This was a strange sort of game, but not entirely unexpected. Wenger went with the predictable line-up but with Gnabry coming in for Walcott just before kick-off.
Obviously, a youngster is not going to come in and perform at the level of a pro who has been groomed for a particular role over a number of years. There is no reason to criticize Gnabry but Arsenal did lose any sort of a threat of going in behind as he rarely played on the defensive line. It was sensible from the German prospect because he would not have known when or where to make the runs and his teammates would have been unsure of passing the ball in-behind as well. Nevertheless, it meant the Gunners had somewhat limited attacking options. Stoke did a good job of defending the space in front of and just inside their penalty box. They were also quite efficient at cutting out balls from wider areas, at least in open play. I don’t recall any gilt-edge opportunities that Arsenal created from open play in the first half.
Then again, when one door closes, most top teams find a way to open another. Arsenal scored three goals from set-pieces! I would love to know when that last happened in a single game. Stoke have this image of being a physically and aerially dominant team but they did have dodgy moments when defending set-pieces over the last couple of seasons. The Gunners scoring from a free-kick wasn’t as big a surprise but three in a game is just crazy no matter who the opponent is.
The fact that the first goal came early helped Arsenal’s cause but Stoke’s performance in the first half was quite a surprise. Most teams come hard in search of an equalizer but the Hughes’ side weren’t really pushing up or pressing with any sort of intensity. The first 20-25 minutes were almost played at a soporific pace, which suited the Gunners who were in second gear after scoring.
It could be that an element of casualness cost Arsenal the goal in the first half. Gibbs’ attempt to dink the ball past Cameron seemed a tad frivolous. Flamini did well to drop back into the vacant left-back spot and even Wilshere did a good job of covering the flank. Gibbs should have retreated and dropped into midfield. He could then have swapped with Flamini once the threat was dealt with but he went towards his position. This left Nzonzi free in midfield.
The other problem was that Sagna didn’t track the run of Arnautovic and both he and Mertesacker were deeper than the other defenders. It seemed to me that the Frenchman called out to his central defender in order to transfer responsibility but that exchange was inefficient and their deep position played the attacker on.
This is not the first time Mertesacker has played opponents on because of his tendency to fall back. It is quite possible that the German reads danger faster than anyone else and is moving to thwart it. More often than not this helps the team. But every now and again he does help the opponents as the off-side line is broken and becomes a liability for the Gunners.
In my opinion, Sagna should have gone with his man and Mertesacker should have stayed higher up the pitch. This would most probably have resulted in an off-side or the full-back might have gotten close enough to make a tackle. In such an event, Mertesacker would have been in the right position to attack the rebound if the events played out just as they actually did.
Once Sagna decided to pass Arnautovic to Mertesacker, he should have moved in narrower so that he took up the central defender’s position. Remember that once the winger made that run there wasn’t a second threat on the right side for Sagna to cover.
As with any goal, many different things could have been done by a number of different players to avoid the eventual outcome. I do usually see if the back four lacked support for a goal that was conceded but in this case it’s mostly three of the four defenders who should have done better.
After the equalizer, it felt like Arsenal had raised their game a bit but Stoke were pretty solid in the vital central areas in front of their goal.
It is interesting that the goal came from a corner routine that was tried twice. It was almost as if they knew what they were trying and the first instance didn’t work so they tweaked it a bit.
There was no stoke player on the line at the back post and there was space at the near post between the six and twelve yard areas. The first corner came around the six yard area and Mertesacker won that with ease. His header was going perfectly towards the far post but the man marking Gnabry in the centre of goal was able to clear it, probably without knowing much about it.
The second corner, that came soon after the first attempt, was a bit wider and higher. This gave the German a better angle to work with and he was able to guide it into that vacant space. Koscielny presence there also seemed to indicate that Arsenal had worked on this routine and wanted to have a man who would guide the ball home in case it was going just wide. The Frenchman missed it completely, I don’t know how, but his partners aim was perfect.
After the Gunners took the lead for the second time, the game kind of meandered towards half-time. Then it changed.
The visitors finally showed some purpose to their play and contested the duels with greater intensity after the break. They also chased the ball with real desire. I don’t know if the Arsenal players sensed this and thus decided to sit back or if it was a conscious choice from the coaches at half time.
In either event, the fact is that Stoke saw a lot of the ball in the second half. But the more relevant detail is that they didn’t really know what to do with it. Arsenal were well organized and cohesive at the back. Stoke were limited to crosses and corners. There was some tension in the air, granted, but it was never going to be a problem unless there were numerous defensive errors on the same play. All three of Stoke’s shots on target, including the goal, came from outside the box.
