Stoke Review: Arsenal Show Steel To Earn Point
Premier League 2011-2012 / Game 36 / Britannia Stadium
Stoke City 1 (Crouch 9)
Arsenal 1 (Van Persie 15)
It was expected to be a tough test. And so it proved. But Arsenal acquitted themselves well at the Britannia yesterday. A point keeps third place firmly in our grasp, as elsewhere the Latics grounded high-flying Newcastle United with a 4-0 thrashing.
Before I launch into the review, it has to be said that the boos for Aaron Ramsey from Stoke fans were absolutely disgusting. It is exactly the sort of classless behaviour which has made the Potters among the most hated clubs in the country. On top of that, their constant barracking of Arsene Wenger suggested that the small team mentality evident in their footballing style has now extended to the stands as well.
Both teams started with the eleven I had predicted in the preview post. The only differences were that Gervinho took Walcott’s place on the right and Benayoun started on the left, where as Jon Walters played to the right of Peter Crouch for Stoke.
If Arsenal had hoped for a different approach from the Potters this time around, that notion was dispelled after the sixth second as the home team thumped a long ball forward into the visitors half, under no duress whatsoever. But the Gunners looked determined from the very start. There were a couple of early chances for Benayoun and Robin van Persie which were not capitalised on.
At the other end, Stoke scored with their first meaningful attack of the match. Etherington’s cross from the left found Crouch at the far post, and the bean stalk easily beat Vermaelen and Gibbs to head past Szczesny into the bottom corner. At this point, it seemed like a bit of same-old same-old.
But conceding an early goal did not deter Arsenal, if anything it seemed to lift us a little. The ball was being passed around quickly and the Gunners looked threatening going forward. There was an opportunity when Gibbs sent in a tempting cross, but it was cleared by the Stoke defense. Aaron Ramsey also tried a left footer which went past Begovic’s right post.
The equalizer arrived in the 15th minute and it was well deserved. Benayoun worked hard and hustled Shotton off the ball before passing to Rosicky on the inside. The Czech had a couple of touches, looked up and then curled a right footed cross perfectly into the path of Robin van Persie at the far post, who guided it home. Goal drought ended, 1-1 and game on.
Arsenal dominated the rest of the first half and created a few more good opportunities. The best of these was a terrific whipped in cross by Bacary Sagna into the path of Gervinho, but the Ivorian seemed a little hesitant to run into Begovic and missed the header.
The Gunners were playing with good purpose. Benayoun and Rosicky were working hard and behind them, Ramsey and Song kept shifting the ball with pace, not allowing Stoke to close down. Van Persie played quite deep on occasions, almost as an extra midfielder, which gave Arsenal more bodies to control the ball in midfield. At the other end, we did not allow Stoke a single shot, on or off target, from the 10th to the 43rd minute of the match.
The second half was a slightly more even affair. The first big opportunity fell to RvP from yet another Sagna cross but the captain headed straight at the goalkeeper. There were a couple of nervous moments at the back for us as well, particularly one very short back pass from Gibbs which was just cleared by Szczesny. For a while, the game became scrappy with neither team able to assert supremacy.
Abou Diaby came on in place of Aaron Ramsey in the 73rd minute. Soon after his arrival, Benayoun burst into the box to meet a Van Persie cross and was clearly pushed by Whelan. Chris Foy waved play on. After the match, Arsene Wenger said that the penalty denial “will go on the tape of all the penalties we have not got this season.” I have to agree with him, there as a definite push and it was a definite penalty.
Marouane Chamakh made a rare appearance with 10 minutes to go and did quite well in holding the ball up. But we crossed only four times during that period and failed to find him on any of those four occasions. Santos came on a few minutes later and tried to inject some Brazilian flair to our attack – but the winner never materialized.
In terms of the performance, Arsenal’s defense did a good job of containing Peter Crouch from open play situations. While we won only 10 of the 28 aerial duels, there was always enough pressure put on the attacking player to not allow dangerous situations to develop. Szczesny had a good game, making a couple of smart saves but also coming out to collect or punch the ball away, which eased pressure on the back-line.
Vermaelen and Koscielny did their part in ensuring Crouch and Walters did not get much room to work in. The full-backs supported attacks and provided good width. I was particularly impressed with Kieran Gibbs once again, he kept Pennant under wraps and always looked a threat going forward.
While Aaron Ramsey and Alex Song did not always retain possession of the ball, they did attempt and complete the highest and second highest number of passes in the game (Ramsey 58 of 68 / Song 54 of 67). The Welshman looked better in this game than against Chelsea, even though his pass completion rate is not as good. Both he and Song worked hard to regain the ball and stop attacks from developing.
Yossi Benayoun was his usual industrious self on the left side. It was his pressing that led to the equalizer. He also supported Van Persie on the edge of the box. At the other end, Gervinho was lively and ran at defenders at every opportunity. Robin van Persie looked rejuvenated after the tired performances against Wigan and Chelsea. He held the ball up well, dropped deep to link play and scored the all important equalizer.
Man of the match for me though, was Tomas Rosicky. Besides providing the goal assist, the Czech midfielder created the most chances (4), had the best pass completion percentage (87%) and made the most passes in the final third (20 of 27).
From a tactical perspective, there was another aspect of our play yesterday that I found very pleasing. It was the number of long passes that we attempted. The graphic below shows the long passes from yesterday’s game and from the corresponding fixture last year. As you can see, we attempted more than twice the number of long passes in this game than we did last year.
While the completion rate is lower, it shows a definite attempt to move the ball faster up the field and keep building pressure on the opposition. It also keeps the Stoke backline on their toes and honest, and they have to guard against a long ball that can bypass the pressing midfield players.
Although three points would have been ideal, I have to admit I am happy with a point from this game. In the end, it was not such a war of attrition as was anticipated and that is a credit to the performance of the team. Importantly as well, we seem to have arrested the little slide in form and the players will now await Norwich with renewed confidence.
Post match, Arsene Wenger had this to say:
Overall we deserved at least a point and I can only give credit to my players for their battling qualities and the way they responded to what Stoke offered us – full commitment, well-organised, direct. We did not always cope with it but today I felt we did.
The manager seemed to share the relief at coming away with a point and was in good form answering questions post-match. On the booing of Aaron Ramsey, he felt there was no cause for Stoke fans to engage in such behavior. When asked about his own relationship with Stoke City fans (who were constantly insulting and abusing him), he came out with a Wenger gem:
They have a relationship with me but I don’t have one with them!
The fact that the manager is so relaxed after the game is a clear indication of the value of this point. We should now be able to carry the good form we showed today into the last two games of the season and finish third in the table – we can then cheer Bayern Munich without apprehension come 19th May!
Your views welcome. Back tomorrow with analysis of another Arsenal loanee. Ta.