Stoke City 0-0 Arsenal: Another Solid Performance, Another Goalless Draw
A point away at Stoke. No new injury concerns. Two clean sheets. There were certainly a few positives from yesterday’s goalless draw at the home of lump-that football.
The game was never likely to be a high quality affair, as matches involving Stoke rarely are, and this one certainly went according to type. Arsenal stood up to the physical challenge better than we’ve done in the past but did not possess enough quality in the final third to come away with three points.
Arsene Wenger made a couple of changes from the Sunderland game, dropping Theo Walcott to the bench and bringing on Olivier Giroud. It meant Lukas Podolski moved to the left while Gervinho started on the right flank. The only other change was a forced one, Vito Mannone replacing the not-fully recovered Wojciech Szczesny in goal.
Tony Pulis brought in Geoff Cameron in place of the suspended Dean Whitehead and gave a start to ex-Gunner Jermaine Pennant who started on the right which meant Michael Kightly moved over to the left. Jon Walters and Peter Crouch were the two up front, with the former playing behind the latter and helping out the midfield when Stoke were without the ball.
The match started scrappily but Arsenal took control as the half wore on. There was an early alarm for the defense when Crouch headed a cross for Walters to put into the net but the offside flag was already up. At the other end, Podolski nearly scored after good work by Gervinho and Giroud saw the German burst into the box but his shot was blocked by Wilkinson – with the arm as replays later showed.
There was more good combination play from Arsenal throughout the first half, Santi Cazorla involved in almost every attack of note. Any concerns about how the Little Magician would deal with Stoke’s aggressive tactics were soon laid to rest as the Spaniard rarely allowed the home team to get close enough to the ball to make a tackle. Santi danced his way around the Potters’ midfield, at times jinking his way past players whilst at others trying to pick out the runs of the strikers. He was not shy of shooting when the opportunity arose, a rasping shot in the 34th minute forcing a save from Begovic.
Arsenal’s combination play in the opposition half was good to watch but the Gunners ran out of ideas once they entered the final third. With Stoke players crowding around the penalty area, Cazorla found it difficult to pick team-mates in promising positions and more often than not, Arsenal were forced to make square passes as we attempted to find a way through.
At the end of the first half, Arsenal had monopolized 70% of the possession and taken 8 shots at goal. Tellingly though, only 2 were on target and neither distressed the Stoke keeper too much.
Arsenal came out in the second half minus their rhythm. The game became scrappy as the midfield looked bereft of ideas and the defense came under pressure as Stoke City came more into the game. In the 56th minute, Pennant went down in the penalty box under pressure from Kieran Gibbs. Arsenal were a bit fortunate to get away with it – on another day and with another referee that could easily have been deemed to be a penalty.
Still, it has to be said that what we lacked in quality we made up in endeavor. The full backs and Arteta worked hard to deny any room to Stoke’s wide players and the home team rarely had a sight of Mannone’s goal. As the half went on, Arsenal once again came into the match.
But the game only became stretched once Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain came on to replace Podolski and Gervinho in the 72nd minute. With Stoke bringing on Cameron Jerome in place of Pennant on the Potters’ right, there were now three pacy wingers intent on going forward. This opened up space for both teams but Arsenal seemed to benefit more as the full backs pushed up in support of Walcott and the Ox. In the 74th minute Jenkinson put in a good cross to Diaby in the box but the Frenchman couldn’t quite dig the ball out of his feet in three attempts and tamely shot wide in the end.
Tony Pulis sensed the danger to Stoke’s goal and in the 79th minute replaced Crouch with Shotton. It was a defensive substitution and an indication the Potters were content with a point. Arsene Wenger still had hopes of coming away with three as the manager brought on Ramsey in place of Cazorla with eight minutes to go. Olivier Giroud came close with a spectacular effort from midway in Stoke’s half but his attempt to catch Begovic off his line sailed over. Arsenal piled on some late pressure and earned corner after corner but Stoke’s defense managed to get their heads to the first ball almost every time and the game ended scoreless.
Afterwards, Arsene Wenger admitted the need to sharpen our knives in attack but the Boss is confident it will happen soon.
It is never disastrous to take a point at Stoke but we lack a little bit of oil in our engine in the final third. What looks completely natural when we are at our best still is not there, and we have to work on that.
