We knew Arsenal will have to fight for the points in this one. They did respectably and came back with one. That point puts some daylight between the Gunners and Newcastle who lost against Wigan. There isn’t much in it but it’s clear virtually every team is having to battle for every single point. You take what you get and can be happy when you don’t give it all away.
The game itself was interesting, even if not enjoyable. After the exciting and high-quality Champions League semi-finals, watching such a fixture was bordering on torturous. There were certain predictable aspects but also a few positive changes from the Gunners.
Stoke came out and pressed high up the pitch as expected. They forced a mistake and scored with Crouch getting between the centre back and full back. Hardly a surprise there.
Normally, after scoring they tend to drop a little deeper and put greater emphasis on defending. In this game though, the hosts kept coming out even after going in front. That suited Arsenal as they were getting some joy every time they managed to bypass the initial high press. Pulis’ side looks like a strong defensive unit when they get bodies behind the ball but when they get stretched, the opponents can get chances to get into the box and test the Keeper.
In the first half Arsenal had a number of opportunities. Early on Van Persie played Benayoun through down the inside left channel. The Israeli couldn’t connect well enough and his strike, while on target, was completely innocuous. Van Persie then forced a big save from a header at the back post. Ramsey then went close with a left-footed strike from the edge of the box.
The equalizer came, ironically, from a long punt down the left by Vermaelen. Benayoun’s hassling was troubling Shotton and the Stoke full-back conceded possession tamely. The winger found Rosicky’s run. Little Mozart showed composure on the ball and excellent attacking intelligence. Before playing his cross he’d just had a peek. He saw the vacant space between the defenders and the Keeper at the back post. All he had to do was chip the ball in the right area. Van Persie was alert and tapped it home. Again Stoke were stretched so there were gaps in their box. Even thought Arsenal had only one player in there, he was completely free and able to guide the ball home without any pressure.
The patterns of play after the equalizer remained the same but Arsenal did get more control of the ball. They didn’t make many mistakes under pressure and limited the hosts to hopeful long balls and crosses.
In the 26th minute when Koscielny had the ball, Van Persie dropped deep and pulled a centre back with him. The centre back played the ball into the space behind and Gervinho was able to cut inside and onto that ball. Unfortunately, the Ivorian didn’t have the skill to hit the target when being chased by two defenders.
There were a number of other half-chances for Arsenal but they didn’t really find the final ball or the finish was disappointing.
The second half was a bit muted, relatively speaking. Arsenal still saw a lot more of the ball but the combinations were not as good. The number of shots were higher but the quality of chances was not.
There was an appeal for a penalty when Benayoun went down but it didn’t look like a foul to me, certainly not by the standards of this game. Indeed, Koscielny and Sagna also took their chances with pushing opponents in the Arsenal box so I don’t have too many complaints. That’s not to say the refereeing was good, just that it wasn’t very different from what we’ve come to expect at the Britannia.
Arsenal had a couple of free-kicks in good positions but the execution wasn’t very good. They also got the ball in and around the box quite often but either dilly-dallied on the ball or just picked the wrong pass.
At the other end I was impressed by the collective vigilance in defence. Apart from the goal Stoke only managed one shot on target that was easily saved. In total the hosts were limited to five or six shots.
The defending wasn’t perfect but the Gunners were quick to pounce on the loose/second ball. For instance, a couple of back passes could have put a striker through but one or the other defender got around to it first. Similarly, when Szczesny failed to get enough distance on some of his punches, a teammate bailed him out by getting to the ball before an opponent. This was a really pleasant positive change and everyone deserves credit for their effort as it wasn’t down to one or two players.
I also thought the vertical nature of the game, the end-to-end basketball style movements, took a lot out of the players and they ran out of steam in the second half. This made it relatively easier for Stoke in the second period but the Gunners ensured they didn’t give a soft goal away. And the hosts just didn’t have enough quality to create something on their own.
