Monday, December 8, 2014

Stoke City 3 Arsenal 2

Arsenal almost completed a great comeback after falling 3-0 down at half time. Our defence was shambolic in the first half, but we take heart from our spirited fight-back in the second half.

Arsene Wenger made three changes from the side that started in a hard-fought 1-0 win over the second-placed Southampton on Wednesday night. Kieran Gibbs was fit again in time to replace an injured Nacho Monreal. Laurant Koscielny was not risked for a third game in a week after an 8-week layoff through Achilles tendinitis. Calum Chambers was moved to the central defence, while Hector Bellerin started in his second Premier League game at right-back. Wenger seemed to have been very reluctant to play two 19-year-old defenders together, but the injury crisis at the back left him no option. Danny Welbeck, who needed a breather as well as suffering a minor groin problem, was replaced by Olivier Giroud. A 19-year-old defender, Semi Ajayi and a 17-year-old forward, Ainsley Maitland-Niles were among substitutions, along with Koscielny, a fit-again Wojciech Szczesny, Lukas Podolski, Welbeck, and Joel Campbell.

We had been calling for the deployment of Chambers and Bellerin as a CB and a RB, respectively, rather than playing Moreal and Chambers out of position. We thought Wenger was just too stubborn to listen to the others, but at least he proved in this game that he was right to be reluctant to play two inexperienced defenders together. Another draw-back of this back four was Per Mertesacker playing as a left-sided centre-back, which we had already been aware of. It seemed to have totally confused his positional sense. In fact, after the match, Mertesacker admitted "sometimes when you’re not used to a position, you can find yourself one or two yards from the right position". On top of that, when Mertesacker tries to play Koscielny's role in the central defensive partnership, i.e., anticipating and winning the ball as high up on the pitch as possible, his lack of pace always lets him down as he cannot get back in time to cover for the other centre-back. It's impossible for him to replace the French centre-back. Koscielny was sorely missed.

Arsenal went into this game on the back of three straight wins and three clean sheets. Previously, Wenger had admitted their defensive fragility earlier in the season and said that it was very difficult to win a football match if they conceded two goals every game. Never mind two goals, it proved to be just too big a task to overcome a three goal deficit. The improvement in defence was a major factor behind Arsenal's recent revival, so it was quite disheartening to see poor defensive performance again in this game. The problem was largely attributed to injury to key defenders, but Wenger has only himself to blame. He started the season with only 6 defenders for 4 positions (obviously, Bellerin was not fully in his plan), which was totally inadequate given our injury history.

There were two significant  points in this game. The first one was Olivier Giroud's miss when he had a free header only to beat Begovic, but he couldn't even put it on target. At that time, we were only 1-0 down. A quick equaliser could no doubt have changed the game. The second significant point was when Alexis Sanchez hit the post after waltzing past Shawcross and rounding Begovic. We never doubted for a second he would find the net in this situation as he repeatedly did it even from more difficult angles. However, it wasn't to be.

After the defeat, Arsene Wenger was under even more pressure from the fans, but he deserves credit for his bold decision to replace Bellerin for Welbeck at half-time. He was criticised after the Swansea game for not adapting his tactics even though Chambers was clearly struggling to cope with Swansea's pacy left winger. His substitution was spot on as Welbeck made an immediate impact. On this occasion, the Frenchman even changed the formation as well as personnel. With three centre-backs at the back, Arsenal pushed for goals.

Another talking point was the referee's decisions. Antony Taylor made some poor decisions. This was the referee whose two wrong decisions cost us three points on the opening day of the last season against Aston Villa. To point out a few, Alexis was fouled on the left flank, but instead of showing a yellow card, Taylor gave a free-kick to Stoke. It was baffling why Charlie Adam was allowed to stay on the pitch after he was witnessed with his arm tightly around Alexis' neck.

Calum Chambers was sent off after shown a yellow card for his innocuous looking foul. Peter Crouch was allowed to commit far worse fouls all through the game, but got away with just one yellow card. Danny Welbeck was tripped by the Stoke right-back when the England striker was about to get behind the Stoke defence, latching on to a long ball. Not only the stoke defender escaped a booking, but the referee gave a throw-in to Stoke.

The biggest positive to take from this game was undoubtedly the character the team showed. Their spirited fightback sent Stoke into panic and they finished the game on front foot despite a man down.

Another positive was the goal sources. Santi Cazorla stepped up to take a penalty in the absence of Mikel Arteta, the first-choice penalty taker and scored his first goal of the season. Aaron Ramsey was also back on the scoresheet with his superb shot.

Our day could have been better if the Gunners had completed their comeback, but still it was not the end of the world. Chelsea's unbeaten run was ended earlier in the day, which meant the Invincibles' record remained intact for another season. Tottenham and Liverpool only drew, while Everton lost.

We are glad that Arsenal have already qualified for the knock-out stage of the Champions League. Although we still have a chance to win the Group D, Wenger is unlikely to risk any key players on the edge of getting injured for this game. For example, he has already made it clear that Alexis would not travel to Turkey. Koscielny is also ruled out for Tuesday's game, but expected to be back in contention for the next Premier League game against Newcastle after being rested. Chambers will serve his suspension against Newcastle, but the timely return of Mathieu Debuchy should mitigate the situation. Wenger suggested that the French right-back might even be included in the squad against Galatasaray. Hopefully, with the return of Koscielny and Debuchy, our defence will be much improved. Wenger will strengthen the defence in January without doubt.

Players ratings

Martinez: 6
He had strong performances in the last three games and was given another chance even after Szczesny was fit again, but he looked a little shaky at times.

Bellerin: 4
Couldn't cope with the intensity of the game, getting dispossessed too easily. On the other hand, he made a good run, making the most of his well-known pace, and delivered a perfect cross from the by-line. Replaced by Welbeck at half time.

Chambers: 5
At fault for Stoke's first goal by missing his header to attack Nzonzi's cross and for the second goal by not checking Bojan's run.

Mertesacker: 6
Not the same without Koscielny. He should have shown more leadership as team captain and most experienced defender in the back four.

Gibbs: 6
He was culpable  in the build-up of the second goal by letting the cross in.

Flamini: 6
Earned a penalty with his run into the box. He was moved to right wing-back in the second half. His crosses left much to be desired.

Ramsey: 7

It was a difficult game for him as Stoke fans constantly booed him for having his leg broken. He couldn't match the Stoke midfield in the first half, but he took his goal very well. We hope to see him more in that situation, popping up in the box unexpectedly.

Oxlade-Chamberlain: 7
Made 3 key passes, had a shot, which was off target.

Alexis: 7

Worked hard and influential in our attacking play as usual, but missed a gilt-edged opportunity. Made 4 key passes, had 4 shots, of which 2 were on target and 1 hit the woodwork.

Cazorla: 7
His performances were rather disappointing in the last two games after we thought he had finally hit his best form against Dortmund and West Brom. Scored form the spot.

Giroud: 5
He should have at least hit the target.


Welbeck: 7
Made a big impact when he came on at half-time. Looked dangerous. 

Podolski: 6
Replaced Giroud in the 62nd minute. Had 1 shot, which was on target.

Campbell: N/A
Replaced Gibbs in second-half stoppage time. No time to make difference.

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