The reality now is that Arsenal require a minimum of ten points from our next four League games against Sp*rs, Chelsea, Man City and Everton in order to seriously remain in the title race. Yet after a performance like yesterday it’s tough to see how we’ll get half of those required points against the League’s other big hitters, as Jon Walters’ second half penalty secured the points for Stoke City and wrapped up a pretty poor 90 minutes for Arsene Wenger’s men.
It was a performance that was particularly bemusing given it was almost entirely the same team that went out last weekend to convincingly beat Sunderland, bar the forced change of starting Kieran Gibbs in place of the injured Nacho Monreal at left back. The team was also boosted by the return of Mesut Ozil on an attack minded bench.
The game itself was nothing really worth writing about from either side. Arsenal struggled to get going from the off and the first half in particularly was exceptionally low key.
It did, however, feature Arsenal’s only two shots on target. The first a tame header from Olivier Giroud off a Bacary Sagna cross from the right and the second from Santi Cazorla whose low effort from the edge of the area was comfortable enough for Asmir Begovic, when Lukas Podolski was in acres of space to his left. The German himself also saw a good opportunity snatched wide having been put through the left channel by Mikel Arteta.
We were comfortable enough though with Stoke rarely threatening, a Glenn Whelan effort from distance was well saved by Wojciech Szczesny in their only real chance of the half.
But it was the flatness of the visitors that was the main concern during the break, with Arsenal struggling with a lack of pace and any real attacking quality in the final third that would have to be corrected if we were to get anything out of the game.
Stoke started the second half brightly and a Walters header called Szczesny into action before a cross from the right forced the Pole to scramble the ball away inside our area. Peter Crouch found himself unmarked off a free kick from the Stoke left but couldn’t get enough on the ball with his very, very outstretched leg to divert it goal wards.
The lanky tree was involved again after the hour mark as his glanced header towards goal again forced a smart stop from Szczesny and from the resulting corner Geoff Cameron blasted an attempt wide.
This finally prompted Wenger into action and the first of two very overdue substitutions was made to try and spark us into life going forward. Why it took 21 minutes of the second half to bring on Ozil for the invisible Podolski and, perhaps even more criminally, a further nine minutes to bring on arguably our form player over the past four weeks Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain for the seriously struggling Tomas Rosicky I’ll never know.
But by the 75th minute they were both eventually on the pitch to try and kick us into gear and find a win, but before The Ox even had a chance to get on the ball we found ourselves behind as Walters flicked the ball up into the arm of Laurent Koscielny inside our area, and referee Michael Jones had no hesitation in pointing to the spot despite it a) not being at all deliberate and b) coming at him from less than a metre away, giving Kos zero time to get his arm out of the way.
Walters dispatched the penalty coolly and Arsenal frantically threw themselves at the Black Gate of Modor in the final ten minutes, desperate to salvage a point in a game we simply had to win.
Yaya Sanogo came on for the also disappointing Jack Wilshere to add a bit of presence up top, before a series of wasted Arsenal chances saw off the game.
Firstly Ozil struck one wide from the left after a good one-two with Giroud shortly before a free kick just outside the Stoke area was hideously wasted as Cazorla’s roll back for Arteta was inevitably charged down. Why teams persist with this free kick method is beyond me…
The two final chances were both borne out of Oxlade-Chamberlain breaks down the right. His first cut back to Giroud was blocked at close range, before the second, in the 94th minute, fell to Sanogo who snatched at it and fired over from less than ten yards.
That was the chance and that was the moment, unfortunately falling to the most inexperienced player on the pitch. Although you could come up with a solid defence for Sanogo as to why he missed it, due to his inexperience and the whole ‘Wenger not buying any decent backup in January’ etc, you’d still expect a professional footballer at that level to score from that position.
But such was our luck on the day, he didn’t, we didn’t and 1-0 it ended to the home side.
It leaves us four points behind Chelsea and we also fell to third in the League after Liverpool comfortably dispatched of Southampton in a game of similar importance.
