Thoughts on Arsenal's Draw with Stoke City
After a somewhat disappointing draw against Sunderland, the stage was set for another grueling encounter for Arsene Wenger and his Red Army.
The Gunners braced themselves to visit a ground that they had managed to record a meager four points from their last four visits: the dreaded Brittania Stadium.
Stoke almost drew first blood when Peter Crouch cushioned a header to Jon Walters. It dispatched his effort goalwards, but the offside flag spared Arsenal’s blushes.
Chances in the first half were few and far between. There were some long range efforts from Arsenal’s Santi Cazorla and Stoke’s Michael Kightly, with both efforts saved with consummate ease by both goalies.
The second half was a familiar story as both sides showed off their sloppiness.
A scary moment arrived when Kieran Gibbs was adjudged to have fouled John Legend. Jermaine Pennant in the box but the ref was having none of it. I’m pretty sure that it might have been a different outcome if it was Eden Hazard.
Olivier Giroud had a great chance in the box to give Arsenal the lead when he was unmarked in the box.
However, he chose to go for the spectacular when he had enough time to control the ball before blasting at goal. It was reminiscent of the defense-splitting pass Cazorla handed him against Sunderland; but he rushed his effort and a good chance went begging.
A rush of blood to the head I guess.
Giroud almost put his name on the back pages when he attempted an audacious speculative effort late on. His long-range shot skimmed the roof of the net to go over the bar.
That act irked Arsene Wenger in the dugout, as he knew that Aaron Ramsey was in a better position to score; he had made a lot of ground in anticipation of a pass from Giroud.
Giroud stated afterwards that he had not noticed his teammate so he had to go for it:
I hoped it would go in. I saw the keeper off his line and I did not see Aaron [in the middle] for a cross. So I tried to take my chance.
In the wake of Arsenal’s goalless stalemate against Stoke that felt like two points lost rather than a point gained, here are my carefully considered thoughts on the team’s performance.
Vito Mannone's Assured Performance
When Gooners learned that Wojciech Szczesny had suffered a minor rib injury and his deputy, Lukasz Fabianski, wasn’t fully fit as well, the panic button was pressed so hard that it sprang out of its remote control.
Arsenal’s “want-away” third-choice goalie—Vito Mannone—was to be the custodian between the sticks.
There were complaints about his lack of concentration like the horrendous act he committed when Arsenal played Olympiakos. These same fans who criticized Mannone heavily before the game sang his praises when he put up a five-star performance against Fulham in Craven Cottage a few seasons ago.
Despite being protected like a baby by Arsenal’s rearguard, Mannone came up with the goods.
He commanded his area admirably by jumping the highest to claim crosses. He kept his concentration levels in check against a Stoke side where concentration was key in challenging the aerial threat they posed.
He also did well to palm Knightly’s shot and looked assured all game long.
Mannone will probably go back to the bench when the Polish duo are fully fit, but I’m sure that he got a pat in the back from his boss for keeping a clean sheet. Keepers are also paid for that as well.
An Efficient Defensive Outing
With Kenwyne Jones warming the bench, Stoke’s gaffer Tony Pulis started with Peter Crouch and Jon Walters in his forward line.
He used a simple tactic worth its weight in gold: He had Crouch pluck out the ball from the air, linking up well with his strike partner, Walters.
In the seventh minute, a lofted ball into Arsenal’s box was cushioned to Walters’ path by Crouch, and the forward wasted no time in slamming Mannone’s goal. However, the offside flag came to Arsenal’s rescue.
That was the only setback Arsenal had defensively all game long, as the rearguard worked extremely hard to quell every threat Stoke posed from the air.
The stand-out performer was Per Mertesacker.
Many Gooners are in the opinion that Laurent Koscielny will be an automatic starter alongside club captain Thomas Vermaelen.
However, Mertesacker’s performance against an aerially-adept side like Stoke showed his importance to the squad. Time after time, the German threw himself in the line of fire to deal with his fellow beanpole—Crouch—and he won a large chunk of his aerial duels with him.
Thomas Vermaelen put up another disciplined performance as he aims to be Arsenal’s new Tony Adams.
Last season, Vermaelen made many forays forward, leaving loopholes behind. Games against Sunderland and Stoke have shown that Vermaelen has adhered to Steve Bould’s instructions and he knows his role in the team.
There was a moment when he attacked the Stoke back line but he was clattered by Andy Wilkinson with a tackle worthy of a sending off. The ref chose to brandish a yellow card.
Vermaelen also leaped as high as a pole vaulter—without the poles of course—in his bid to win aerial balls in the air.
Kudos must also go to Arsenal’s young starlets on the full backs positions, Carl Jenkinson and Kieran Gibbs.
