Monday, February 4, 2013

Arsenal 1 Stoke 0

If "the end-to-end stuff" and a goal fest are main ingredients for entertaining games, this game was certainly not one of them, but it was not our fault. Stoke parked the bus and stopped us playing our free-flowing football by constantly tripping Walcott and Wilshere. They had no intention of attacking, with only Crouch up front left isolated. It was very difficult to break down stubborn Stoke defence and in the end, we needed a lucky deflection on Geoff Cameron's boot to find the net. Some fans are critical, stating that we don't have a plan B against those teams who try to defend with 10 men behind the ball, but we think that we could have won the game even without a help of luck, by playing our style of football, had it not been for Asmir Begovic's heroics. Also, the media were sceptical about penetration of our attack, but through Wilshere's incisive pass combined with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain's effort, we managed to get behind Stoke's defence and created a number of clear-cut chances. We could have won 3-0, again had it not been for Begovic's superb saves.

In fact, we played some good football despite Stoke's efforts to stop us playing. Before the match, a piece of Opta stats was in the centre of attention, which was "if only the second half of games counted this season Arsenal would be second on 46 points, two points behind Manchester City." So, it was official that Arsenal are a second-half team. Following the Liverpool match, in which we came back from 2-0 down to earn a point, Podolski urged his team to start strongly from the beginning. The team responded to his call by starting the game in high tempo against Stoke.

Arsene Wenger made five changes to his side who started against Liverpool on Wednesday. Injured Vermaelen was replaced by Kosielny. Vermaelen's aggravated ankle problem left us with little left-back option, either a transfer-deadline-day signing, Nacho Monreal, or Andre Santos. To our joy, Monreal came straight into the starting XI. Santi Cazorla and Lukas Podolski dropped to the bench, while Abu Diaby and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain came in for them. Fit-again Mikel Arteta started in the place of Aaron Ramsey, who had filled in for the Spaniard as a deep-lying midfielder relatively well.

All eyes were on our new signing. Although most of fans agreed that he was a great acquisition, some were disappointed with Arsenal's transfer activity less than they expected amid the media reports that the Club had a sizable transfer budget. At Arsenal Playa Flamenca Supporters Club, we were pleased with the fact that the boss recognised the need of a new left-back and took action before the transfer window slammed shut. Maybe we could have done with a new holding midfielder as well, but we don't think we needed a new striker as we have Walcott and Podolski as Giroud's back-up.

Left-back was exactly where we needed to strengthen and we are happy to see Wenger act swiftly as soon as he had found Gibbs would be out for up to six weeks. We didn't have an adequate cover for Gibbs as Santos is not a Premier-League level defender. Also, at the age of 23, Gibbs is too young to be an uncontested first-choice left-back anyway. The 26-year-old former Malaga player is at the prime of his career and nine caps for the Spanish national team is not to be sniffed at. Arsenal had been linked with Luke Shaw of Southampton for some time, but following his signing of a new contract with the South coast club, the speculation has died down. We are glad that the potential move didn't materialise. Shaw may be a talented player with 6-month experience in the Premier League, but another teenage player is not what we wanted for this position.

We didn't get disappointed with the display by our new signing. Although his defensive prowess was not much tested as Stoke had decided not to push forward, Monreal was unfazed in aerial duels against Jon Walters. Arsene Wenger said, "There is no better culture shock than Stoke when you come from Spain!". Monreal also looked comfortable and confident on the ball as is the case for Spanish players. He even played a lovely one-two with Wilshere and his chipped cross for Giroud was delightful. It was a promising start to English football and his Arsenal career.

Critics claim that we struggled to find penetration without Santi Cazorla. Although it is true that the introduction of Santi and Poldi injected a renewed urgency into Arsenal's game, we think Jack Wilshere did well in Santi's place. Arteta, captain on the day in the absence of Thomas Vermaelen, hailed the depth in Arsenal's squad. We needed to give Santi a rest and it was encouraging to see Jack play in the heart of Arsenal's attack, filling Santi's boots, while the Spaniard came off the bench to make an impact. In fact, a number of players had a good game this day, including those who have been heavily criticised recently, which is encouraging. Another positive from this game was a clean sheet obviously. It should give some confidence to our defenders, who have been under huge pressure in recent games.

The goal shouldn't have been disputable. The linesman may have flagged for Walcott's off-side position, but he was not interfering with play and not even in a position to obscure the keeper's view. Christ Foy correctly (as all the media said) overruled his assistant and let the goal stand. Tony Pulis was not happy with the way Arsenal players surrounded the linesman, but as Wenger said, it was a natural reaction (In that situation, who wouldn't protest?) Actually, a couple of Stoke players also rushed to the linesman.

It was a great win (it's always great to beat Stoke), although it may not have been as convincing as some of recent games such as our thrashing of West Ham. We are quite happy with our team's performance. With Chelsea and Everton dropping points, it was a good weekend for our hopes of a top-four finish (Shame about the Tottenham result, though). Hopefully, we can maintain the winning ways after a mid-week international break.

Player ratings

Szczesny: 6
With Stoke managing only one shot on target, which was a comfortable save, he had little to do all afternoon.

Sagna: 7
Had a much improved game.

Mertesacker: 7
Kept Crouch at bay. He has been under criticism recently for not using his height well (on some occasions, he didn't even jump). In this game, he won 7 aerial duels.

Koscielny: 7
Looked solid and went close to score with his header, which was denied by Begovic's fine save.

Monreal: 7
Made a promising debut just after 48 hours of his arrival in England.

Diaby: 7
He had arguably his best game since his return from 2-month lay-off. Looked reliable defensively and robust going forward.

Wilshere: 8
In the heart of creativity. His pass to the Ox was superb.

Arteta: 7
Much-awaited return from a calf injury. Brought back stability to the team. The most touches (128) of all the players on the pitch with 91% pass success rate.

Walcott: 7
He tormented Wilkinson and showed his strength against physical Stoke, not deterred by crude challenges. One of those Wilkinson's challenge resulted in a free-kick just outside the box, which led to a precious goal. However, his final ball let us down in this game.

Oxlade-Chamberlain: 7
Had a good game. Energetic and constantly posed a threat to Stoke defence. We like his direct approach. He always look to shoot. Went close to score twice.

Giroud: 6
He should have put his free header on target, rather than knocked it down for another Arsenal player.


Cazorla: 7
Came off the bench to replace Diaby in the 68th minute. Added creativity and went close to secure a victory in a more convincing way.

Podoliski: 7
Replaced the Ox on the left flank in the 68th minute. His free-kick may have needed a lucky deflection to beat Begovic, who was excellent all afternoon, but the German should get credit for his powerful shot.

Ramsey: 6
90th minute substitute for Walcott. Little time to make a difference.

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