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Stoke 3-1 Arsenal : Depressingly familiar

Last weekend Arsenal beat the soon-to-be Champions Man United. They worked hard, played well, raised their game and deserved the three points from that game.

Yesterday, Arsenal lost 3-1 to Stoke City. They were careless, complacent, slipshod and deserved absolutely nothing from the game.

Arsene Wenger Stoke

And it sums this Arsenal team in a nutshell. The big wins, the ones against Chelsea, Barcelona and United which have given us hope and belief in the team’s potential, have all been little more than false dawns. The Chelsea win came on the back of a 1-0 defeat against Man United at Old Trafford. We demanded a response, the team stepped up, did the business, then promptly chucked away a winning position against Wigan in the next game.

The 2-1 Champions League win over Barcelona – the highlight of the season, let’s be honest – was followed by a 1-1 draw against Leyton Orient and very shortly by the calamitous Carling Cup final. I don’t need to remind you that our form has been in the toilet pretty much ever since.

And yesterday, after beating United we faced Stoke. No love lost, plenty to motivate us – not least the desire to finish as high up the table as possible – and we were abject. The first half an hour was pretty dreadful from both teams, the quality of the football as low as I’ve seen in the Premier League this season. We had lots of the ball and did little with it, Stoke were happy to gift it back to us knowing we were about as dangerous as a team of stoned kittens.

The carelessness in attack was then augmented by a carelessness in defence. After making a very good tackle on Pennant, Arshavin’s subsequent decision to then push him over was just stupid, especially as we know Stoke are dangerous from set-pieces and we, frankly, can’t defend them to save our lives. Pennant crossed, nobody made the header, Jones had gotten the wrong side of Djourou far too easily, and he just let the ball bounce off him to score. He didn’t even have to try, that’s how easy it was.

Carelessness in midfield gave Stoke possession, Pennant ran at our defence who backed off, he let fly and the ball soared in to make it 2-0. Perhaps Szczesny should have done better with it but it was a decent hit aided by a small deflection. The defending, or lack of it, would test the patience of a saint though.

At half-time Arshavin and Ramsey were replaced by Bendnter and Chamakh. The former was stuck out on the left wing, where he at least tried to make things happen, but you can’t help but question the manager when he continues to play a physical centre-forward as a wide man. The latter showed just why he hasn’t been playing. When it opened up for him just outside the box he inexplicably ran over the ball, then attempted a shot that took an age to dribble wide. Pathetic.

There was a bit of niggle between Pennant and Wilshere which was about as interesting as we got until Robin van Persie slammed a right footed shot home to make it 2-1 with about 10 minutes to go. Another West Brom salvage job? Not at all. The defending got worse. Djourou’s attempted clearance from a weak Stoke shot fell kindly for Walters and he put us out of our misery (or into more misery) just a minute after we’d scored. The defensive and mental frailties of this team encapsulated once again. The big Swiss has been excellent this season but he’s now had a couple of real stinkers, costly stinkers at that.

Not that it’s his fault alone, far from it, there’s a fundamental weakness in this team from a defensive point of view and Arsene’s post-game comment are, frustrating, to say the least. Quizzed on the number of set-piece goals we’ve conceded he said:

We have conceded, I think, 21 from set-pieces and only 17 in open play. That is something we have to correct. It is the easiest thing to correct in the game but you still must understand the flight of the ball and want to be first to the ball. I feel we are sometimes a bit naïve.

Ok, the very obvious questions is: if it’s the ‘easiest thing to correct in the game’, why haven’t we corrected it? Why have we neglected to put right something that has been wrong for a long time? Why has this not been a priority? Why, if it’s so easy, do we keep making the same mistakes again and again? Have you tried correcting it and are they just not listening or not doing what they’re told? If that’s the case, it raises all kinds of other questions about the quality of our coaching and the players belief in what they’re being told.

And what’s this understanding the flight of the ball nonsense? Generally speaking, they don’t swerve and bend like Liam Brady at White Hart Lane. The ball comes in and the defender’s job is to make sure he gets there before the man he’s marking. It’s not always easy, it requires some judgement and reading of the game, but more importantly it requires aggression, strength and determination. Understand the flight of the ball? Give me strength. Just get there first, stick your head on it, job done.

Our lack of consistency has been a major bone of contention too. The manager says:

That’s the Premier League. If you do not turn up with the same competitive spirit in every game you can lose games everywhere.

Another obvious question: Why are the team motivated enough to do well against Chelsea, Man United and Barcelona, but seemingly unable to motivate themselves, or be motivated, for games against Stoke, Sunderland, West Brom, Newcastle, Bolton etc etc? Do we have a group of players who think the effort required to win games like those is beneath them somehow? Do we have a manager who can only get them up for games against quality opposition yet cannot motivate them sufficiently to win the bread and butter games which win you trophies?

Why do we turn up without the same competitive spirit in every game? Why is it that we speak about the Chelsea performance being the blueprint for success but the team seem to think that kind of high-energy, pressing game is not necessary the rest of the time?

Yesterday, Stoke didn’t even have to play that well. They didn’t bully us, they didn’t put us under any great pressure, they just had to want it a little bit more than us and we gifted them the game. We looked like a team going through the motions, happy enough that a top three place was more or less secure, and a team that couldn’t wait for this season to be over.

The fans were up for this game because of what happened last season and because we wanted to see them build on last week’s performance against United. The team were not up for this game, for whatever reason, and it’s thoroughly depressing and really not good enough, I’m afraid. Not least because yesterday wasn’t any surprise, it didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know about them, their quality of their character and the flaws which have been apparent all season.

Changes need to be made this summer, no question, but performances like yesterday’s speak to me of deeper lying problems than the transfer market can solve.

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Fan of Arsenal, Robert Pires and most everything to do with rum and whiskey. Writer, podcaster, ace flintknapper, sluggish centre-half. Smiter of those that ought to be smote.