deeper than the rest of the midfield and Alex Hleb alongside Lee Bowyer in the middle. Keith Fahey and Seb Larsson were on the flanks.
Arsenal, as they always do, started as if they'd already been playing for 20 or 30 minutes - they never seem to need to get into their stride. They're just on their game immediately. Blues were, as you'd expect, up against it somewhat but were fairly solid defensively, made some decent blocks and swamped the edge of the eighteen yard box. This meant that, whilst having plenty of the ball, Arsenal never really tested Ben Foster.
At the other end, Blues weren't doing too badly either and were winning a number of set pieces that they looked threatening from. Blues often use Roger Johnson quite cleverly on set pieces - he'll hang around the ball, chatting to Barry Ferguson, before making a late ambling run forward and drifting into a dangerous position to head across goal. Arsenal no doubt don't pay as much attention to the opposition in the build-up to games (as they probably don't need to) and this meant that they hadn't picked up on this ploy as some clubs have, and Johnson was proving a real threat at set pieces. At times he was proving a threat to Blues at the other end with some of his distribution, but Arsenal never quite capitalised.
Blues took the lead through Zigic, scoring his first Premier League goal with a stunning header. Liam Ridgewell broke well down the left, won a throw-in that he and Hleb worked back to Fahey well. Fahey, (having taken far too long to get a cross in moments before and getting caught out) got the ball in early with his right foot and Zigic towered above the Arsenal defence to loop a quite brilliant header into the far bottom corner. It was a fantastic goal and, perhaps more importantly in the context of the season, a huge boost for Zigic.
I don't think that there's much doubt that this was Zigic's best performance for Blues. Don't get me wrong, he didn't look a world beater, but he had a decent game. I'd said a few times over the past two weeks that this HAD to be the perfect game to give him a run in. Alex McLeish has kept saying that he's suited to a continental game - well, at Arsenal, that's what you'll get. Also, it was away from home in a game that Blues should lose, and so those fans there wouldn't get on his back. It was noticeable how much support rather than abuse he got from those around me, which was good to see/hear. Still, his performance merited that.
Blues got the ball into his feet a lot more, rather than just lumping balls at his head (they did that too, but not all the time). As we've seen before, when you get the ball into his feet, he's pretty decent - far better than Cameron Jerome in that sense. He'll get the ball under control, turn and find a teammate. The problem is, when he's the lone striker, that means he needs to then turn again and get up on the last line of defence looking for a return ball from the midfielder he's laid the ball off to. Whilst he's comfortably better than Jerome in his hold up ability, his pace alongside Jerome is a bit like me up against Usain Bolt. So, when he lays the ball off, it's very difficult for him to turn and then provide a decent option a few seconds later in a more advanced position. He and Jerome appear to have the perfect attributes to dovetail one another nicely as a front two - Zigic deeper, holding the ball up, finding an advanced midfielder who can then look for Jerome's run down a channel. Hopefully we'll see it again soon.
Anyway, back to the football and Blues' lead was short lived. Just after Zigic was unlucky from another Johnson nod down from another well worked set piece, Arsenal were awarded a penalty. To be honest with you, from the opposite end of the ground it was pretty tricky to see why. Arsenal were doing what they do best, knocking the ball around in and around the opposition penalty box without anyone actually having a shot, and Blues blocks and challenges were flying in. Marouanne Chamakh went down after one and Martin Atkinson pointed at the spot. I couldn't see if it was a good decision or not, although I understand TV replays suggest it was generous. Anyway, it happened, and Samir Nasri sent Foster the wrong way to make it 1-1.
Suddenly, just before half-time, there was loads of action. All the Blues players appeared to want to fight Chamakh, possibly for diving or possibly because of his horrible hair. Then Nasri and Ridgewell were involved in a bit of a squabble. A foul was awarded against Nasri and as Ridgewell was on the floor, a few words were exchanged and there were few little gestures - the usual handbags between a sophisticated chap with a cultured beard from Bexleyheath and a little French chav. Anyway, right at the end of the exchange Nasri quite clearly kicked out at Ridgewell who was still on the floor. I say "kicked out" as it was less of a kick, but he quite clearly he kneed Ridgewell.
Now, to me, it's one of those decisions for a referee - either he didn't see it, so can't give anything, or if he does see it, he has to give a red card. It's one or the other - it can't be a yellow card. Surprise surprise, Nasri got a yellow card. A few weeks ago in the Liverpool v Sunderland game, Steven Gerrard elbowed Danny Welbeck and got a yellow card for it. He was booked. Again, it can't be a booking. Either you don't see it, so you can't give it, or if you see the incident, it has to be a red card. Here, I would love Martin Atkinson to explain what offence it was that Nasri was booked for. He quite clearly saw something (hence giving a card to Nasri and, importantly, not to Ridgewell meaning it wasn't for them both being a bit silly), and so what was the booking for? If it was for what happened, i.e. kneeing someone who's lying on the floor, then it's a red card offence, isn't it? If not, what bookable offence is it? I bet Atkinson wouldn't be able to tell you. He wouldn't be able to define the offence that Nasri was booked for - not with any justification anyway. Regular readers will know that I'm beyond even-handed when it comes to referees - in fact, I'm probably far too generous to them. I very rarely criticise them and usually defend them. This was bizarre though. It may have changed the game. It may not have. Who knows? We never got to find out though as Atkinson bottled the correct decision.
So, thirty fairly slow minutes then the last fifteen before half-time were full of action. Atkinson will have been pleased that half-time came as things were threatening to boil over and everyone needed a breather.
