The youngest Gunners—with an average age hovering around twenty—delivered one of Arsenal’s most complete performances of the season.
They started the game in full flow, embarrassing Blackburn for almost 45 minutes before Roque Santa Cruz pegged one back for the home side. Then, as Blackburn made a game of it and scored the equalizer, the Gunners dug deep, showing mental and physical toughness to hang on for extra time.
They went a man down at the death of regular time, should have lost, but fought on. They lost a teammate to a fluky injury but still fought on. They finally scored the game winner, and then managed to lock up shop with a little help from the post, securing a famous victory for youth everywhere.
It is a victory that really should silence their critics, but it probably won’t.
Lukasz Fabianski (5) -- Nowhere near “the finished article,” Fabianski shows great shot stopping prowess but questionable decision making skills. He punches the ball when he should catch it, he waits for the ball when he should charge out and clear it, and his ball distribution is more than a bit risky.
All those issues coupled with his showboating make him a heart stopping keeper for all the wrong reasons. Still, he did just enough on the night to secure the win, stopping everything he should have stopped. He has lots of promise, but he is not ready for the big time yet.
Justin Hoyte (8) -- Arsenal’s second keeper against the Rovers, Justin Hoyte, made two crucial blocks in the dying minutes to keep out Pederson and Savage.
He played 134 tireless minutes, providing excellent width up the right and great ability to track back on defense. He even helped make Senderos look a little less foolish.
It is a testament to Bacary Sagna’s extreme quality that the excellent Justin Hoyte is not a first team regular.
Alexandre Song (10) -- Song has never played a better game in an Arsenal shirt (although he had one game of similar quality in a Charlton strip). He was easily man of the match. If he can capture this sort of form on a regular basis, he will be the perfect replacement for Kolo Toure during the Africa Cup of Nations.
Against Blackburn he had strength going forward—threading through the crucial pass that set up Eduardo’s game winner—good positional sense, massive work rate, a never-say-quit attitude, and in addition helped Hoyte nullify Senderos’s buffoonery, actually clearing the ball off the line. Song did make one or two mistakes, but he cleaned them up himself, as any good player should do.
Song’s performance highlights one of Arsene Wenger’s other towering managerial gifts: finding the perfect role for the player. He has thrown numerous players into unfamiliar positions—Henry, Toure, Lauren, Eboue et al.—and thereby raised the performance level of each and every one of them. He seems to have done it once again with Alexander Song.
Phillipe Senderos (4) -- Senderos was his usually sketchy self: poor decision making, poor positional play, poor concentration. But for once it wasn’t costly. He was supported too well for that.
Why is it that all of Arsenal’s big, bald defenders (I’m pointing my finger at you, Pascal Cygan) are useless? It’s a mystery of the universe, but at least it gives Gunners a scapegoat when things go wrong.
Armand Traore (8) -- Gael Clichy needs to watch his back. Not only is Traore as fast as Clichy, he’s actually faster, and the boy can cross the ball. Next year, the competition at left back will be fierce.
Who needs Ashley Cole? Certainly not Arsenal.
Mark Randall (6) -- A solid start for the eighteen year old. He was influential early on, but he gradually lost his influence, which seemed to be more about confidence than fatigue.
While Arsenal were playing their passing game, Randall was in his element and he excelled—but as Blackburn resurged and closed down the midfield, Randall seemed to be out of his depth.
He shows excellent skills, however, and looks a bit like David Bentley in his Arsenal days. His was probably the only proper, tactical substitution of Arsenal’s game.
Lassana Diarra (7) -- Another workhorse performance by the powerful Frenchman. I was recently asked to reconsider Diarra’s tackling, and I stand corrected to an extent—his close tackling is impeccable.
If he closes a man down fast enough, he never loses the ball—but I remain convinced that can be sloppy and even dangerous in long and medium range tackles; yet even when he blows a tackle he never gives up on the ball, and that is champion quality attitude.
I am still not convinced he is a great player, despite Raymond Domenech’s love for him—but I do think his failures in recent weeks are more because he was partnered with Gilberto than because of his own lack of skill. Solid, bullish performance.
Denilson (5) -- A strong first half for the Brazilian Cesc-wannabe, but he is too easily rattled. He definitely deserved his red card. It was rash, unnecessary, and nearly cost his team the game.
But it leads to this question: if Denilson deserved a red for flying at open air with two feet and barely brushing Dunn, what did John Terry deserve for his two footed assault on Fabrega's backside?
Surely a yellow card in that case was an insult to everyone. If he'd gotten the card he deserved, he wouldn't have broken three bones in his foot.
Abou Diaby (7) -- He opened the scoring with a cheeky, well weighted ball that just looped beyond Brad Friedel’s reach. It was his biggest contribution of the game, even though he was confident and assured throughout. He seemed to tire a bit near the end, but even then his ball control was impeccable.
Too bad he was out of the fold when Arsenal’s big three were hurt, because a central pairing of Diaby and Diarra (instead of Gilberto and Diarra) may have been enough for Arsenal to beat Boro.
Eduardo (8) -- Excellent performance by the Croatian-Brazilian. Two great goals, and it showed us precisely what Eduardo needs to succeed at Arsenal: proper service from the midfield (or defence as the case may be).
He needs some starts in the first team squad, playing a proper 4-4-2 with van Persie before we will see the best he has to offer. It is almost a shame that Togo didn’t make the Africa Cup of Nations because with Adebayor fit, Eduardo’s chances will be a mere trickle.
Nicklas Bendtner (6) -- A very Adebayor-like performance for Bendtner. Good work rate, strong up front, solid work holding up the play and waiting for support—but no goals.
Bendtner needs to score on these occasions if he’s ever going to threaten for a first team spot.
Nacer Barazite (5) -- Sadly we didn’t see enough of the young Dutchman. He came on bright in place of Randall, and he didn’t seem at all bothered by Blackburn’s physicality. Unfortunately, it cost him a dislocated shoulder, forcing Wenger into an injury substitution.
Fran Merida (4) -- Merida looked terrified while he stood on the touchline, waiting to come on for Barazite. He wasn’t ready for the big game and it showed. He made one good move in his limited time on the pitch and that was all.
But keep an eye on him. The buzz in the Arsenal reserves is that he is the real deal.
Kieran Gibbs (4) -- Gibbs was barely on the pitch, and he barely touched the ball. He wasn’t terrible, but he made no impact.
Not to worry, though. So long as Wenger keeps giving his young guns a chance, there will be a next time.