Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Arsenal 3 Stoke City 0

Arsenal blew away Stoke City in the high-tempo first-half with the help of an early goal from Koscielny. After the comfortable 3-0 win, the Gunners sit fifth in the table, leapfrogging their north London rivals who succumbed to a 2-1 defeat by the hands of Crystal Palace a day earlier.

Arsene Wenger made 4 changes to the side that started in a 2-0 victory over Hull City in the third round of the FA Cup 7 days ago. Mathieu Debuchy and Laurant Koscielny came in for Hector Bellerin, who was dropped to the bench, and Calum Chambers, who missed the game due to illness. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain started in place of Theo Walcott, who started on the bench. After his return from a 3-match suspension, Olivier Giroud replaced Joel Campbell who was also dropped to the bench. Mathieu Flamini, Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Özil were all fit again to make the bench.

Against a physical Stoke side, we expected Arsene Wenger to take a similar approach to the one against West Ham, especially now with a fit-again Flamini back in the squad. However, the side he picked against Stoke was quite attack-minded in an almost 4-1-4-1 formation with Rosicky often playing higher up on the pitch.

The biggest talking point prior to the match was who would be picked in goal. Some feared that facing a physical Stoke side on his first league start might be too big a challenge for David Ospina, but Wenger gave the Colombia international another chance after keeping a clean sheet in his last game against Hull.

Another question the media was asking in the run-up to the game was if Arsenal could take revenge on Stoke. The rivalry and animosity between the two clubs has been well documented. Especially, after the humiliating first half of the reverse fixture a month ago, the Gunners needed to make amends for the 3-2 defeat. Although Stoke are one of our bogey teams, our home records are on our side, with 12 wins in a row at the Emirates against the Midland side.  Most pundits, even Jamie Carragher, predicted a home win, but some of the press were still sceptical. In fact, few would have expected such a comfortable win.

The Gunners clearly learnt their lessons from the previous clash with the opposition. They started in a blistering pace and created a series of chances in the opening 5 minutes. Alexis Sanchez and Tomas Rosicky went to close to taking a lead only to be denied by Asmir Begovic's stunning saves, before Arsenal grabbed the lead through Koscielny's powerful header in the 6th minutes. It was all Arsenal, with the Ox and Giroud having goal in their sights, but they fired wide or forced another fine save from Begovic. However, Alexis eventually doubled Arsenal's lead in the 33rd minute after beautifully worked out build-up with Rosicky. The build-up and the goal epitomised the Chilean's qualities: namely tenacity, industry, passion, excellent balance, and technical prowess.

An early second-half goal from Alexis, his 18th of his first season in English football, ensured a victory. After that, we, the supporters, never doubted the three points, but our only concern was keeping a clean sheet. There were even  more positive moments, when Walcott and Özil came on the pitch with warm receptions from the home crowd and us at Doolan's Irish Bar. Who would have thought these two would get run-outs against a physical Stoke side. Both the players were played in on goal, but missed the target.

It was arguably one of our best performances this season. The Gunners were at their fluent best, while the back four looked solid. Although Alexis was obviously the star of the show, the whole team produced a good collective performance. Arsene Wenger's attack-minded approach to the game was spot on, too. In line with his instructions, Arsenal moved the ball quickly to avoid Stoke's close challenges. Nonetheless, it didn't stop Stoke, in particular, Peter Crouch, using their arms. The win against the physical side didn't come at no cost.

Injury to Debuchy overshadowed a great Sunday afternoon. The France right-back only came back last month from a serious ankle injury and the dislocated shoulder could keep him on the sidelines for another lengthy spell. Annoyingly, Marko Arnautovic was not even punished for his needless push on Debuchy. Replays showed that the Stoke midfielder shoved the Frenchman when the ball was already out of play. The FA will not take any action against Arnautovic for his malicious intent to harm a fellow professional as the referee Jon Moss saw the incident and deemed that it was in "a run of play" (he should have another look at the incident in replays). Nacho Monreal also ended up with a cut above the right eye in a clash with Peter Crouch's elbow. The referee did not punish Crouch until 62nd minute.

