Peter Walton tried his best. He did get manage to get the scalp of Walcott, who was stretchered off with what appeared to be a serious injury, but couldn’t do enough to thwart the indomitable, resolute Gunners.
This game had everything I feared; rabid animals from Stoke, a biased ref, and hypocritical commentators. Thankfully it also had one thing I truly hoped for – a fully focussed Arsenal side that did not switch off even for an instance. That, when combined with the quality that Arsenal have, is normally enough to take on and defeat the worst English football has to offer and it just highlighted the indescribable gulf in class between the two sides.
I didn’t get to watch the first half properly as every stream I found was stop-start. But I was able to watch enough to enjoy the electric start by Arsenal and the first goal.
The start was a little unexpected. I’d the feeling the visitors will start pressing at a higher tempo but they were content on sitting back. Arsenal seized the initiative and Theo rattled the woodwork just after a minute. The Gunners kept creating chances but the goal in the 8th minute was ironical. Who’d have thought that Arsenal would actually score against Stoke from a corner!
Wilshere’s delivery was excellent and for once Arsenal had a man at the back post. Bendtner did well to control the ball and even better to pass it back across the face of the goal rather than lashing it across. Squillaci was unmarked and scored from four yards. That’s how you score a legal goal from a set-piece but I doubt Stoke will care to learn.
Soon after Cesc limped off and Arshavin came on. It was supposedly a precautionary substitution but it did make a huge impact on the game. For the rest of the first half Arsenal dominated the ball but didn’t really create many chances.
I thought the tempo was too slow and Arsenal’s passing and movement was too predictable. Arshavin, Bendtner, and Walcott haven’t played together often enough and that showed in the final third. Even Nasri was struggling to influence the game as the movement in front of him wasn’t up to scratch.
I don’t know what happened in the tunnel at half-time but Stoke came out in the second half knowing that they could assault the Arsenal players with impunity. Carew flattened Djourou with a shocking challenge that was so late it was virtually off the ball. All he got from Peter Walton was a, “Well done, lad. Don’t do it again or I might have to book you just to keep my cover.” Next it was Nasri who took one in the ribs but this time the ref didn’t even blow for a foul. I guess getting within two feet of the ball was enough of a justification for a deliberate elbow in the ribs.
Soon after Delap did a Flamini and got away with it as ‘he got the ball’. I didn’t hear the commentators say it was an absolute disgrace.
All these challenges happened in the first ten minutes of the half and set the tone for the rest of the game. It would be unfair on Walton to say that Stoke won all 50-50 calls. They won even 20-80 calls. If a Stoke player shoved a Gunner out of possession it was fair. If an Arsenal player herded an animal out of the way it was a foul. If Stoke got the ball by kicking through a player it was a fair tackle. If the Gunners did it, it was a free-kick.
Clichy was booked for winning the ball!
Things got so bad that I almost expected Walton to award a penalty when Shawcross grappled Sagna to the floor. Thankfully it was too blatant even for a ref as biased as this old geezer.
Theo was injured in the 70th minute when Walton allowed Whitehead to nibble away at his legs and shirt. There were a number of fouls by Whitehead in that incident and if the first one had been called this injury would not have happened. Somebody has to make the ref explain in public what he was doing but we can all guess that will unravel the supposed integrity of League.
In the 84th minute Marc Wilson picked up a booking for a stupid foul on Chamakh wide on the left. Pulis, who was right next to him on the touchline, was shouting “Don’t foul, don’t foul.” Sadly for the zoo keeper his instructions in the heat of the moment weren’t able to override the instructions he gave before opening the cages.
In the very little football that was played, Arsenal did have some nervy moments but did well while defending the throws and set-pieces. I can only remember Szczesny flapping on one occasion when Huth headed over and one header from Shawcross that was deflected wide as Djourou was well positioned.
On the other end Walcott missed a good chance when Arshavin set him up.
The best part of the game came in the form of a masterclass by Arshavin and Nasri in the five minutes of injury time. Stoke barely touched the ball in that period as two highly skilled artists toyed with their opponents. If Arshavin had been alert to the possibility of scoring, deep in injury time, he’d have had a tap in from Nasri’s delightful chip across goal.
As expected this game was a tight one and decided by one goal. I was hoping to see all players come off with their limbs intact but that wish was not granted. Only time will tell how big an impact this injury will have on this season.
Szczesny: Made an excellent save in the first half. Organized the defence well. A couple of punches didn’t have enough weight but they fell to his teammates. Flapped once but Huth missed the target. Overall a strong, confidence boosting display from the youngster that should prepare him for a much tougher away game.
Sagna: Did well at the back. Wisely, didn’t go forward that often in the second half. Might have done better in the attacking areas but that can be said for the whole team.
Squillaci: Good to see him get his first Premiership goal. Handled the physical challenges well enough. Carew won the balls in front of him but the Frenchman didn’t let him turn or get past him.
Djourou: Strong in the air. Good positioning and composure while defending set-pieces.
Clichy: Pretty much like Sagna. Was exposed a bit after Arshavin came on but did a good job of not giving Pennant any space.
The back five deserve a lot of credit for this result and their second half performance. I’d have preferred better attacking contribution from the full-backs and the central defenders when they got a lot of time on the ball in the first half.
Song: Was always available to challenge for the second ball. Worked really hard in defence. Went forward often enough but wasn’t able to create a spark.
Cesc: Was looking dangerous before he came off.
Nasri: Wasn’t as influential down the middle as he is on the wings. It could be due to unfamiliarity with the position and the fact that in the middle we need someone who moves the ball fast rather than a player who runs with the ball. He was quite a threat when he moved back to the right wing. Excellent in the final few minutes. Did well to remain composed despite suffering some bad tackles.
Wilshere: Started where he’d left off against Barcelona. But once Cesc was off the pitch Wilshere went into his shell a bit and played with caution. Did well on the ball and offered a body in the box and on the left wing.
The midfield should have done a lot more in the first half but it’s hard to criticize them when the spine of the team (Koscielny, Cesc, RvP) was missing. They must be commended for their defensive concentration and effort.
Walcott: Another player who looked very dangerous when Fabregas was on the pitch. After that the tempo of the game was slow and it allowed Stoke to close him down with numbers. Might have done better with the chance that Arshavin created. Really unlucky to suffer an injury when he should have won a dangerous free-kick.
Bendtner: He was excellent for most of the game and his physical presence made a big difference. Won the corner by outmuscling Huth, which is no mean feat. Showed good awareness and composure to pick up the assist. Also contributed to the defence on set-pieces.
Arshavin: I expected more inspiration from the Russian in the first half but overall he worked hard and made a difference. Really took charge of the situation at the end.
The front three were a little unbalanced after Arshavin came on. They also lacked understanding of each others’ movement. They’ll need to do a lot better in the upcoming games if Cesc and RvP are missing.
Subs: I’ve already covered Arshavin. Denilson was decent in keeping possession and stayed close to the defence. Chamakh was a strange one and didn’t get much time.
Wenger: I liked the way he stayed away from commenting on the ref at the end of the game. Even the players will have to realize that criticizing these ‘sold-out’ relics will only harm Arsenal’s chances even further. While Arshavin did fairly well, I’d have brought on Denilson or Rosicky for Cesc to maintain the balance of the team. I thought Arsene wanted his best players on the pitch but sometimes it doesn’t work. Since the manager is criticized for his selections when the result is not good he deserves credit when the game is won.