One point at Stoke is not a bad result on its own. Few visitors will return from the Britannia with three points and that makes it tough to criticize the Arsenal performance. The irony here is that this was probably the Gunners’ best defensive display at Stoke but by the end the hosts, having realized their single attacking tactic had failed to generate any threat, just wanted to hang on for a point. Such a finish and the discernible lack of quality chances for Arsenal, despite the late push, left fans demanding more but the point was a fair result. Both teams were defensive in their own ways and neither did enough to get the game winning goal.
It’s not worth going through this game in a sequential manner as few events of note took place. Instead I want to focus on certain patterns of play that affected either sides attacking and defensive capabilities.
Stoke, for some reason, didn’t press as intensely as they have done in the past. It could be that, just like the Gunners, they’re not at the top of their game just yet. This created a problem for the hosts as they weren’t able to keep the ball in the Arsenal half for as long as they’d have liked.
As expected, this was a game of long balls but Arsenal did excellently against the aerial and physical threats. Stoke just completed a 150 passes in the whole game at a pedestrian 63 percent success rate. In contrast there were 90 ground duels, 28 tackles, and a whopping 70 aerial duels in this fixture. This was literally a battle with some football thrown in between.
The Gunners only won 29 of those 70 aerial duels but they put enough pressure to ensure that the player winning the challenge wasn’t able to do as well with it as he’d have wanted. The midfield also stayed really deep, with Diaby contesting more duels (6/17) than any defender, and helped the back four. Together, Wenger’s team were not only able to put pressure on the first ball, they did extremely well to win the second balls and close down space for the runners. The shape of the back four was nearly perfect. Stoke didn’t find any space in the channels, their midfield runners didn’t go untracked, and it minimized any chance they had of putting crosses into the box or winning set-pieces.
In the past I’ve often noted that a clean sheet does not mean the defending was assured. There are games when Wenger’s team has kept the opponents out with desperation stuff. In this case though, it was a solid defensive effort and Mannone would have loved playing behind that bunch of outfielders.
Unfortunately, that’s only half the story.
For their part, Stoke too put up a strong defensive display. Arsenal only had one shot on target from inside the penalty box and Begovic was almost as comfortable as his opposite number despite Arsenal’s superior possession and passing stats. Wenger’s side won a number of corners and set-pieces but their efforts were innocuous.
I don’t appreciate much of what Tony Pulis does but he can train his sides to put up a strong resistance once they go deep and narrow. Arsenal just did not have enough creativity or mutual understanding between the players to break that down.
Part of the problem for the Gunners was also the fact that they could not strike the right balance between defence and attack. The strong defensive performance fostered a weakened ineffective attack. As Wenger says, you only have 11 players on the pitch. If more are pulled back to keep things tight there will be a shortage up front. Arsenal just did not have enough pace or quality on the transitions to catch Stoke out. Once the transitions were slowed the hosts were able to sit deep and protect their goal.
Arsenal’s midfield was really conservative and rarely ventured beyond the centre of the Stoke half. If we look at passes received by Diaby, Arteta, And Cazorla it shows very little in the form of penetration.
The following charts for Diaby and Cazorla are too similar with a lot of action areas in the middle of the Stoke half.
(Click on images to enlarge in a new window.)
Similarly, if we look at the two of most common passing combinations for the Gunners, Arteta->Cazorla and Cazorla->Podolski, there’s very little in the form of forward movement.
The red line was the off-side header from Podolski but apart from that most passes are just going sideways and are far away from the Stoke goal. Bear in mind these players are Arsenal’s key attacking threats.
Surprisingly, the Gunners didn’t try to use Giroud’s ability to hold off his marker. Very few passes were played to him on the edge of the box. This could have given the midfielders a chance to play one-twos to move forward. Even the wide players didn’t use the striker’s presence well but Arsenal’s weaknesses at the crossing game are complex and it’s perhaps wise that they didn’t try it too often.
That’s not to say the Gunners didn’t have width. Gervinho received most of his passes while hugging the touchline. He just faced two or three opponents by the time the ball found its way to him and that rendered him ineffective. On the other flank Podolski kept drifting inside but Gibbs provided the width. The left back only received 32 passes but many of them were in advanced areas. In contrast, Jenkinson received 51 passes but only two high up the pitch and those came late in the game.
