It’s never fun when you’re beaten. It’s less fun when you know you’ve played poorly. And when you’ve allowed yourself to be beaten by a side as woeful as Stoke, it’s hard to take.
Although I mentioned their ability to get something in games against big opposition this season, I felt we had more than enough quality in the squad to win this game. As it turned out, we played poorly, particularly from an attacking point of view, and the tightness of margins this season was evident. Most of the time, in these kind of fixtures, we’ve squeezed a win. This time a generous penalty and our overall toothlessness made it a bad day at the office.
The manager kept faith with the team that beat Sunderland (apart from Gibbs playing left-back in place of Monreal), and to an extent I can understand that. When your players rip a team of similar standard apart the temptation must be to give then another go. Where I would take issue is how long we let things go when it was clear they weren’t working.
The first half simply isn’t worth talking about at all. The best we could muster was Podolski lashing a shot wide after good work by Arteta, and a Cazorla shot which was easy for Begovic. Stoke, meanwhile, booted it long, booted and raked Arsenal players with impunity, and we had Wojciech Szczesny to thank for a couple of good saves.
In the second half it was more of the same. Charlie Adam must be made of Teflon as he splodged about the pitch trying to hurt anything in yellow that moved. He was a craven Falstaffian vandal (even by his own high standards in that regard), stomping and trodding on Arsenal players and it was a rare occasion when we got a free kick. But as frustrating as that is, and while we can have genuine complaints about it, we have to look at ourselves for yesterday’s result.
Arsene Wenger put on Ozil for the utterly ineffectual Podolski, but he made little difference, and Oxlade-Chamberlain for Rosicky. But moments after that second change, Stoke were awarded a penalty. For me it was harsh on Koscielny, very much ball to hand and the reason his hand was there was because he was in mid-air challenging that bloke up front who has no neck.
Arsene Wenger described it afterwards as ‘a nice gift’ from referee Mike Jones, but it’s the kind of penalty you get at home. The other thing that had me wondering this morning is whether or not it’s just coincidence that Koscielny is involved in so many penalty concessions. I love the guy and think he’s a fantastic defender but, via Opta, he’s conceded 6 penalties since he joined – more than any other player at any other club.
The bloke with no neck scored and Arsenal had to push for the goals that would keep the title chase alive. We looked better with Oxlade-Chamberlain on the right, and in injury time he combined with Sagna to create the best chance of the game from an Arsenal point of view.
He got to the byline and pulled it back for Yaya Sanogo. From 12 yards the young man had the chance to make a name for himself, instead he put his shot well over the bar. I know he’s young and inexperienced, but he’s also a professional footballer and should be hitting the target at least from there. It’s not to blame him for our defeat, but nor should we make excuses for him. This is top flight football, and perhaps it puts into sharper focus the fact that he’s not the saviour everyone thought after his two decent performances recently.
It also highlights the deficiency in this area of the pitch from an Arsenal point of view. Away from home, against tough opponents, we’re reliant on this kid who looks a long way from ready to be able to contribute. That’s not down to him, that’s down to the manager.
Arsenal had no shots on target in the second half in a game we had to win.
Afterwards, Arsene said:
It is a massive setback of course. In a game like that we didn’t produce the performance that we wanted. To win a title is when you are expected to perform you have to perform it’s as simple as that.
The players were given some time off this week to refocus and get themselves ready for the run-in. I’ve got no issue with that in general, but when it’s followed up by that kind of a performance then maybe we need to rethink it in the future.
Some other things which stood out for me in list order.
Giroud: There’s no excuse for the cowardly stamp by Charlie Adam which should have been a red card. And I fully accept that he was kicked relentlessly by the Stoke defence, but I can’t be the only one frustrated by his lack of response to that kind of treatment. Flicking your fingers and complaining to the referee is pointless, especially on a day like yesterday.
Obviously the best way to respond is to score a goal, but Giroud is 6’3, tall and strong – when’s the last time you remember him really putting himself about? I’m not saying he should resort to the same kind of filth that the Stoke players engaged in, but I want my strapping centre-forward to stand up for himself, not get bullied out of a game by Shawcross and some other no-mark centre-half.
He’s got to be stronger and more resilient than he showed yesterday. The physical treatment works on him because he lets it. He doesn’t refocus his unhappiness into his own performance, he complains and looks outraged but defenders know once that starts they’ve won the battle.
Wilshere: I don’t know if Jack was carrying a knock into this game, but his reluctance to go into certain tackles was obvious throughout the first half. It carried on in the second, and he was a weak link yesterday. I’d have had Flamini on a bit sooner, not least because he’s exactly the kind of player you need when the opposition’s tactics are that physical. He won’t allow himself, or the team, to be pushed around.
Oxlade-Chamberlain: Made an immediate difference when he came on. The old Arsenal failing of trying to do everything through the middle was apparent yesterday. Podolski was yards off the pace on the left, while on the right – whether it was Rosicky or Cazorla – Sagna rarely had an option outside him and, to his obvious frustration, had to keep playing it back into the centre, making it easy for Stoke’s defence to crowd us out.
We need width, we need pace, and we need drive. Oxlade-Chamberlain offers us that and we have to use him there from now on. The manager was a touch conservative yesterday, I thought, and ultimately that contributed to our downfall. Now that things are slipping away from us a bit, I think we’ve got to just go for it, and using a player with his qualities on the right hand side has to be part of that.
Overall, a hugely disappointing day, and if we’re being realistic it’s a result that hammers a few, if not most, nails into our title coffin. We’ve got big games coming up against big teams, and we’re going to have to win them all if we want to keep things alive in the Premier League.
Indeed, things are now so tight there, that we could find ourselves engaging in the now traditional battle for fourth than the actual title-fight itself, and that’s something we need to be very aware of. It’s worrying to see us so limp against a team as poor as Stoke when you consider the opposition we’ve got to come.
We’ve won just 2 of our last 6 games in the Premier League, and unless we find some form again soon, a season that promised so much could end up being one to forget.