Arsenal FC: Thoughts on Gunners' 0-0 Draw with Potters in Sunday's EPL Match
For their Premier League Match Day 2 encounter, Arsenal travelled to the Britannia Stadium to tackle Tony Pulis' pugilists, a place very difficult for Arsenal to find a breakthrough.
At the end of the encounter, the narrative remained the same.
The contrasting styles, much touted by pundits before the match, more or less justified this view. Stoke City remained resolutely organized as a defensive unit and remained committed as ever to their rugged and direct style.
The plan, as is well-known, is to cause aerial difficulty to teams that favor the passing game, such as Arsenal do.
By using their height and physicality to their advantage, Stoke City always seek to cause discomfort to their opponents in the final third. To this end, they always seek out Peter Crouch, who stands at 6'7".
Here, partnering Jonathan Walters upfront, the requisite effect of Stoke City's aerial balls failed to materialize, as Arsenal's defense dealt with each of these threats quite effectively.
Before the match, Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager, had insisted that it was important that his wards play their own game and seek to impose their will on their hosts.
And so it was.
After the first-minute skirmishes, the match settled into the expected pattern. Stoke City looked to break up Arsenal's smooth passing and counterattack quickly.
The plan seemed to have borne fruit in the seventh minute. Walters appeared to have given the hosts the lead when he drove a loose ball into the roof of Arsenal's goal after his side had won the ball at the edge of Arsenal's goal area, but the goal would not stand as he had struck from an offside position.
The following is the two teams' squad sheets.
The lineup was as follows:
As I suspected would happen in my preview, Wenger opted to play Lukas Podolski wide left in the false 11 position, with Olivier manning the central striking position. Gervinho reverted to the right, with Theo Walcott missing out on the starting XI.
Vito Mannone, Arsenal's third-choice keeper, substituted for Wojciech Szczesny, who must not have been deemed sufficiently recovered enough from his minor rib problem to play in this match. The same must have been true of Lukasz Fabianski, who also missed the Sunderland match with a back injury.
As to the general contour of the match, Arsenal were the better side throughout. They dealt quite effectively with Stoke City's ruggedness and aerial threat. To this end the quartet of Arsenal's defenders acquitted themselves brilliantly.
It must be said, however, that defensive duties fell on everyone's shoulder. Every of Arsenal's players was willing to track back to defend when the ball was lost.
Per Mertesacker out-crouched Peter Crouch in the air, easily winning their personal battles. Carl Jenkinson was assured on the right flank. Neither Jermaine Pennant nor Michael Kightly (whenever they swapped positions) got the better of him.
Kieran Gibbs had a minor scary moment late in the second half when Pennant when down under his challenge in Arsenal's penalty area, but Lee Mason, the match referee, saw nothing wrong with the challenge.
Thomas Vermaelen was solid as ever. He was the victim of a harrowing challenge from Andy Wilkinson in the 63rd minute on the edge of Stoke City's penalty area.
Arsenal dealt effectively with Stoke City's aerial threats. Getty Images.
Santi Cazorla was the embodiment of Arsenal's enterprising endeavor in the midfield. He pulled all of Arsenal's attacking strings, and with almost 100 percent efficiency. Appearing for Arsenal only in his second competitive match, he looks to have established himself already.
He received a nasty challenge in the first half when his foot was stepped on, which he didn't seem to have fully recovered from. That and fatigue, I believe, was the reason he was substituted in the 81st minute.
Abou Diaby partnered Mikel Arteta at the base of Arsenal's midfield. He had a good game, though had he been able to sort out his feet (and perhaps been a little more calm) in the 74th minute, he'd have given Arsenal the lead. As it is, he skewed his shot well-wide of goal.
Mikel Arteta played as the main holder yet again, and was very efficient. His performance was such that he got the Man of the Match award.
Santi Cazorla was again at the heart of everything. Getty Images.
This is where the problem lies, not because there's anything wrong with Arsenal's new boys upfront, but because it is harder (just as Wenger observed in midweek) to score than to defend.
To carve out the opposition's defense requires a great deal of understanding, not just from the front men, but from the midfielders as well.
That understanding is not there yet, and not without reason. One of the problems here was that Giroud played more as an out-and-out striker. As such he didn't get involved with developing play nearly as much as was needed.
Podolski is still not adjusted to the role of a front man, although here he was played as supporting striker who began from wide left.
Quite apart from the problem of cohesiveness (which was much improved here but still not quite there yet), there were four things that I thought were preventing Arsenal's attack from being potent enough.
