Monday, April 30, 2012

Stoke City 1 Arsenal 1

Asked if the draw against Chelsea was a point gained or two points dropped after the London derby last weekend, Arsene Wenger answered that it could only be found out at the end of the season. Is the draw against Stoke a point earned or two points dropped? Thanks to Newcastle's heavy defeat at Wigan, the point kept us in control of our fate. If we win the remaining two games, we can still secure third place regardless of other results.

We needed all three points to consolidate our place for a top-three finish, which has more significance after Chelsea had sealed their place in this season's Champions League final. However, games at the Britannia Stadium have always been tough, as the stats (P4, W1, L3) showed, while other big clubs also dropped here this season. Although the run of three games without win hurts, a point from the Britannia Stadium may not be too bad. Certainly it could have been worse, especially considering the fact that we were 1-0 down just in 9 minutes.

There are positives to take from this game. Firstly, RVP scored his 28th goal of the season to extend the gap to Wayne Rooney on the top scorers table. More importantly for the team, it was his first goal from open play in seven games.

Secondly, our performance in the first half was quite encouraging after the lacklustre display in the last two games. We saw Arsenal's trademark one-touch passing and the game was entertaining with high tempo, intensity and commitment. When Vermaelen said prior to the match that the team's focus would be on playing their own game with quick passing, we doubted if Stoke would allow it. It was a pleasant surprise that Stoke was more open than expected, certainly a lot more open than Wigan and Chelsea were in our last two games. During our attacking spells in the first half, we created a lot of chances with a number of good inventive ideas and link-up play. This was refreshing after the last two matches, in which Arsenal's attack appeared to have lacked cohesion.

Thirdly, we showed our resilience again. Stoke's early goal didn't damp our spirits. Within just 6 minutes of conceding the goal, we got a deserved equaliser, ending the first half in ascendancy.

Also, our defence didn't look intimidated by a physical Stoke side, looking solid in set-pieces.

However, despite all the encouraging signs in the first half, our second-half performance was rather disappointing. We couldn't maintain the tempo and intensity we demonstrated in the first half. Also, our players made things too complicated unnecessarily both offensively and defensively. They passed around or tried little one-twos, when they should have simply taken a shot. On the defensive side, they tried to do too much with the ball in the dangerous area, when they needed a straightforward clearance.

An interesting fact is our passing success rate was a mere 79.8%, well below our average of around 84%, despite their flowing football in the first half. Is this the result of the contrastingly sluggish second half performance? Incidentally, our overall possession was 62.9%.

We felt Stoke fans' jeers at Aaron Ramsey unacceptable. He was the victim of a horrendous tackle, which could have ended his professional career and certainly put his career back by two years. Any football fan should only be pleased to see a player, who has overcome such a horrific injury, back on the pitch, playing as if nothing had happened on the very same ground. We are glad that Alan Hansen condemned Stoke fans' behaviour on the Match of the Day. They should be ashamed of themselves.

Talking about Aaron Ramsey, how wrong we were about team selections. After Arsene Wenger had ruled out Abou Diaby from the starting line-up due to his illness during the week, Ramsey's inclusion in the starting XI was widely expected. Actually, this turned out to be one of Ramsey's better games. He upped the tempo of his passing in line with the rest of the team and showed his commitment in tackles, which was brave of him, considering what happened here two years ago. As Rosicky emphasised the importance of the balance in midfield before the match, he and Ramsey shared attacking and defensive responsibilities very well. Upon the introduction of Diaby in Ramsey's place, which was probably written in the script before the kick-off, the tempo of the game seemed to have dropped. At this moment in time, improved Ramsey appears to be a better option as Arteta's replacement than rusty Diaby.

We were not happy with Wenger's decision not to bring on Oxlade-Chamberlain. The Frenchman might have relied on the experience of older players in such a tight game, but we want to see more of the promising 18 year-old.

The next two fixtures will be absolutely must-win games for us to secure third place. With the trickiest game of our run-in now out of the way, let's hope that our players will get the job done. It would be nice if RVP can add more goals to his tally and maintain his position at the top of the Prem top scorers table in that process.

Player ratings

Szczezny: 7
He looked solid after conceding the early goal. Made a good reflex save of Jerome's powerful shot.

Sagna: 7
Although he was guilty for Stoke's goal by allowing Etherington a space to put in a cross, his performance was solid otherwise. Made a crucial clearance just a couple of yards off the line. He also put in an excellent cross, which Gervinho's famous forehead failed to make a contact with.

Koscielny: 7

Vermaelen: 7

Gibbs: 7
Often involved in attacking, going forward. We were worried that he might be caught out, but he was quick enough to get back.

Rosicky: 8
Our Man of the Match. Delivered a few brilliant crosses, one of which set up RVP's goal.

Ramsey: 6
His decisions to have a shot were good, but his finishes left much to be desired.

Song: 7
Covered the back-four very well, while dominating in midfield.

Gervinho: 6
Missed a couple of glorious chances. His adaptation progress is agonisingly slow. He was a regular starter and looked to be becoming an integral part of the team before the African Cup of Nations, which hampered his progress largely.

Benayoun: 7
Had some chances and made good runs to get in dangerous positions. His link-up play with Rosicky was a part of the build-up to RVP's goal.

van Persie: 7
Back in some form. Scored a winner. Unlucky not to score a goal, when his header was denied by Begovic's fine save.


Diaby: 5
73rd-minute substitute for Ramsey. He still looked rusty.

Chamakh: 5
Came on the pitch in the 78th minute to replace Gervinho. He did a good job of holding the ball against physical Stoke defenders, but unfortunately that was all he did.

Santos: 5
83rd-minute substitute for Benayoun.


Chris Foy: 4
He was poor on the following three key moments: (1) Benayoun should have had a penalty, (2) a free-kick should have been given just outside of the box, when a Stoke player forming the wall handballed Vermaelen's free-kick, and (3) Whitehead should have been given a yellow card, which would have seen him sent off, after Christ Foy had played advantage.

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