On the whole this wasn’t an elegant display but a battling one. That wasn’t surprising. The big question was how strong will Arsenal be in the battles. I’d say they weren’t dominating but held their ground firmly and respectably, often despite the referee.
Szczesny: Caught the ball well under pressure. Punches were weak. Interestingly, he’s 6/6 for clearances but that seems more due to his teammates’ ability to win the second ball rather than his ability to punch it clear. Sagna’s acrobatic clearance in injury time after Szczesny flapped at the ball is the perfect example.
Sagna: Made the mistake for the goal. Was uncharacteristically sloppy in possession. Put in a couple of excellent crosses but wasn’t very influential in attack. Not really tested at the back but did make that massive clearance towards the end. Was generally getting into very good positions when the balls came in from the other side.
Koscielny: Remained strong and vigilant at the back which meant he got into good positions and didn’t get physically dominated.
Vermaelen: Largely similar to Koscielny. Read the danger from balls coming towards the centre of the box and made a number of clearances. Did venture forward and won a free-kick but couldn’t really contribute to the attack.
Gibbs: Saw a lot of the ball and made decent use of it. Got into good attacking positions but either didn’t get the ball or he didn’t produce the final pass. Might have done better to attack the ball from which Crouch scored.
The defenders were on their toes and kept the goal well protected for most of the game. Sagna could have done better in possession while Vermaelen and Gibbs should have dealt with Crouch better but these kinds of things happen.
Song: Superb defensive shift. Noticeably curbed his instinct to bomb forward. Was trying to make things happen in the attack as well when he got a chance to venture forward. He did lose the ball quite often but also won it back just as regularly, including a game high 6 interceptions.
Rosicky: Classy assist, also created the other glorious chance that Arsenal had. Also made valuable defensive contributions in terms of winning the second ball and retaining possession under pressure. But he also wasted some promising opportunities. For instance, there was an audacious attempt to play an outside-of-the-foot ball over the defence towards RvP that went straight to the Keeper. He had time and space to turn the odds in his favour but went for a high risk pass and failed.
Ramsey: Even though he was on the pitch for only 73 minutes, Ramsey still attempted and completed the most passes. Also won all three of his tackles and wasn’t caught in possession as often as he’s been in the past. Spread the ball well and brought others into play, especially Gibbs. Work rate was again commendable. Did a respectable job of replacing Arteta in that sense. He can do better as he still took time to make some passes and ran with the ball more than he needed to. Had a couple of shots on goal but didn’t quite find the target.
The midfield played a vital role in supporting the defence. They had to go up and down the pitch more often than in most other games so the players deserve credit for sticking to the task. They didn’t have as much of a creative influence on the game but that’s a complicated issue which generally involves multiple players.
Gervinho: He had the movement and he was trying to get in behind. Even succeed in that on more than one occasion but his execution and decision making let him down when it mattered. Still had one or two bright moments but that isn’t enough. Was weak in the duels and was probably the only player who really struggled against the physical side of the game.
RvP: Took his goal well, hit the target with the other quality chance. Once again the work rate was exceptional and he often chased back if he’d lost the ball. Still has to develop the ability to hold his ground in front of the defender to receive the ball, seems like he’s always on the move and trying one trick or the other.
Benayoun: Harried and hassled Shotton into a couple of mistakes, one of which led to the equalizer. He’s another player who didn’t quite have enough when it mattered in and around the box. Deserves credit for effort and defensive shift.
The front three were more involved than in some of the games where Arsenal have struggled. The wide players interchanged their positions well and even popped into meaningful areas in the centre. But they lacked the ability to make a decisive contribution in the penalty box.
Subs: Diaby still looks rusty. Santos got very little time. Chamakh didn’t get any service in the box.
Wenger: At times in the past his players have been guilty of losing concentration at the back so he deserves credit for the focused defensive effort. Also prepared the players well for the physical battle and lenient refereeing.Follow @goonerdesi