Losing is never an enjoyable experience regardless of the opposition, but when it’s against those rugby playing, six fingered, toothless, despicable yet predictable set of orcs (a harsh comparison on orcs, I must say) it makes it all the more worse.
You could easily point the finger at Michael Jones for his softness around the pitch, ignoring a selection of stamps most notably from Charlie Adam on Giroud and also awarding a penalty that defies logic and understanding of the handball in the area rule.
And yes, that was a decision that cost us a point. But what cost us the win was ourselves and we should look no further afield than directly in the mirror when assessing just what went wrong yesterday, from an on field and management point of view.
Yes, Giroud found himself getting kicked around and stamped on, but instead of getting on with it and trying to do what he is paid to do by scoring goals in a football match, he was far more interested in gesticulating to the referee and gaining attention that clearly wasn’t going to get him anywhere in a game away at Stoke.
He got on the end of a couple of crosses and was involved in a few good link ups with the midfield, but aside from that it was another performance to forget from the man who started the season so well, but has really struggled since, despite his two goals last weekend.
Rosicky didn’t have the same effect as he did against Sunderland and was right to be brought off, Podolski was anonymous bar his chance in the first half that he snatched wide, Cazorla was the one trying to pull the strings but couldn’t make anything happen and Wilshere had a very, very poor game with maybe Mathieu Flamini being a better more physical option with hindsight.
It was another tough day too for Mikel Arteta, who has also had a bit of a torrid time of late. His partnerships with Wilshere and Flamini don’t seem to be working and he hasn’t looked comfortable at all since the injury to Aaron Ramsey. Despite a few good long range passes yesterday and the break to set up the Podolski chance, Arteta often found himself closed down and giving away possession or free kicks that allowed Stoke to pile the pressure on to our area. He hasn’t been as metronomic or reliable as he has been in times gone by and he really needs to re-find some form, as concerns about his long-term ability begin to surface.
One of the main post-mortem talking points after yesterday’s result was around the substitutions Wenger made, or more so when they occurred. Wenger’s general reluctance to make any changes much before the 70 minute mark was again at play despite our so obvious need from half time onwards to inject a bit of life and spark into our final third play.
Ozil came on around ten minutes too late (that’s being kind to Podolski) but not brining on Oxlade-Chamberlain until the final 15 minutes was especially baffling. As soon as he came on it made a difference and our two late, late chances were on the back of his breaks down the right.
Having an adaptable Manager willing to go against the grain to get results is fundamental to success in the Premier League and too often we see Wenger stubbornly wait too long to make potentially game winning changes. By contrast, Brendan Rodgers brought on Raheem Sterling for Coutinho yesterday in the 57th minute for Liverpool at Southampton, and almost within 60 seconds Sterling scored to make it 2-0 and secured the points that took Liverpool above us in the League.
Opinions change thick and fast in football and whereas at the start of the year the overwhelming majority of Arsenal supporters were in favour of a contract extension for Wenger, it seems as if the tables are turning again after a poor January transfer window and a bad set of results that has seen us win just two of our last six Premier League games, as well as being schooled by Bayern Munich in the Champions League Last 16 first leg.
The focus now must solely go towards the FA Cup and the quarter final tie against Everton represents our biggest game of the year so far and that’s no exaggeration.
FA Cup success (that means winning it) and a top three finish would still rank as an excellent season and that’s a target which is very achievable if we set our priorities right. That means a full strength side against Everton and writing off the trip to Munich, who will be prepared and won’t allow us to shock them at the Allianz Arena again, as we did so superbly and surprisingly last season.
It’s a positive that we know that in the previous two seasons we’ve got the results we’ve needed at the business end of the campaign to reach our targets. Back then it was to finish fourth. With the same application and form, we can win the FA Cup and maybe even get back in with a shout in the League, if we get the points we need in the next four games as I said at the beginning of this blog.
But performances like yesterday need to be eradicated and corrected at the upmost of importance. Many more, and the good old race for fourth might be all we have left…