As a unit the Gunners displayed many of the same problems that plagued them against Sunderland in the previous week. Yes it’s tough to break down a disciplined team that plays so deep and narrow but Arsenal are making their job tougher with every passing game as they drop points they should have won.
The understanding between new players is clearly missing but it’s something that will undoubtedly get better over time. The bigger question for Arsene is whether he can create a stronger, more incisive attack without compromising the defensive stability. For instance, if one or more midfielders and full backs starts pushing higher up the pitch to contribute to the attack, will it again leave doors open at the back?
The answer to that question will have a major bearing on the standings at the end of the season.
Mannone: Surprisingly easy game for the Keeper. It again validated a point that’s been made on this blog for over two years – the players in front of the Keeper have to take greater responsibility, the problem has not been with the goalkeeper even though many of them have looked like clowns on occasion. How often do you recall Mannone having to come to catch or punch a ball under pressure? Once or twice maybe?
Jenkinson: Was the more conservative full back and held a relatively deep position throughout the game. Did well against Kightly and was also effective inside the box when the balls did come in from the other side. Solid but unspectacular from the youngster.
Mertesacker: Probably the least busy defender in the side. Didn’t have to make any tackles or ground duels but was mostly sweeping behind the midfielders challenging for the ball and did make clearances when needed. Steady passing.
Vermaelen: Did contest many aerial duels and was responsible for a fair number of clearances. Interestingly, despite Arsenal’s inability to score the Belgian curbed his attacking instincts well. Safe passing from the back.
Gibbs: Was the defender who impressed me the most. Was engaged in duels, made tackles and interceptions, and also tried venturing forward to get into space vacated by Podolski. Bodes well for the future.
The back five were well protected and they did a good job of retaining their shape while covering behind the duellers. Stoke’s only shot on goal was a hopeful strike from distance but more importantly, the hosts rarely got into threatening positions.
Arteta: Another very intelligent defensive and possession game from the Spaniard. Did not engage in any aerial duels but mopped up on the floor winning 10 of 14 ground duels and 4 or 6 tackles. Also made 3 useful interceptions. Typically assured and reliable with his passing.
Diaby: Used his physical attributes to improve the team’s defensive capabilities. Contested the most aerial duels and a fair number of ground duels. His success rate wasn’t as eye catching as that of Crouch, say (6/17 Aerial duels against 18/21 for the Stoke forward), but his presence made a big difference from goal-kicks and even on the few throws and set-pieces that Stoke managed to get. Won possession back the most often but also lost possession most often. Was ponderous on the ball and did slow things down when going forward. Did not have enough composure or guile in the attacking areas.
Cazorla: Had the most touches but wasn’t able to offer the kind of creative threat that Arsenal need. High passing accuracy but much of it was safe. Also had a tendency to look for shooting options from outside the box when he had time and space, instead of picking out passes. He has to show his teammates that he can find their runs but if he keeps looking down to work openings to shoot there will be fewer combinations in the attacking third. Has all the talent but must adapt to use it to improve the whole team.
The midfield did an excellent job defensively but lacked ideas and incision in attack.
Gervinho: Very ineffective against a strong and coordinated defensive unit that sat deep and often double-teamed him. Wasn’t able to get past his full back and didn’t link effectively with the midfielders or Giroud when drifting inside.
Giroud: Showed good strength and presence. Wasted a couple of opportunities through exuberance. For instance, he had time to control Cazorla’s corner when he tried that sensational volley. Also took a shot from distance that looked tantalizingly close and like a spectacular effort, but in reality had very low probability of going in. Clearly a very talented but raw player. Another one who has to figure out how to use is talents to benefit the team.
Podolski: Went on one very impressive run through the middle early on. Kept drifting inside which was to be expected but wasn’t able to combine with others to get in behind. Showed excellent instincts when he pounced on the loose ball and should have won a penalty for Wilkinson’s handball.
The front three didn’t get enough support from the midfield and were often lost in crowded areas. They’ll have to do better with their movement and control but finding the right wavelength is the first major challenge.
Subs: Walcott and AOC were ineffective. Ramsey looked tentative in possession.
Wenger: Has to show he can create a balance between attack and defence, not just a quality performance in one of the two. There could be some complaints against the ref but the manager knows his team can and has to do a lot better.Follow @goonerdesi