Arsenal v. Stoke City – Emirates Stadium
Arsenal welcomed Stoke City to the Emirates on Saturday. Both sides finished with 2-2 results in midweek, but in opposite fashion. Stoke held a 2-0 lead over Wigan but were unable to hold off a late push by the Latics. Arsenal conceded early in both halves to provide Liverpool a 2-0 lead before they made a late run of their own. Coming into the match, Arsenal were sitting sixth in the table while Stoke remained in tenth. They play with conflicting styles – Arsenal prefer tight intricate passing and possession while Stoke focus on defending and picking the right over-the-top ball.
Arsenal Starting XI:
Sagna – Mertesacker – Koscielny – Monreal
Diaby – Arteta
Walcott – Wilshere – Oxlade-Chamberlain
Stoke City Starting XI:
Shotton – Shawcross – Huth – Wilkinson
Walters – Cameron – N’Zonzi – Whelan – Etherington
Wenger made quite a few adjustments to his squad that drew with Liverpool. Spanish midfielder Mikel Arteta returned from injury alongside Abou Diaby. The central midfielders played to provide rest for Santi Cazorla and Aaron Ramsey. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain got the start on the left-wing in place of Lukas Podolski. Laurent Koscielny started at center-back over Thomas Vermaelen. The most interesting inclusion was the debut of Arsenal’s new left fullback, Nacho Monreal. The Spanish international defender was purchased in the dying moments of the transfer window to shore up the left side of the defense where Andre Santos has recently patrolled. Tony Pulis made a couple changes of his own including the exclusions of Dean Whitehead and Charlie Adam.
Arsenal pressed quickly early on in the match, but eventually fell into Stoke’s preferred, slower style. They had chances but could not manufacture in the final third. Success was found in the diagonal balls to Walcott and Chamberlain on the wings. When the ball became bunched in the center of the pitch, Stoke brought numbers to deny extra space for Arsenal to move. With most Arsenal possessions, Stoke always had ten men behind the ball with only Crouch waiting up front. Stoke could not piece together any offense of their own and seemed satisfied with Arsenal holding possession. The Gunners were able to navigate through the Stoke defense late in the first half, but Begovic became the man of the half. He twice denied Oxlade-Chamberlain and did not allow rebound chances. Arsenal kept the ball in the attacking third and had fourteen shots and eight corner kicks, but they could not break through. Stoke were able to withstand the late flurry from Arsenal and held it 0-0 at halftime.
In the second half, Stoke stuck to their strategy and relied on sending the ball over the top of the Arsenal defense. They were able to implement their long throw-in tactic supplied by defender Ryan Shotton. Anytime the ball went out of play within thirty yards of the goal line, Shotton would take his patented throw-in – the equivalent of a corner-kick for the Potters. Other than the occasional long ball, Stoke did not produce much offensive pressure. Arsenal continued the high pressure they employed in the first half. Although they failed to score, the Arsenal attack looked as if they would eventually put one past the stunning Begovic.
The pesky Stoke defense would not bend and forced Arsene Wenger to go to his bench. Lukas Podolski and Santi Cazorla were given a day of rest, but points were essential and Wenger was desperate. Both players came on in the 69th minute for Chamberlain and Diaby. Podolski took his normal position on the left while Cazorla moved higher in the midfield. This shifted Arteta back to a deeper position. Once Cazorla and Podolski got into the flow of the offense, Arsenal began to increase pressure on Begovic. The relentless passing and movement led to a free kick outside the 18-yard box. In the 77th minute, Walcott received the ball and pushed toward goal. He was brought down by Andy Wilkinson and a yellow card was shown to the defender. Lukas Podolski stepped up to take the kick. The German sent a low strike through the wall and into the net.
The Arsenal players and supporters were celebrating the goal, but soon confusion ensued when the linesman raised his flag for offside. Multiple Arsenal and Stoke players raced to the sideline to plead their cases. The referee convened with the linesman to determine what happened. On replay, Podolski’s shot ricocheted off Stoke City renaissance man Geoff Cameron. The only Arsenal player in an offside position was Theo Walcott on the far side of the play. Walcott was at least fifteen yards away from the action. Once the referee finished his discussion with the linesman, he pointed to the half line to signal that a goal had been scored. Tony Pulis and his players were visually upset about the decision, but it was the correct call.
