Wenger made five changes to his line-up for this game. In some ways it showed the depth in the squad even though it was quite evident that the team isn’t quite as fluid without the likes of Cazorla and Podolski.
Stoke sat really deep for most of the game. It was as if they’d seen what happened to West Ham and were genuinely scared. As I mentioned after that game, for all the talk of aggressiveness and the in-your-face attitude, the tactical approach from the manager was stunningly timid. Their back line was often on the edge of their box or deeper, and the five midfielders in front of them tended to stay within five yards or so, thereby cutting out any space between the lines.
Arsenal were forced wide time and again. It’s common knowledge that the Gunners are among the weaker teams at wing-play, and it could be that Pulis was counting on that to eke out another goalless draw.
It was a hard-fought result but that works just fine. Every game isn’t going to produce scintillating football, and it’s definitely better than exceptional football in a losing cause.
The analysis of this game is directly linked to some individual efforts so I’m going to combine the two sections.
I thought the Gunners struggled because, apart from the general limitations of wing-play, the front three couldn’t really combine in this game. Walcott worked hard on the right, it was encouraging to see him attempt to hold on to the ball under pressure. It seems he’s also been working on his close control and dribbling skills. Many people were impressed by his performance in this game. I wouldn’t say it was a great effort from the Englishman but it was one that showed hard work is being done on the training ground and there is genuine desire to do better. And make no mistake, he’ll have to produce much, much more than what he did in this game if he’s to play a vital part in making Arsenal’s future bright.
I did like the way he handled Wilkinson’s persistent fouling, something that cannot be said for Chris Foy.
Giroud too had a mixed sort of a game. He’s another one who’s trying to improve his all-round game and that’s reflected in a better touch and more meaningful contribution while dropping deeper. But against a team that was sitting so deep, we’d ultimately want to see the central striker creating space where none exists. He has to find a way to bully the central defenders, to hold his own in front of them so that his teammates can ping balls to him and make penetrating runs. The Frenchman also needs to become available when the ball goes wide. It’s not easy for a striker without much support against a deep-lying defence, but who said it’s easy to be the main man at a big club that wants to win trophies!
Oxlade-Chamberlain’s performance was a tad disappointing. I have not enjoyed the hype around the kid at all. It’s portrayed him as a player who’s ready to take on a lot of responsibility when every time he goes on the pitch he shows just how much he has to learn. The difference that Podolski made after coming on through his movement, technique, and game-intelligence should serve as a good benchmark for the youngster to aim for. The two best chances of the first half fell to him and one’d hope in a couple of years he’ll be good enough to finish one of those.
I was surprised Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain didn’t swap wings when things weren’t quite clicking. They might have had better joy against the full-backs on the other flank.
Apart from the front three, the efforts of Diaby in midfield also slowed things down. The Frenchman didn’t have great games against Chelsea or City either and seems a bit off-pace. In such a game, I’d have preferred if he’d stayed deeper and let Arteta have more freedom. Alternatively, a few darts into the box to get on the end of crosses would also have brought something different to the attack.
It was interesting that most of Arsenal’s promising moments came from corners and follow-up balls into the box. Stoke are reputed to be an aerially dominant side but I feel they’re not impenetrable when they sit this deep. Teams just need to know how to play the crossing game against them. I remember Manchester United scored 4 goals against the Potters at Old Trafford, all from different types of crosses!
From open play, Arsenal’s crossing posed very little threat. At times, there were too few bodies in the box. Giroud, as mentioned earlier, wasn’t able to make space for himself. None of the midfielders seemed interested in making darts into the box after playing the ball wide. Some crosses were hopeful and seemingly aimless while some failed to miss the first man. These are just some of the observations that make Arsenal’s wing-play innocuous. But this is another long-standing issue and I don’t see it improving overnight, particularly when the starting eleven has many changes.
Arteta and Wilshere had decent games. I do sometimes feel Jack will benefit if he can slow his game down in the sense that constantly running with the ball or moving off it doesn’t given him sufficient time to pick penetrative passes. It’s not that he doesn’t pick incisive passes – the one that put AOC through is a classic example of doing just that – but I have a feeling he can be a lot more creative if he slows his movement, particularly against a team that sits so deep and narrow thus cutting out space to run into.
The other problem with Arsenal’s attack was that many of them were two-player moves. So the guy on the ball was looking for a pass/cross and someone else was moving to receive it. These types of moves are easy to defend against. Once Cazorla and Podolski came on the speed of passing increased and they started bringing more players into the picture. Combination play involving multiple players when executed at pace is usually hard to defend against. That said, it’s not that Arsenal created too many clear-cut chances with these two on the pitch. But I’ve a feeling they’d have found a way to goal if the free-kick hadn’t gone in. The team just looked sharper and more fluid, and they had better technique and awareness in tight spaces.
The defence was fairly solid in this game. At least part of that was down to the failure of Stoke’s one-dimensional attacking approach and tactical diffidence. While the visitors did try to pass the ball around in midfield at times, they just didn’t have any offensive ideas. Once Arsenal showed they could deal with the long balls and set-pieces, a goalless draw was their best hope. One would have expected them to throw everything forward and mount a serious challenge after going a goal down but even after that they couldn’t really test Szczesny.
Arsenal kept the ball well, forced Stoke deep in their own half for long periods, ensured they didn’t have lapses in concentration or make silly mistakes, and that was enough to keep a clean sheet.
I was amazed Stoke didn’t even try to target debutant Nacho Monreal. While this might not have been an ideal game for someone who’s just come from La Liga, it was hardly a physical test that Stoke usually provide at the Brittania. But that’s not his fault, and for his part the Spaniard had a respectable outing. He did have a couple of iffy moments towards the end but those should be ironed out easily. There were glimpses of his offensive quality in a couple of crosses and we should see more once he trains with his teammates and plays with the likes of Podolski and Cazorla on the pitch on a regular basis.
The central defenders had a pretty straightforward game. Crouch was able to receive the ball quite often even when he was the lone forward quite isolated from his team. But the defenders, usually Koscielny, did enough to ensure he couldn’t turn, and this slowed the attacks down. Crouch just didn’t have the speed to play a quick one-two and run in behind the defence.
Sagna also had a regular game. Wasn’t really stretched defensively and couldn’t really offer the final ball in attack, but he did his part in keeping the ball rolling and winning individual duels.
In the end it was a boring game with a commendable result. Certain areas of improvement, individually as well as collectively, were apparent as was some of the work being done on the training ground. But it wasn’t the kind of game I’d want to dwell upon for too long.Follow @goonerdesi