If you look last year at the teams who allowed the least possession behind their midfield it was Sunderland and Stoke. We played them in the first two games and I have seen much more open games. I don’t deny anyway that we should have scored and that’s what we need to work on.
Our next four matches are against sides that are unlikely to sit back and defend. The extra space will certainly help the likes of Cazorla, Gervinho and Giroud but these players also need to gel quickly. Arsenal can’t afford many more games without putting three points on the board.
Vito Mannone made just the one save and wasn’t severely tested in this game. Nevertheless, he looked assured except for one moment early in the game when he was indecisive coming for a loose ball. Other than that, the Italian displayed good judgement, coming to catch when needed or staying back on his line when defenders were dealing with the situation.
While I still feel Arsenal need another experienced goalkeeper in the squad, Mannone went some way in allaying fears about our options if Szczesny were to be sidelined.
A very good performance at the back. Mertesacker and Vermaelen were strong in the aerial duels while Jenkinson and Gibbs showed plenty of energy in tracking back and getting behind the ball. Although Crouch still won many of the aerial challenges, the Gunners dealt with the knock-downs much more efficiently this time. From set pieces as well, the back four looked organized and Jenkinson and Gibbs both did well to cover the far post favored by Crouch.
It’s still too early to make judgements and we have only played Sunderland and Stoke but Steve Bould’s influence was apparent. All that work on the training ground seems to be paying off as Arsenal dealt with headers with ease. Once Koscielny and Sagna return to the team, Arsenal’s defense will be strengthened even more. And while it’s disappointing not to score in 180 minutes of football this season, both Bouldy and Wenger will be quietly pleased with the two clean sheets.
We’ve already spoken about Cazorla’s influence on the game. The Spaniard continued where he left off against Sunderland and his quick feet will cause problems for many a Premier League team.
Having said that, Arsenal’s midfield did not look sharp enough or incisive enough to break down a hardworking Stoke side. It’s possible Cazorla will enjoy more space against the bigger teams and his growing understanding with the forwards should improve Arsenal’s goal-scoring chances. But the Little Magician needs creative support from midfield and the player we missed most yesterday was Tomas Rosicky.
With a few more games under his belt, Abou Diaby has the potential to offer that support. But right at the moment, the entire burden on creating chances seems to be resting on Arsenal’s new record signing and against two teams prepared to sit deep without the ball, the Gunners have found it hard to crack open rival defenses.
Olivier Giroud did very well on his first start for the club. The Frenchman has a fantastic leap and is stronger than I’d imagined. His hold up play was excellent and his off-the-ball movement was encouraging. Once there’s a better understanding with the likes of Cazorla and Podolski, Giroud will profit from this movement and create more opportunities.
The graphic below shows the different dimension Giroud brings to Arsenal. Whereas Olivier received a number of passes from deep in Arsenal’s half allowing the Gunners to move up the field quickly, Robin van Persie in the same fixture in April did not offer himself as a target at all. Further, RvP did not compete for a single aerial ball against Stoke last time around while the Frenchman was much more involved in this game winning 5 of his 12 duels.
Gervinho was very disappointing especially after the bright showing against Sunderland. Whereas he attempted 20 take-ons at the Emirates, yesterday he only tried twice to take defenders on and failed both times. While his passing was efficient, Gervinho’s value to the team comes from his ability to run at goal. Unfortunately Arsenal missed that dimension from the man with the big forehead yesterday.
Lukas Podolski put in a hard shift contributing as much in defense as in attack. He looked strong and held off challenges quite well while also making driving runs towards the Stoke defense. Arsenal’s best chance fell to him early in the first half and he looks like the player Arsenal have lacked in previous season – a seasoned professional who’s strong and determined.
On the physical side, it’s the first time Arsenal competed equally with Tony Pulis’ Stoke. The height advantage of players like Mertesacker, Jenkinson, Diaby and Giroud certainly helped but so did the work rate and battling qualities of Podolski and Arteta. The team looked more determined in challenges than in previous seasons and that’s a positive sign considering there will be more such tests to come in the future.
From an attacking perspective, Arsenal took 17 shots at goal but 11 of these were off-target while 4 were blocked. With only 2 shots on target, it is hardly surprising we failed to score. Still, if we remain solid at the back Arsenal have every chance of beating teams once the new players settle down.