They didn’t offer much in attack, but they are compact defensively and offered no breathing space to Stoke’s wingers Michael Kightly and Jermaine Pennant.
In a brief cameo upfront, Jenkinson drilled in a brilliant cross to Abou Diaby; but as expected, the lanky Frenchman ran out of ideas and he spurned the chance.
Gibbs on the other hand, was quite poor with his distribution in attack as he worked well with Lukas Podolski on the left. However, his output on the final third was found wanting.
Another Industrious Midfield Performance
An Alex Song-less midfield went through another game without creativity from the middle of the park and there were no trademark projectiles to feed the forward line.
Songinho has also been on the news lately, revealing that he left Arsenal because the club failed to offer him a new deal.
His 204 games, 10 goals and 24 assists are now a part of history. Focus must be on the players that want to be in the team, not others that left for the greens.
Arsenal’s midfield triumvirate at the start of the game was Abou Diaby, Mikel Arteta and Santi Cazorla.
The diminutive magician was on inspired form yet again as he continued to pull the strings in midfield, linking up brilliantly with his teammates and spraying passes all over the place.
Cazorla also took responsibility for taking Arsenal’s boatload of corner kicks but Arteta picked up where his fellow Spaniard left off, when he was substituted for Aaron Ramsey.
Diaby put up a better show than his stinker against Sunderland.
He didn’t dwell on the ball too much and he was on the end of some neat one-twos. However, Diaby should have done better with the chance offered to him on a platter inside Stoke’s box but he blasted his effort wide after dallying on the ball.
Despite another performance that has seen Diaby end the game unscathed, I still feel that Arsenal will be better suited with a ready-made replacement for Alex Song. Diaby cannot be trusted to stay fit all season long.
Arteta was industrious in Arsenal’s midfield and he covered Diaby’s tracks well when he waltzed forward
Another Toothless Attack Yet Again
Arsenal played six matches in the preseason and had ten goals to show for it.
The game against FC Cologne was encouraging. It’s worth noting that two forwards, Lukas Podolski and Gervinho, got on the score sheet in that fixture. However, Podolski and Gervinho have started both fixtures against Sunderland and Stoke and they have no goals to show for it.
Gervinho was breathtaking against Sunderland but he put up an atrocious performance against Stoke. His decision-making was suspect yet again and he kept on taking on defenders when a simple pass to a teammate was a better option.
Podolski on the other hand had a quiet outing when he spearheaded the attack against Sunderland. However, he was very direct in his approach when he started from the left hand side on Sunday.
He had a couple of shots against Stoke and the signs looked encouraging; but strikers are judged on goals, and Podolski has been found wanting.
Olivier Giroud has been touted as Robin van Persie’s replacement and I have a hunch that the burden of expectation is taking its toll on the forward.
He had a great chance in the box to get his side forward but he chose to attempt an acrobatic effort that bounced on the ground before going wide. He also fired a speculative effort late on that went over the bar.
If you want to convince me we lost an exceptional player [in Robin van Persie] you are wasting your time. I was the first to say that.
We have to find a way to get around that by sharing more of the goals than we did before with Van Persie. Giroud scored 20 [last season], Podolski scored 20. We will get some goals I’m convinced from [Abou] Diaby, [Aaron] Ramsay, [Theo] Walcott, Gervinho, so we have of course to share it around a bit.
Overall, it was labelled as a disappointment against a Stoke side that the Gunners were capable of beating, but plaudits should go to Steve Bould and his defensive unit for instilling some confidence in Arsenal’s rearguard.
The zonal marking on display was very impressive and many Gunners were never afraid to put their bodies in the line of fire in their attempts to win the ball.
Despite having over ten corners or so, Arsenal didn’t threaten Stoke from set pieces. The odds of beating Stoke in their own game was slim to none.
Even with the height advantage Mertesacker, Diaby and Giroud offered, Ryan Shawcross and Robert Huth got the upper hand in many aerial duels.
Finally, I must say that I’ve been hugely impressed with the new signings as they’ve already integrated themselves in the Arsenal way of life.
Santi Cazorla has been dissed as a “poor man’s Fabregas“ but the Spaniard has been a shining light in the heart of Arsenal’s midfield as he continues to pull all the strings in midfield.
Lukas Podolski played very well on the left wing and he made direct runs forward, winning free kicks for his team.
Olivier Giroud has been showing off his great "off the ball" movement and he has really linked up well with his teammates.
In due time, the floodgates will open for Arsenal’s new forwards and the goals will start creeping in.
A true test awaits the Gunners at Anfield.
I just shared my thoughts on the Stoke game. Feel free to share yours with your comments.