Take all of Arsenal’s weaknesses and put them in a blender. The result will not be very different from what we saw at the Britannia Stadium on an eminently forgettable day.
As I’d feared, Arsene started with Arshavin on the left. It was a bad mistake. The way Stoke are set up, having Arshavin and Walcott on the wings adds to redundancy in attack and leaves the defence vulnerable.
While I do complement the Russian on his willingness to track back and put a tackle in, the first goal came from a needless foul conceded, somewhat predictably, by the little man. Undeniably, the defending was shambolic and once again raises the question, how do these players train for such moments? When fingers can be pointed towards three of four players one has to wonder how signing one or two players is going to bring about a sea change in Arsenal’s defence!
If the first goal was annoying, the second was farcical. Ramsey was completely free in space around the half-way line when he received the ball. He played a blind reverse pass towards Sagna that went straight to Pennant. Inexperience perhaps? To make matters worse, the youngster took a few seconds to realize his error and that gave the former Arsenal man enough time to run at goal. Sagna moved away from him and Djourou took too long to close him down. Szczesny was caught off his line as the ball deflected over the Keeper and into the back of the net.
The goals were the main story of the first half but an equally important side note was the inability of the Gunners to convert all the possession into even a single meaningful chance.
Ramsey and Wilshere just didn’t have the quality or vision to break down a superbly organized home defence. Walcott was rendered impotent as no midfield player could find him in space. Arshavin was having to track back a lot as Stoke had a simple but highly effective strategy of hoofing the ball behind Gibbs. When the Russian did manage to move forward he wasn’t able to make a dent in the nine-man bus that Stoke has intelligently parked.
When Arsenal have been successful in many away games this season, a key tactical aspect has been the areas of possession. It is usually in the central third of the pitch. In this game, probably due to the inexperience of Wilshere and Ramsey, Arsenal played a lot of football just in front of the Stoke box. That is by far the most dangerous place to play this sort of a game. It allows the opponents to pack their box making it virtually impossible to penetrate. It also pulls a number of Gunners forward leaving acres of spaces open for counter-attacks. Tony Pulis must have seen his dream fulfilled. It wasn’t a coincidence that Arsenal had all the possession and very little incisiveness whereas Stoke were comfortable in defence and probing with their counter-attacks.
Wenger did make a couple of changes at half-time. Ramsey and Arshavin made way for Chamakh and Bendtner. It gave Arsenal more of an impetus in the second half but the chances were still limited. Neither Chamakh nor Bendtner have played often enough so it’s hard to blame them. Indeed, I’d like to praise their professionalism and the effort put in despite the undoubted frustration they must be feeling.
Stoke were relatively comfortable despite the changes as Arsenal just didn’t know how to make use of the main strengths of these players. Bendtner, who could have been a real menace in the box, rarely got in the right areas. The first real chance for Arsenal fell to Van Persie when the Dane was finally able to get into the box. Begovic made a crucial save.
Things improved, but only marginally, when Rosicky was introduced for Song. He should have come in for Walcott, who was struggling to find space as this move left the defence even more vulnerable.
The Gunners got one back after a moment of quality from Little Mozart. He played a brilliant ball to Chamakh even though he was facing his own goal. This caught the Stoke defence by surprise, something Wilshere and Ramsey had failed to do, and allowed the Moroccan to link up with Van Persie. Bendtner’s run opened up space for the Dutchman who finished with his chocolate leg.
Song was sorely missed moments later as Arsenal went from the sublime to the ridiculous in the blink of an eye. As usual a long ball was played beyond Gibbs. The midfield didn’t get back in time and Stoke were able to get a shot on goal even though the defenders were doing a good job. That shot looked harmless as the horrible state of the pitch sucked all its venom. Djourou tried a clearance but couldn’t get any power on the stretch. Wilshere was caught ball watching as Walters was able to attack it and knock it home.
After that the game petered out as the home side got a well deserved win.
This game wasn’t very meaningful in the context of the season. Hopefully, it will serve as a timely reminder to Arsene that he needs genuine, high-quality help in certain areas. The Premiership was not as competitive in his early years and that helped cover up his blind-spots as the Gunners accumulated a number of trophies. It won’t work anymore.
Szczesny: Could have done better for all three goals, especially the second. He isn’t ready for the first team and Arsenal have been paying the price of Fabianski’s injury.
Sagna: Struggled to make an impact in the attacking areas. Wasn’t targeted by Stoke so had a relatively easier time in defence.
Koscielny: The only defender to come away with credit in this game. Hardly made a mistake. Got in the right positions, chased and harassed the attackers, got his foot in when he had to.
Gibbs: His flank was the obvious target for the home side. Should have had more support but Arsenal as a club have been unable to find a workable solution to this. Extremely poor in the attacking areas even when he has space and time.
I thought the back five were disappointing at the very least. The full-backs have been struggling ever since the change in formation so I don’t want to blame the individuals. Djourou and Szczesny, who were the fans’ favourites a short while back, have been found wanting in the final few weeks.
Song: Made a few mistakes but in general offered good cover in front of the defence.
Wilshere: Fought hard, didn’t shy away from the physical battle, wasn’t able to offer any quality in the attacking areas.
Ramsey: Woeful mistake that led to the second goal. Couldn’t offer any penetration in attack.
I thought the midfield paid the price of their inexperience and the fact that they haven’t played together often enough. Against United they got away with it because of one key lapse in concentration by the opponents and also the fact that Arsenal were mentally focussed on defending. In this one, the midfield didn’t provide enough cover to Gibbs and should share the blame for the second and third goals.
All said and done, it is too early to say either Wilshere or Ramsey can take over from Cesc.
Walcott: Was always crowded out. His strengths can easily become his weaknesses when not used in an intelligent manner.
RvP: Scored a good goal. Tried really hard. His movement was good but there was no chemistry with the others in attacking areas.
Arshavin: Not the kind of game where he should be playing. Gave his best but started the dominoes rolling with a soft foul.
I thought the front three lacked a spark and more crucially some height and presence. Wenger should either have gone for a defensive player on the left to support Gibbs or put Bendtner in there from the start.
Subs: Bendtner looked like a threat whenever he got in the box. Chamakh showed good touches but really needs to improve his shooting by a few notches. Rosicky offered the kind of threat that was missing for most of the game.
Wenger: Should have picked a more balanced starting eleven. The fact that it was so predictable shows it’s an area, certain tactical aspects, where he needs help. Should have asked his midfield to pull back and draw the opponents out. Another problem that has been repeated too often but we have seen some visible efforts in this area. Had to find a way to get Gibbs more support. Clichy has lost a lot as he has been exposed way too often. There is a real threat that the young Englishman could lose his confidence and attacking instincts.