Once Arsenal were up 1-0 in the 79th minute, Stoke had to shift to an attacking strategy in order to rescue the point they were playing for. In the 85th minute, Pulis made all three of his substitutions simultaneously by bringing on Kenwyne Jones for Crouch, Cameron Jerome for Walters, and Michael Owen for Cameron. Although Stoke had more attackers, they were still unable to create much offense.
There were two controversial plays in the dying moments of the game. Mikel Arteta came from behind and cleanly poked the ball away from Owen. The resulting tackle sent both players to ground, but Owen took offense to the challenge from behind and attempted to strike Arteta in retaliation. The action was witnessed by Wilshere who ran towards Owen and a shoving match began. The referee was able to break up the scuffle, but did not issue any cards. The other controversy came when “old friend” (not for the squeamish) to Arsenal supporters, Ryan Shawcross, lunged in to challenge a 50/50 ball. Both Koscielny and Shawcross slid to win the ball, but Shawcross finished his tackle with his studs up between the legs of the Frenchman. There was enough malice behind the tackle for the referee to show a yellow. The replay would show that Shawcross was lucky to escape without a red. Many Arsenal supporters were reminded of why they disliked Shawcross when Aaron Ramsey came in during injury time for Theo Wallcott. Things remained a bit chippy until the final whistle blew, but Arsenal were able to hold onto their 1-0 lead and earn the three points.
Positives and Negatives
1. Team selection.
I really do not have a problem with Wenger choosing to rest players during a difficult stretch, but Arsenal needed Podolski and Cazorla to finally find the scoresheet. If those two had been in the starting squad, the Gunners would have had a much better chance to put up a crooked number with the amount of early pressure they were able to impart. Oxlade-Chamblerain and Diaby did not play poorly, but it will take Arsenal’s best in order to overtake Everton and Spurs for that coveted fourth spot on the table. I can understand Wenger’s selection of Diaby knowing that Stoke would play physically and some extra size would help, but now isn’t the time to deviate from offensive success.
Many have said the Achilles’ heel of the Gunners is they can be physically knocked off of their possession play. The idea is that if managers can employ a hard tackling/shoulder to shoulder style of play, Arsenal will shy away from their intricate passing game. In this match, the Arsenal players were up to the task. If someone was tackled hard, multiple teammates came to their aid. Even Mikel Arteta went chest to chest with Shawcross who stands six inches taller and about fifty pounds heavier. With Vermaelen out with a minor injury, Arsenal found leadership and grit in other players.
2. Nacho Nacho Man.
I’ll be making many jokes involving Nacho from here on out, who without a doubt has the best name in football – it’s safe to assume I’ll be referencing some sort of cheese when describing the new Arsenal left-back. Nacho Monreal did not have an overly flashy debut, but the fact that Arsenal held a clean sheet and his side of the pitch was relatively uneventful means he did his job. He defended well, pushed forward, crossed well, and was not afraid to make tough challenges. Just before halftime he went up for a header with Jonathan Walters. The resulting play saw a collision of heads. Both were shaken up, but Walters was soon covered in his own blood. Although Monreal is not very big, his toughness was on display. I would like to use this forum to welcome Nacho to the Arsenal family.
The stat sheet shows that Stoke had seven shots, but most were taken from outside the box and never destined for goal. This was a clear difference in the Arsenal stat sheet where they attempted twenty three shots – five on net. Arsenal had eleven corner kicks compared to Stoke’s one. The Gunners had 65% possession and no yellow cards. Stoke had three. Arsenal kept their cool, showed their toughness, and were patient in the attack. It was a required strategy against a notoriously tough team to beat in Stoke. They can frustrate you until you make a mistake they can capitalize on. This win proved crucial in the chase for a Champions League spot as Chelsea lost to Newcastle, Everton drew to Aston Villa, and Spurs won against West Brom. Arsenal will need to keep all of these teams (and Liverpool) on their radar as the final stretch of the Premier League looms.
Match rating 7/10