By Shane Thomas
STOKE 0-0 ARSENAL
Expect many people to state that the spectre of the departed Robin Van Persie will continue to loom over Arsenal, as they failed to score for the second successive game. The 0-0 draw against Stoke may frustrate Gooners, but there was enough from the game to suggest that this latest squad possesses a quality not seen at the club for a good few seasons.
Arsenal's problem in dealing with Stoke in previous seasons, has been finding a way to handle the physicality of the Potters, especially with their set-pieces and long throw-ins. However, Tony Pulis left both Ryan Shotton and Rory Delap on the bench, giving Arsenal one less form of aerial bombardment to worry about.
However, the threat of long balls to the totemic Peter Crouch remained. But unlike earlier visits to the Britannia Stadium, where Arsenal seemed to be clueless of how to defend efficiently, they turned up with a clear plan and a tenacious attitude.
The first step was how to handle Asmir Begovic's goal kicks. One of Stoke's key attacking outlets is for Begovic to hit Crouch with a long ball, with the intention to reach a teammate - usually Jon Walters - with the flick-on. So Abou Diaby was tasked to drop on Crouch whenever this occurred. While Diaby didn't win all of these aerial duels, his height often prevented Crouch from directing his headers with any proficiency.
Added to this, Arsenal pressed the ball intelligently, and with alacrity. They forced Stoke into mistakes when in possession, which not only kept a large deal of pressure off of the back four and Vito Mannone (pressed into emergency service in goal), but it allowed Arsenal to dominate possession.
Most of the attacking threat came through the lively Santi Cazorla, ably supported by Diaby and Mikel Arteta. However, the cutting edge that seemed to be absent from last weekend's match against Sunderland remained. Both Olivier Giroud and Lukas Podolski failed to turn promising opportunities into clear goalscoring chances.
The second half was a more turgid affair. Early season rustiness may have been an issue, as Cazorla's influence faded. Arsenal's passing became increasingly ragged, which allowed Stoke more opportunities to threaten on the counter.
However, the home side were dreadful on the ball, giving Crouch and Walters little to work with. They often tried to attack down their right-hand side, which almost bore fruit, as the one occasion former Gunner, Jermaine Pennant escaped the attentions of Kieran Gibbs, he went down in the penalty area, and for my money, was unlucky not to be awarded a penalty.
Despite this, Arsenal ended the game stronger. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain offered more energy on the left flank than Podolski, but Gervinho was at his most maddening. At least against Sunderland, he was beating his opponent before giving the ball away. Against Stoke, he couldn't even manage that.
I'd expect there to be a degree of talk over Giroud's failure to open his account for Arsenal. But looking at his physical stature, and his performance, I don't think he was ever purchased to be a lethal goalscorer. The combative nature of Stoke allowed him to show his strength to hold the ball up, and his intelligence to link play with the midfield.
One of Arsenal's problems in previous contests with Stoke has been losing possession near the penalty area. Giroud gave the Gunners a constant reference point when attacking, and was pivotal in the 67% of the ball Arsenal had in the match. The five aerial duels he won was only surpassed by Diaby and captain, Thomas Vermaelen.
This isn't to overlook his profligacy. He failed to hit the target with any of his three attempts at goal, and should have done better when unmarked from a Cazorla corner. Arsene Wenger was enraged when he tried to chip Begovic late on, after Aaron Ramsey had made a great run into space. However, I would mitigate this by stating that Giroud's effort was a sublime piece of improvisation, which had Begovic beaten, only just missing the target. The fact that he had the confidence to attempt such a difficult skill bears well for him in future games.
Heart and Spirit
Arsenal's lack of potency remains a concern, but shouldn't be a harbinger of panic. The fact remains that Arsenal still have enough attacking talent to score on a regular basis, but the instinctive sharpness that comes with playing with teammates often takes at least a month to forge. The upcoming fixtures are not kind to the Gunners, but the doom-mongers should keep their powder dry for now.
What is a source of solace however, is the resilience and concentration Arsenal showed when put under pressure. The tactic of nullifying Crouch with Diaby showed a degree of nous that has been sorely lacking in recent seasons. They defended set-pieces with a similar determination, with crucial defensive headers from Giroud, Vermaelen, and an impressive Per Mertesacker helping to preserve the clean sheet.
Added to that, Arsenal did a good job in winning many of the 50/50 battles. And not just from the more established names. Seeing the likes of Gibbs and Diaby hold firm under strong tackling evinced a heart and spirit which, in the face of marquee names leaving, is paramount to for the club to progress.
Arsenal many not be firing on all cylinders (or any cylinders right now), but this was just the kind of game they would have lost in seasons past. The fact that they earned a point, and in relative comfort, shows that this a new Arsenal, a more mature Arsenal. Maybe in time, it will be an even better Arsenal.
Mannone - 7, Jenkinson - 7, Mertesacker - 8, Vermaelen - 7, Gibbs - 6, Arteta - 7, Diaby - 7, Gervinho - 4 (Walcott-6), Cazorla - 7 (Ramsey - 6), Podolski - 5 (Oxlade Chamberlain - 6), Giroud - 6
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