No doubt at half-time McLeish would have preached about the fact that Arsenal, having just got their equaliser, would come out of the traps quickly and Blues would need to be wary of that and be resolute against the threat. I'm sure he'll have said something like that - quite rightly. Still, it made no difference as within about 90 second of the restart Arsenal went 2-1 up. Some frankly dreadful defending allowed Arsenal to bundle their way past about five players without doing a great deal and Chamakh rounded Foster and finished comfortably.
That was that, really. Blues never really made any headway in trying to get back into the game, whilst Arsenal, no doubt conscious of their recent dropped points, were (unusually for them) more cautious than cavalier in seeing their victory out. Arsenal brought on Nicklas Bendtner who received a good ovation from the Blues fans following his loan spell a few years ago whilst, obviously with that in mind, McLeish himself went retro with a Championship revival by bringing on David Murphy and Garry O'Connor. Yes, that's right, a team chasing a game at the Emirates against Arsenal brought on a poor left-back to play on the left wing and a poor striker to play up front (well, just off Zigic, actually).
I'm being a little facetious for the sake of it. To be honest, neither did particularly badly. Murphy was certainly an improvement on Fahey who, the goal aside, was involved in the biggest mismatch in professional sport since, well, me versus Usain Bolt a few paragraphs up. To say that Emmanuel Eboue got the better of Fahey is a bit like saying that Liverpool fans have a tendency to overreact slightly and indulge in a smidgen of sanctimony. It's an epic understatement. On one occasion in the second half (just before he was taken off), Fahey actually gave up trying to work out a way around Eboue and just knocked the ball past him and stood where he was. At least he was in a defensive position for when Eboue came back at him.
O'Connor too was ok when he came on, although quite what Matt Derbyshire and Kevin Phillips made of having to sit on the bench (again) whilst the man who Barnsley opted against keeping on loan for a further month is beyond me. Derbyshire's probably beginning to wish he'd stopped in Greece. At least he'd be warm whilst not playing football.
As the game drifted towards its conclusion, a red card was produced by Martin Atkinson for a pretty poor challenge that could seriously have injured someone. Arsene Wenger, as you'd expect, was straight off the bench, arms flailing in the wind like a poor man's Liam Ridgewell, confronting the fourth official before penning his next twenty minute rant on how dangerous tackles are a cancer on the game. Or not, actually, given that it was Jack Wilshere who got the red card for a bad challenge on Zigic right in front of the dugouts. There was, of course, a sense of irony in that Wenger (whose one man crusade on tackling has been joined by Danny Murphy) was only about ten yards from Wilshere getting the red card. Unfortunately, when another of his midfielders should have been sent off about 45 minutes earlier, Wenger was about 70 yards away so I am sure he didn't see it. No doubt Wenger will condemn both Wilshere and Nasri in the build up to Arsenal's next game, calling for referees to be stronger...
On Wilshere, he was excellent for Arsenal again until his dismissal. This season he's had a bit more of "that" in him too. By "that", I mean some added aggression and tenacity and, to be honest, as an England fan I don't mind one bit. From being something of a flair/luxury midfielder who had to play in an advanced role because he was a little weak and lacked the tough side of the game like, say, Alex Song, he's now battling in the middle of the park and winning most of his battles. It's great to see an young English midfielder doing that for Arsenal.
The real worry for Blues, as pointed out to me by those same Arsenal fans afterwards (although it hardly needs pointing out), is the horrible lack of pace. Granted, Jerome was absent, but there's still a serious lack of pace even with him in the side. I mentioned the problems Blues had with Zigic above, but the lack of pace elsewhere is shocking. Here, when Blues needed an injection of pace into their play, they had to rely on Stephen Carr. Yes, Stephen Carr - the little, fat, old bloke who'd retired two years ago. In fairness to him, it's usually him that does it too. When Blues had possession against Arsenal, their football was so, so slow (because of the lack of pace in the team), that Arsenal were comfortably able to set up properly in front of Blues meaning that there was no option but for Blues' midfield to knock the ball back to Ferguson and/or the centre halves who would then knock the ball back to Foster. There was no one to inject any pace in the game, with a quick, clever run past their man or in behind the defence. Craig Gardner too at least offers that (to an extent), but he's out at the minute too.
Whilst Blues can take credit and positives from their display, my concern is that it's easy to be a gallant loser in a game like this. I said above that Blues generally are, and they were again. It's easy to go to Arsenal and compete and do alright and not be disgraced. It's easy when they don't really pay you much attention, so they let Roger Johnson cause havoc at set pieces and they don't bother putting a man on Barry Ferguson to negate his passing. They don't need to as they're good enough to beat you anyway.
What's not so easy is when you're at home to the likes of Wigan, Bolton, Albion, etc, and all they look at is negating the way you play. They realise that Ferguson is the focal point of the team and so if they put someone close to him to pressure him, Blues suddenly stutter. They note that Johnson will drift in from deep at set pieces to head dangerous balls across the face of the goal. They're aware of all this and they work on it. That's when Blues have a tough task. What do you do then? How do you make anything happen then? How do you break a team down then? Rather than a team like Arsenal basically ignoring you and just getting on with it, not worried if you're like Chelsea or Aldershot, how can you be effective against teams so know your own game inside out and that set themselves up, not for themselves, but to negate you? That's a question that McLeish is struggling to answer at the moment, and that's why this Arsenal game is fairly insignificant really.
Arsenal away is no more than a day out to a nice stadium and if you pick something up, it's a bonus. It won't make or break Blues' season. What will is games like Wigan at home (drew), Albion away (lost) and Blackpool at home (we'll see). Last season Blues were the new boys and so caught people cold - people hadn't worked out how to play them. They have now, and Blues need to step up a gear. This season Blackpool and Albion are the new boys, catching people cold. These are the teams Blues need to work out how to play against - not Arsenal.
Here's hoping Blues don't catch a cold next week...