Arsene Wenger is known as an attacking coach, but it’s intriguing how parts of his philosophy, guided by pragmatism, are often overlooked. For example, Arsenal don’t really create the same passing angles other attacking sides might – stretching the pitch laterally, dropping a midfielder in between the centre-backs – with the ball at the back (sometimes to the team’s detriment when they’re pressed). Wenger trusts the ball-playing ability of his defenders, while his philosophy is to have the ball up the pitch as much as possible so, quite often, the goalkeeper is implored just to kick the ball long if in trouble.
He’s also fixated on shape and distances, usually looking to get his team in “two banks of four” (for want of a better term) and press only circumstantially. Against Stoke City, the pragmatic side of Arsenal’s game came to the fore as The Gunners prevailed 3-1.
In the first-half, Arsenal played great football, getting the ball into the midfield very quickly. The understanding between Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil was important again as they found each other 24 times – theirs was the most fruitful combination for the third game running. Arsenal’s passing was quite impressive considering the man-marking job Mark Hughes normally sets his side to when facing The Gunners. He did so again with the deepest midfielder, Mathieu Flamini, never allowed space when Arsenal had the ball at the back. Yet, judging by the previous games, getting tighter on Ozil and Ramsey, who dropped deep to collect possession instead, may have been the obvious option.
Blocking the easy pass out may have worked to some extent, however, as Wojciech Szczesny frequently opted to his the ball long when under a bit of pressure. The centre-backs, Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny did spread wide but considering the jitters it gives the Emirates crowd, perhaps it was the wise option. Besides, Olivier Giroud has become a reliable outlet for the aerial ball now.
In the second-half, however, something strange happened. Arsenal ceded possession completely to Stoke City, with the away side making 279 passes compared to Arsenal’s 130. Much of that may be down to stamina and fitness-levels as Arsenal’s passing grew increasingly sloppy, but also the team tapping up subconcious reserves to protect the lead. Certainly, the same focus and determination was displayed when Arsenal defeated Spurs 1-0 “We did it today, with two different halves,” said Wenger. “The first that was fluent, the second was a bit more down to desire and will than to fluency.”
Mathieu Flamini has been key to that, energetically encouraging his team-mates to remain alert and disciplined. He’s technically better than given credit for but essentially it’s his leadership qualities Wenger has brought him on for. Mikel Arteta will probably come back into the starting XI regardless but the manager will be encouraged to see that his presence hasn’t really altered the technical balance of the team. “He’s got what is needed in every team,” said Wenger. “I wouldn’t say we lacked that as much as people say but he is of course important for the balance of the team that we have players with his qualities.”
In the end, Arsenal were indebted to the quality of Mesut Ozil’s set-pieces. His delivery created Arsenal’s second and third goals, while his free-kick was parried straight to the path of Aaron Ramsey for the first. It was refreshing to Arsenal to take advantage of such situations, especially against a team who normally deal such damage as Stoke, but it probably for now, it didn’t answer how Arsenal would fare without Theo Walcott.
In his place Serge Gnabry did a solid job, especially defensively, but his propensity to roam meant Arsenal lacked a runner behind. That was in effect, alleviated by Arsenal’s superb combination play, although with Ozil so influential they might have undertaken a different type of reliance. Olivier Giroud might have offered more in that respect, either by running into the channels more to create space for others or being a threat behind himself. He has been so good acting as a pivot to bump passes off, but the next step is probably to play across the frontline to create more space for runners.
As it is, Arsenal did just enough to deserve the three points, although it’s never been Wenger’s style.