Arsenal did have some chances on the counter-attack. The visitors game the ball away cheaply at times and Gnabry was the receiver of two such passes. One resulted in a shot by the youngster that went straight at Begovic and the other resulted in a shot by Giroud that forced a good save. Ramsey had a chance late in the game and even Özil had an opportunity to test Begovic, albeit with his weaker foot.
The Gunners did get the cushion of a third goal from another set-piece. This time a looping Sagna header went in at the far post.
There wasn’t really any major tactical aspect to this game. It was more about the details on some of the set-pieces, the limitations of Stoke players that Mark Hughes will have to adapt to, and Arsenal’s ability to recover from a sequence of errors that was annoying and expensive
Szczesny: Can’t blame him for the goal. This time his decision making of when to come and when to stay was good. Looked calm even when pressed in the second half and distribution was useful.
Sagna: In my opinion, his was the biggest mistake for the goal. Other than that it was a pretty solid game. Didn’t go forward as much because he had to cover behind Gnabry and didn’t really have any understanding with the youngster. Took his chance well.
Mertesacker: Excellent Goal scored, poor defending for goal conceded. Had a relatively comfortable game despite Stoke’s possession in second half. Amusing slide celebration, clearly hasn’t worked on it!
Koscielny: Made one very good clearance and was generally there in the right positions. Steady game from the Frenchman.
Gibbs: There was a degree of casualness to his game in the first half, but he raised the bar in the second as there were a couple of moments when he had to be alert to runs. But in the second half his passing was below par. On the whole probably his weakest game this season.
The defenders were up against a very basic attack that lacked guile and creativity so their job wasn’t that hard. The two guys most culpable for the goal conceded went up and scored at the other end. Of course, this won’t happen all the time and doesn’t excuse the mistakes at the back. Given the quality of Stoke’s offence, this was an average performance at best from the defenders.
Ramsey: Mistakes from Begovic aside, the Welshman deserves credit for his anticipation, speed, and simplicity of execution for the opening goal. Difficult to add to things I’ve already said about him in previous game but it’s great to see such high level of consistency from him all over the pitch.
Özil: Is it two assists or three? This was another game in which he wasn’t always pulling the strings but he had plenty of big moments. Some of his passing interchanges with Wilshere were a joy to watch. Work rate was commendable and I like the way he doesn’t shy away from dropping deep even though it’s not his forte.
Flamini: Has been improving in every game since he started his second spell. Passing is becoming more and more reliable, gets into good positions – like covering for Gibbs, and produces a number of useful defensive moments wherever needed.
Wilshere: His diagonal/horizontal movement in the first half was very good as was his connection with Özil. Needs a lot more precision in the final third but that’s not limited to this game and is something that should, hopefully, come with experience. Has become a foul-magnet, probably even worse than Fabregas was. Interesting that the first and third goals came from fouls won by the Englishman.
Gnabry: Saw a lot more of the ball then Walcott does, or even someone like Oxlade-Chamberlain for that matter. Was mostly conservative in possession, with his decision making, and positioning, which was alright. I enjoyed the way he held on to the ball when he drifted across the centre line and made the safer choices to keep things flowing. Very good defensive work and his off-the-ball positioning even in the Stoke half was commendable and resulted in two turnovers that led to shots. If he keeps getting chances and keeps up his rate of development he should move past Oxlade-Chamberlain in the pecking order within a year or so.
The midfield controlled the game well, first with the ball and then without it. MotM should be shared by Ramsey, Özil, and Flamini IMO. There wasn’t a single outstanding performance that was much better than others but these three were the best individuals.
Giroud: Had a couple of good chances – forced a save from one and hit the other way off target. Didn’t always have teammates close to him and was marked tightly which made it hard for him to have a big impact. For example, his link play in the attacking third was almost non-existent through little fault of his own. Another big game physically this time in the central third of the pitch.
Subs: Was good to see Arteta back and at his reliable best. Monreal made a couple of useful contributions in the box but had little else to do. Miayichi produced the chance for Ramsey at the end and might have scored if the Welshman had squared the ball.
Wenger: In recent games his players have found different ways of scoring goals, which is a very encouraging sign. They’ve also shown the ability to regroup and deliver. Mistakes in the defence are there but the cohesive element has been much more dominant. I liked the way the defenders attacked the crosses and set-pieces that Stoke put in the box, it hasn’t always happened and must have been a special instruction for this game. Sticking with the same players (minimal rotation) has worked in the short term but will it be a problem over the course of the season?Follow @goonerdesi