It was a great win that not only saw us climb the table above Tottenham, but also completed a sweet revenge on Stoke. After all the results earlier, with Tottenham beaten and Swansea and West Ham drawing, we needed all the three points and got the result we wanted. As a result of Southampton's 1-0 victory at Old Trafford, we are now trailing 4th-placed Manchester United by a point. The day's performance made us a little bit more optimistic about Arsenal's trip to the Etihad next weekend.

Players ratings

Ospina: 7
With Stoke registering only 2 shots on target, he had little to do, but did very well towards the end to save Steve Ireland's efforts, which he saw late behind two Arsenal defenders. Two clean sheets in a row was quite encouraging and should boost confidence among the back five. 

Debuchy: 6

Replaced in the 13th minute by Bellerin after being pushed into the hoardings. It is a big blow to lose him again for possibly another long period. You cannot blame Arsenal medical/fitness staff for his two injuries, though.

Mertesacker: 7
Generally solid display, apart from one strange pass/clearance that could have put us in trouble.

Koscielny: 8
Scored his second goal of the season. Surprisingly, Arsenal now have eight headed goals this season. 

Monreal: 8
According to stats-based Whoscored.com, he was the best rated left-back of the Premier League this weekend. He won 4 aerial duels and made 3 tackles, 5 interceptions and 1 key pass. Brave performance after suffering the injury from the clash with Crouch's elbow. Keep fingers crossed that he can stay fit as Gibbs' inflamed ankle does not seem to be healing quickly.

Coquelin: 7

Another strong performance. Won 5 aerial duels and made 2 tackles, 3 interceptions and 1 clearance.

Cazorla: 8

Made 4 tackles and created 3 chances. Made a whopping 89 passes with an impressive 93.3% accuracy. Unlucky not to score when his chipped effort from a tight angle struck the cross bar after connecting to good work by the Ox in the right-hand channel.

Rosicky: 8
Combined beautifully with Alexis to set up the Chilean for Arsenal's second goal. Unlucky not to score when he made a great run into the box in the opening minutes only to have his shot denied by Begovic.

Oxlade-Chamberlain: 7

Had 3 shots which narrowly missed the target. Earned a free-kick that led to Alexis' second goal. Replaced by Walcott in the 67th minute. Another consistent display.

Sanchez: 9
Unanimous Man of the Match, with Whoscored.com giving him 10 out of 10. Provided an assist for Koscielny's goal with an inch-perfect cross immediately after his own poor corner kick. Had 4 shots, 3 of which were on target, and created 5 chances for his team-mates. He was so selfless when he passed the ball to unmarked Walcott despite a chance to complete a hat-trick.

Giroud: 7
Had 2 shots, 1 of which was on target. Unlucky not to score when his well-struck effort drew a superb save from Begovic. On the other occasion, he beat the off-side trap to get in behind the Stoke defence only to blaze his effort wide. He looked ineffectual on the left flank. Subsequently, withdrawn and replaced by Özil in the 72nd minute. 


Bellerin: 8
Replaced injured Debuchy at right-back in the 13th minute. Barring one misplaced pass, he didn't put a foot wrong. Made 3 tackles, including a well-timed crucial tackle in the box, 3 interceptions and 4 clearances. Good going forward, too, making 4 crosses. During Debuchy's absence, we want to see him more in this position rather than playing Calum Chambers out of position.

Walcott: 6
Replaced the Ox in the 67th minute to continue gaining playing time. He should have scored when he had time and space with a clear sight of goal after receiving the perfect ball from Alexis.

Özil: 6
Replaced Giroud in the 72nd minute. Great to have him back from a lengthy lay-off. He had a half-chance when he was unleashed by Cazorla's pass in the right-hand channel, but he fired his right-footed shot over the bar. Showed a glimpse of his class when his astute flick-on released Monreal on the left flank unmarked. It was a promising display in his first appearance in 4 months. Wenger reckons it will take the German playmaker 2 to 3 weeks to gain match fitness. As long as Santi continues to flourish in his favourite No. 10 position, we probably don't need to rush Özil's full return.

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