Use of Space
Arsenal are experiencing a similar problem as Liverpool, who are having to build a new team and a new style of playing themselves. Brendan Rogers' style is based on precise segmentation of the pitch and its effective use thereof.
By the use of strategic positioning, possessing players always know where to pass the ball to, either precisely or in the "general-direction-of," because they know a teammate will be in that vicinity. This makes for effective one-touch passing, and even better, for two- or three-touch passing.
Swift counterattack becomes more potent and precise as well.
In the last two matches, Liverpool have struggled with this new way of playing. Against Manchester City, they looked more assured in spells than they've been at any time so far. Yet, the struggle is visibly there alright.
Arsenal have a similar problem with space. In their case they haven't figured out how to position strategically when in possession. They are doing well when they don't have the ball, but tend to bunch up when they do. This produces redundancies.
If two players occupy a horizontal line while in possession, the forward momentum of the attack is lost. It tends to produce lateral passing.
It is why the 4-3-3 (or any of its permutations) is more effective as an attacking system than the 4-4-2 system. The latter deals with lines, while the former deals with triangles.
Triangular movement off the ball is necessary for cogent attacks to develop. This still is lacking in Arsenal's movement off the ball. Players need to be well-drilled as to what exactly to do and as to where exactly to be when Arsenal have the ball.
Another problem with the use of space is that this team is not attacking as a unit, not nearly enough anyway. If you've watched Arsenal's teams in the past you'd know what I'm talking about.
Wenger's classic Arsenal sides used to attack in swift waves. That's why they tend to be free-scoring. Here, the team is tending to come too much through the middle and too much through one outlet (Cazorla). This makes the team rather predictable.
With time, Wenger will effect the required changes to make the team more dynamic.
Use of Full-Backs
I have said a number of times that full-backs are indispensable for attack-minded teams. For example, when both Bacary Sagna and Kieran Gibbs returned from injury last season, Arsenal's fortunes changed dramatically.
To control territory and neutralize the opposition, it is often necessary to push the full-backs high up the pitch. Whenever Arsenal have done this, they have tended to control their opponents, even strong opponents such as Manchester City or Tottenham Hotspur.
Arsenal didn't do this here, although the full-backs did overlap sufficiently and efficiently enough. But what I'm talking about isn't overlapping. This happens at a positional level.
The problem here could be the so-called Bould effect, which many are claiming is making Arsenal more defensively minded. If that means restricting the full-backs and making them more cautious; the downside is that this is detracting from Arsenal's natural attacking instinct.
The trick here then would be to balance the use of the full-backs. I personally favor pushing them forward. The result is usually worth the risk.
Podolski battling Stoke City's Wilkinson. Getty Images.
No Effective Point Man
With Robin van Persie, Arsenal midfielders and wide men knew exactly where to put the ball or what to do with the ball or how to make their own supporting or decoy movements.
This isn't yet the case with the current team, because the new boys are still adjusting. This, of course, is the downside of having to building a new team every season.
As the new boys adjust, better understanding will develop. As this develops, we'll begin to see them score goals.
No Well-Drilled Markers
A team cannot be effective without well-rehearsed markers that enable it to know what exactly do with the ball when it has it.
For example, who is running where when so-and-so has the ball? When so-and-so does such-and-such what does it mean? What are we supposed to do next? Am I making a decoy diagonal run to allow so-and-so to move into such-and-such position? etc.
Again, it is the reason why a manager shouldn't be constrained to build a team on the fly. By the time understanding has developed, time and opportunity have passed you by.
Arsenal will be playing Chelsea soon. Getty Image.
A goalless draw wasn't the best result for Arsenal, but it isn't because Robin van Persie wasn't there. We must banish that thought. We played enough times with Van Persie in the team without scoring.
The fact is, both Stoke City and Sunderland are tough nuts to crack. Of course, we should have won last week, and if we had, the result against Stoke City would have been more acceptable. But, although this wasn't the best result, it is far from calamitous.
Although a string of draws is as damaging as a string of losses, at least we can say we haven't lost a match yet. What we need to do is figure out how to score, and this will come with time.
At Liverpool next week, Arsenal will be playing a team willing to attack. This will be a different test for the team. How will they fare when facing an attack-minded team? Will they score? The answer is more likely yes, because space should open up as a result of Liverpool's willingness to attack.
This won't be an easy match though. It might yield another draw.
The fixtures don't get easier after Liverpool, either. After the home match against Southampton (a match which one would think we'll win), we will be constrained to travel again. This time to Manchester City, after which we'll host Chelsea.
These are as difficult a fixtures as you'd get anywhere. But if you want to be regarded as one of the top sides, these are the challenges you must face and overcome.
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