Monday, March 3, 2014

Stoke City 1 Arsenal 0

It was a lacklustre and turgid performance from the Gunners. That performance hurts us more than the result. This was a must-win game for us before a tough run of the March fixtures really kicks in. Considering the importance of the game, if that's all the performance the team could put in, our hopes of lifting a trophy is pretty much doomed.

We don't often criticise the boss, but it is difficult to ignore his responsibility in this game in two aspects. First of all, the team selection was wrong. Secondly, he failed to motivate the team. We were still in the hunt for the title prior to the game. There was all to play for, but what the team came up with was such a tepid display, which was very disappointing. There was no desire to win nor urgency to find a first goal. We just didn't understand. We were still hoping at half time to see Arsenal come out of the blocks quickly in the second half, but it wasn't to be.

Arsene Wenger made just one change from the side that started in Arsenal's emphatic win over Sunderland last Saturday. Kieran Gibbs replaced Nacho Monreal, who did not recover in time from the foot injury he sustained during the first half of the Sunderland game. Considering the fact that Gibbs was reportedly set to miss the second leg of the Champions League game through a buttock injury and that we might have had to resort to playing Thomas Vermaelen, who had just returned from an almost 2-month lay-off, out of position, Gibbs' earlier-than-expected return to the starting XI was nothing but a boost. On the other hand, what raised eye brows was that the exclusion of Mathieu Flamini. Both Match Preview and Stats Zone on the site highlighted the importance of Flamini's role in this game, which was expected to be a physical contest. So when we saw the teamsheet, we could not believe the absence of Flamini in the starting line-up. It was not only his physical strength that was sorely missed, but also his presence as the "motivator-in-chief".

Just one forced change to the last weekend's starting XI may be explained by the assumption that Wenger expected Stoke to try to play their new style of passing football. How wrong it was to be. If they had tried to play their new style of football, we would have had a good chance to win this game as we have better quality players to execute passing football. The best example was the reverse fixture earlier this season. We "outStoked" the Stoke side at the Emirates by scoring 3 goals from set-pieces. However, Mark Hughes has already sussed out that he could not get results by playing easy-on-the-eye football with the same personnel under Tony Pulis. The return to their old style reaped a reward in that they beat Chelsea and Man U and held Man City to a goalless draw at the Britannia Stadium.

Another omission from the starting line-up that bemused us was that of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Once again this explains that Wenger expected that this game was going to be a passing contest rather than a rugby match. The Ox is a more direct and strong player with pace. Wilshere's style of play invites physical challenges and he can be easily bullied by those approaches. As soon as the Ox had come on, he injected the much-needed urgency and pace as well as width.

As we said last weekend, the Sunderland match was the right kind of game for the right group of players. Wenger fielded almost same starting XI against a Stoke side. We might have been still able to produce a result, but without desire or spark, it was extremely hard. The lack of pace in our passing was detrimental. If Arsenal want to play a passing game, they have to deliver it with high tempo.

The talking point of the game is arguably the referee Mike Jones' controversial penalty decision. There is an argument that it was a soft penalty as this is a case of ball to hand rather than hand to ball. Certainly it was not deliberate, but we have seen quite a few cases where penalties were given in similar or even more unavoidable situations. Beside, if it had happened to the opposition, we would have claimed a penalty for sure. To us, the penalty decision was almost irrelevant. The major point of the game was Arsenal's toothless attack.

There is no denying that our title credentials were severely dented after the loss. Not only did we lose ground in the title race by allowing Chelsea to extend their lead to 4 points and Liverpool to leapfrog us to second on goal difference, but also this kind of performance seriously question our capability to remain in the tightest ever title race. However, we think that calling for Wenger's head or blaming the lack of transfer activity in the January window is a knee-jerk reaction that takes us nowhere. First of all, there is no better person to take over the charge of the Club. Secondly, there were no top-class strikers available in the past transfer window. We just have to keep the faith in the Frenchman till the end of the season.

Some say that if you cannot beat a team like Stoke, there is no chance of winning the title. Yes, our results against the bottom-table clubs have been consistent this season, which was the main reason why we were still at the top end of the table despite our poor results against top teams. So losing to a bottom-half club is a worry. But remember, both Chelsea and Man City dropped points at the Britannia Stadium and they are considered as title favourites. We can only be happy to have this tricky game out of the way.

Our next game is the FA Cup 6th round tie against Everton at home on Saturday. The midweek international break is meaningless and nothing but a pain, but hopefully we can regroup and refocus on the next game when our players have come back from international duty. By now Arsenal have proven enough times that they can bounce back. The FA Cup may be our only chance of winning a trophy this season. Arsenal have been producing some gutsy performances in this competition this season. Hopefully, they will replicate those performances against Everton.

Players ratings

Szczesny: 7
Made a superb save to deny Whelan's effort in the first half.

Sagna: 7
With no width on the right flank till the Ox came on, he had to go forward to help attack on that wing.

Mertesacker: 7
Kept Peter Crouch at bay most of time.

Koscielny: 7
Solid until he gave away the penalty.

Gibbs: 7
Decent display, but didn't find Podolski enough on the left wing.

Arteta: 7
Did his job.

Wilshere: 6
Failed to create a spark. Ineffectual.

Cazorla: 6
Involved in one of few quick attacks, but took a wrong decision to go himself when Poldi was ideally positioned on his left side.

Rosicky: 6
Lacklustre performance. Attempted some bold passing, but the lack of accuracy let him down.

Podolsiki: 6
He was the only starting player that could have provided much-needed pace, but his team-mates just did not find him often enough. Had only 31 touches. When Arteta found him running down the left channel, he fired it into the side-netting. Replaced by Özil in the 67th minute. 

Giroud 6
Had a tough game, constantly targeted by Stoke's niggly fouls, most of which went unpunished. Charlie Adam could have broken his leg with his stamp on the French striker's shin.


Özil: 6
Came on for Podolski in the 67th minute. His shot across the face of goal from the left channel missed the target agonizingly closely.

Oxlade-Chamberlain: 7
Made an impact immediately when he came on for Rosicky in the 74th minute. He should have started.

Sanogo: 5
81st-minute substitute for Wilshere. His touches left a lot to be desired. Missed a guilt-edged opportunity when the Ox's cut-back found him with acre of space in the box.

No comments:

Post a Comment