The last mathematical chance of Arsenal winning the league finally ended yesterday, as they lost 3-1 away to Stoke City in the Premier League. In a game where strength, determination and concentration were going to be vital, the majority of Arsenal players failed to show those attributes. The fans wanted a victory over a team which they have a genuine dislike for, but it's impossible to beat a team like Stoke if the defense doesn't play at their best.
There were a couple of changes from the team that beat Manchester United last week, as Kieran Gibbs and Andrey Arshavin came in for the injured duo of Gael Clichy and Samir Nasri. The anticipated return of Thomas Vermaelen didn't happen, as he spent the game on the bench after Johan Djourou recovered from the knock he took last week.
The game started fairly well for Arsenal, as they had the vast majority of possession, but they barely created any scoring chances. The best early opportunity fell to captain Robin Van Persie, but he shot over the bar after Jack Wilshere played him in.
Arsenal needed to utilise their wide players, but Theo Walcott was ineffectual, and Andrey Arshavin appeared disinterested at best. This meant everything went through the middle, but without the creative spark of Cesc Fabregas there were precious few opportunities created.
As the game progressed, Stoke gradually began to venture over the halfway line, and they managed to score from their first real opportunity. Arshavin needlessly gave away a free kick just beside the corner flag, and Arsenal set up to defend a free kick rather than a corner.
When the ball was delivered by Jermaine Pennant, the Arsenal players seemingly took turns making a mess of their defensive roles, and Kenwyne Jones let the ball bounce off his chest and into the Arsenal goal.
Leading up to the goal, Van Persie missed a header near the post to allow the ball into the goalmouth, and Djourou failed to track Jones's run, allowing him to tap the ball in from close range.
It was a familiar sight for Arsenal fans—the opposition scoring with their first attempt on goal, despite Arsenal dominating the proceedings. I'm not sure who was making the defensive calls, but they got it wrong, as a man on the post would probably have kept the ball out.
That first goal came after 28 minutes, and Arsenal's good approach play faded soon after.
Worse was to come in the 40th minute. A ball lost by Aaron Ramsey was pounced upon by Pennant, and rather than closing him down as he approached the box, Bacary Sagna ran away from him. Djourou came out to close him down, but his shot from 25 yards deflected off the Swiss players foot, skewing into the air over Wojciech Szczesny's desperation dive. It appeared Szczesny could have done better, as he seemed to get a lot of his hand to the ball, but it was by no means an easy save.
As halftime approached, Arsenal were lucky not to go in three goals behind when Jonathan Walters hit the bar after skinning Sagna.
Thankfully, Arsenal were only two goals down at the break.
Arsene Wenger, trying to breathe some life into his team, made a couple of changes, sending . Marouane Chamakh and Nicklas Bendtner on for the ineffectual Arshavin and Aaron Ramsey.
Curiously, Bendtner was deployed in a wide left role, and Chamakh is a pale shadow of the player he was before the turn of the year.
Early in the second half Stoke nearly scored again, as Robert Huth got his head to a corner, but his effort went over the bar.
In the aftermath, Huth inadvertently pulled Alex Song to the ground and ripped his shirt. Song took exception, and was lucky the referee didn't see him stick his elbow into Huth's face. Huth played no further part in the game, but his injury seemed to have been picked up when he pulled Song to the ground, Song landing on top of him. Arsenal were at least showing some fight, but it wasn't exactly the best way to do it.
Midway through the second half, Wilshere went in strongly on Pennant, and his momentum carried him through the ball and into the player. He had already gone in aggressively on Dean Whitehead in the first half, and on another day those two challenges would have earned him a pair of yellow cards. Luckily for Arsenal, the referee only gave him one, and Pennant picked up a yellow card as well for his reaction. I thought Andy Wilkinson should have followed them both into the book as well, as his tackle on Wilshere soon after was far from the cleanest.
In the 73rd minute some good work by Bendtner set up Van Persie for what looked like a certain goal, but he somehow managed to miss from six yards out. The keeper got a hand to it to put it out for a corner, but it was a chance Van Persie simply had to convert to keep Arsenal in the game.
Shortly after, Szczesny made a good save from Glenn Whelan to keep hope alive, but the clock was ticking on Arsenal's chances.
With 10 minutes left, Wenger replaced Song with Tomas Rosicky in an effort to introduce some creativity to the team. Arsenal scored almost immediately, as Rosicky fed Bendtner, who played the ball to Van Persie. Van Persie still had an awful lot to do at after being played in, but he side stepped a Stoke player before calmly drilling the ball under the keeper with his right foot.
Arsenal now had a chance to get something from a game which looked beyond them only a minute earlier, if they could continue to put pressure on Stoke. However, their propensity to self-destruct came into play again, as Stoke responded with a goal under than a minute later.
A hopeful shot from outside the Arsenal box looked to be no real danger, as Djourou put his leg out to clear it. His clearance was far too weak, and it went straight to Walters in the Arsenal box. Walters, gifted the simple task of scoring from eight yards out, made no mistake.
The game petered out after Stoke's third goal, and the traveling Arsenal fans were left with the long journey home with no reward for their efforts of supporting their team. As usual, the Arsenal faithful could be heard loud and clear over the television, as they did all they could to support their team. They are a credit to the club, and I love hearing them in every single away match Arsenal play.
The game was frighteningly typical of Arsenal this season. There was some nice, pretty football without enough end product, leading up to the opponents scoring from a set piece. Too many of the players just didn't give enough when it was needed, and leadership on the pitch seemed almost non-existent at times.
This season has been blighted by points dropped when they should not have been, and those who think selling Cesc Fabregas will be good for the team should consider how many chances Arsenal created in their last two games without him. His ability to create chances is second to none, and without him Arsenal would be in a much worse league position this season.
Cesc hasn't been at his greatest, but the fact that he hasn't had a proper holiday since the summer of 2007 has a great deal to do with his current form. Fabregas needs a long break this summer, and hopefully he will come back fit and ready to show what he can do as he approaches the peak of his career. With him and Van Persie in the team, Arsenal have a chance against anybody, but unless the management strengthens the squad this summer, there will be no point in having players of their quality.
Arsenal have conceded fewer goals from open play than any other team in the Premier League this season, but the total they have conceded from set pieces is simply not good enough. The structure and organization of their defensive game has to be dealt with this summer, and if that means bringing in a defensive coach then the boss has to do it. If this issue is not addressed then Arsenal will find themselves in a very similar situation next summer, and that is simply unacceptable.
All that remains this season is to ensure Arsenal finish third ahead of Man City, and I think they will do so if they beat Aston Villa next Sunday afternoon. When Sky Sports booked Arsenal as their main game on the second to last Sunday of the season, they likely hoped Arsenal would still have a chance of winning the league, but they got it badly wrong.
The only good news from the weekend for Arsenal was the arrival of St. Totteringham's Day on Saturday, when the Spurs failed to win at home to relegation threatened Blackpool.
It's a scant consolation really, but there's little else to keep Arsenal fans happy at the moment. If Tottenham lose to Man City on Tuesday, the chances are they won't even qualify for next season's Europa League, and Arsenal fans can at least be happy in the knowledge they aren't Spurs fans.
That's it for today.
See you tomorrow.