It’s measure of how assured our defensive performance was that at no stage did I feel the usual flutters of nervousness during yesterday’s game. Normally Stoke are a team – much as we dislike them – that cause us real problems. From set-pieces or throw-ins, or even on the break, we find them difficult to cope with. Not yesterday.
Perhaps it’s the influence of Steve Bould, perhaps these are just players more focused and aware of the defensive part of the game, but we handled them better than any other time we’ve visited their stadium. Apart from a couple of moments when they booed Aaron Ramsey for hurting poor Shawcross’s foot with his shin, and a couple of rounds of ‘Same old Arsenal, always cheating’ after their players fouled ours, the crowd were as quiet as field mice. They might have urged each other to ‘do the Wenger’ (a silly dance with a mask on, not revolutionising a football club whilst speaking 5 languages and not having the IQ of a shoe), but in the end Arsenal’s solidity shut them right up.
Some will suggest that Mikel Arteta’s increased defensive responsibility robs us of creativity in the midfield and to some extent I agree with that. I think he’s got more to offer further up the pitch but for now he’s being asked to do a job and he is doing it impeccably. At one point in the second half we saw the best of both sides of his game when he won the ball deep in our half, held off some Stoke challenges and set Arsenal free down the left hand side, resulting in a corner. But ultimately he’s playing as the deepest of the three midfielders and his tackling, awareness and discipline is outstanding.
I thought we controlled the game from there, set upon a very steady platform provided by the back four. Both full backs were excellent and while Crouch had some joy in the air against Mertesacker and Vermaelen, the fact we were switched on and won so much of the second ball is why Stoke never built any kind of momentum at all. And it was, I have to say, enjoyable to see an Arsenal team look so strong in that particular area. For too long we’ve had a glass chin when we play teams like this and we more than matched them physically, which was great. There seemed to be a resolve within the side that hasn’t always been there in the past and that’s very encouraging.
As was the fact that we dominated the game because of it. Stoke were confined to the occasional break and long throw (it was interesting to note that more than once they eschewed that option when it seemed the best one. Perhaps Pulis wants to change the perception of his team but if so it’s at the expense of one of their real strengths). There were pre-game fears about Vito Mannone but the Italian had a solid game and dealt with everything well and confidently.
Where we struggled was in the final third, lacking the cutting edge required to cut Stoke open. There were some moments, Cazorla was involved in most of them and his willingness to shoot from distance is something that I’m very happy to see. You can see him looking for an opening rather than a lateral pass and that’s a positive in a team which needs to break free of its final third conservatism, something the manager is aware of and says will come when the new players bed in a bit more and hard work is done on the training ground.
It was notable that one of our most dangerous moments came when Podolski dropped deep, picked it up and ran directly at the Stoke defence. It was only a crude challenge on the edge of their box which stopped him. Olivier Giroud didn’t get off the mark but I thought his performance was a real positive. Yes, his decision to shoot late on when Ramsey was steaming through the middle was the wrong one, but he worked his socks off, gave Huth and Shawcross a hell of a game physically, and worked really hard for the team, competing in the air and chasing things down right to the final whistle.
Another game without a goal will have papers dishing out the old ‘van Pursestrings’ line and dismissing the quality of those who have come in to replace him, but I think the issue is as Wenger, and even Mikel Arteta spoke about, more to do with these player settling in to a new team than any fundamental problem with their ability. Like it or not, it does take time to gel, to get to know your teammates and so on. We might be slightly further down the road if we’d had a real pre-season fixture between the end of the Asia tour and FC Koln game (a full 12 days), but I think both Podolski and Giroud will come good and prove effective signings (although I don’t expect either to become as important as yer man that left, and that’s probably a good thing in terms of the team).
Where I felt we had a real issue yesterday was with the wide men and it’s an area I would really love the manager to spend some money before Friday. For me both Walcott and Gervinho are essentially the same player. Quick, and on their day effective when they get their ducks in a row (or the ducks are lined up for them), but both lack the creative nous and craft in the final third to really make things happen when we need them. The Walcott for Gervinho change was like getting fed up of eating a ham sandwich every day for lunch and swapping it for a ham sandwich with the crusts cut off.
I think both of them can add something to the squad – even if it’s hard not to think Walcott’s place on the bench and his contract issues aren’t related – but perhaps more than anywhere else this is a position where we could really improve the first team with a good signing. Who that player is I don’t know, it’s up to the manager and scouts to decide that. Jesus of Navas might be the one to save us, but if we had someone who could offer more end product and a bit of unpredictability in the final third then I think we’d be a better side for it.
We come back to Arteta and maybe the addition of another midfielder who can carry out those defensive duties (and it doesn’t have to be specifically a D … urgh … M!) might free him up to move forward, but we could also target a player like Sahin who would perhaps provide the creative link between Arteta and his fellow Spaniard. Either way, I think a signing here and one to add some real quality to our wide positions would be fantastic additions.
I said in my season preview that I felt our ability to challenge for the title was dependent on the quality of the players we’d bring in before the transfer window closes, and I stand by that. With the right players added to what looks to me a very solid squad then I think there’s enough to be encouraged about already and thus no reason why we shouldn’t be in the mix come the final stages of the season. But obviously finding and purchasing those players is key.
Arsene Wenger’s teams are known for their attacking play, not their defensive-mindedness, but after a season in which we conceded 49 goals it’d be a foolish man who would complain after we’ve tightened things up. The tightening does seem to have come at the expense of some of our attacking verve and the task now is to find a better balance. If we can add the right level of creativity to the defensive platform, and things begin to click with the new arrivals, then it looks positive to me. Two draws aren’t ideal, obviously, but two clean sheets are and ultimately we’re just a point worse off than Man United (a team that has shipped three goals in their first two games).
I suspect with the transfer window closing on Friday it’s going to be a busy week at the club. I expect more departures than arrivals, but it’ll be those who come in who will help shape our season. We look good at the back but faltering up front, that’s what we need to address and fingers crossed that’s exactly what we’ll do.