1) Arsenal’s Brit-phobia continues
It was supposed to be the match where Arsenal finally conquered their Britannia Stadium hoodoo once and for all. The Gunners were in the unfamiliar position of still being in the thick of the title race by March, while many feel that this Stoke side lacks the bite and aggression of the Pulis era.
That wasn’t what transpired over 95 minutes on Saturday however, as the Potters proved the better side and once again sent Arsene Wenger and his charges scurrying back to North London with their tails well and truly between their legs.
The bad blood between the sides ensured a raucous atmosphere from the get-go, but on the pitch the first half was a curiously flat affair for what was supposedly a grudge match, with neither side exactly catching fire. Some of our play in the final third was very tidy, with Marko Arnautovic looking purposeful when he was able to get on the ball and Erik Pieters providing able support, frequently getting beyond the Austrian. As usual though, that final killer ball just wasn’t there, and our best chance of the half came from the rather unlikely source of Glenn Whelan, who, teed up by Arnautovic, smashed one on target (!) from 20-odd yards, forcing a full-stretch save from Szczesny.
On other occasions though, those same old problems were again on display. There was some very odd decision-making when we had the ball at the back, with Asmir Begovic and the centre backs tempted to play the ball into dangerous areas where the recipients were immediately closed down. There was also an inordinate amount of, for want of a better term, fannying about unnecessarily rather than getting the ball up the pitch and away from danger. Up front meanwhile, the lack of movement was again a concern.
Yet we were not punished by an insipid Arsenal, who created very little themselves and lacked incision. Other than Lukas Podolski’s rushed, spooned shot that went wide, their best opportunity came when Santi Cazorla was allowed to run through unchecked, but his effort was easy for Begovic.
The second half was much feistier, and referee Mike Jones, who hasn’t always been our best buddy in the past, had a fairly sensible game. There were a number of challenges and incidents that arguably crossed the line into the realms of ‘naughty’ (of course, those perpetrated by Arsenal players have been largely glossed over by the media, as they don’t fit the narrative), but could just as easily be filed under ‘clumsy’. It’s not clear which of these categories Charlie Adam’s stroll along Olivier Giroud’s ankle or foot-first jump into Arteta fell into, nor Tomas Rosicky’s late lunge that caught a marauding Erik Pieters in full flight.
We started to look more dangerous as the game wore on. Adam and Arnautovic provided good service into Crouch, who had two decent chances. One of these saw the big man glance a header that Szczesny tipped round the post, the other one he chose bizarrely to attack with his foot when it was begging for a header. A goalmouth scramble presented Geoff Cameron with a sight of goal right in the middle of the penalty area, but the ball just came out to him too quickly, and he poked high and wide.
Despite our huffing and puffing, a 0-0 seemed on the cards until Jon Walters ran onto a Crouch knock-down and attempted to flick the ball into the box past Laurent Koscielny, bouncing onto the Frenchman’s raised, outstretched hand in the process. Though there’s been a furore over Jones’ subsequent award of a spot kick, with the ‘must be deliberate’ aspect of the law being quoted ad nauseum, but it was the kind of incident that refs do tend to award penalties for and there was no need for Koscielny to have his arm in that position. With Adam off the pitch, Walters snatched the ball up and took the kick himself, sweeping it into the bottom corner to give us the lead with 15 minutes to go.
Arsenal introduced Özil, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Sanogo and the three subs did make them look marginally more dangerous, with Özil bursting into the box and firing wide and Sanogo missing a glorious chance when he shot over from close range. Yet that was the sum total of the Gunners’ threat.
During a mystifying five minutes of injury time Arsenal cranked up the pressure and we defended magnificently, holding out fairly comfortably in the end to garner three points that our team performance thoroughly warranted.
2) The bearpit did its job
There was a school of thought that said it was time to move on from the feud between the two clubs – and put everything from the toxicity of the Ramsey/Shawcross incident to the programme seller in 1972 and everything in between firmly in the past.
That’s a sensible, noble, grown-up approach…that was shown by Saturday’s game to be totally the wrong one.
We chose to embrace the edge that this fixture brings and it provided a critical advantage. Our hostility towards Arsenal, ratcheted up by the usual bilge in the media in the build-up and by Wenger’s traditional attempt to influence the referee days before, ensured everyone was well and truly pumped up well before kick off. There was a bit of a cup final vibe, with kids waving flags surrounded the pitch and the big screen showing all of our goals against the Gunners in the Premier League era.
The crowd was loud from the outset, with Wenger getting some well-deserved stick and booming tributes to Ryan Shawcross from the first whistle, while the booing when Arsenal had the ball seemed to contribute to their subdued performance. At their best, in their comfort zone, Arsenal are capable of playing some irresistible, flowing one-touch football, but they never came close to finding their stride at the Brit, were second to everything, and looked like they couldn’t wait to go home.
If a lifeless first half quietened everyone down a bit, the home support came literally roaring back when the game came to life after the break, with the team urged forward and given terrific backing, with a liberal sprinkling of abuse for the visitors as well, from references to Özil’s aquatic appearance to classics like ‘he didn’t see that’ and ‘doing the Wenger’. There was an energy in the team’s performance and in the stands that was in perfect synchronicity. Conversely, nary a peep was heard from Arsenal’s posse of travelling librarians, but then their team didn’t give them a lot to shout about.
I’m generally pretty sceptical about how big a part the crowd plays in football, having seen us lose at home in successive seasons to Millwall before an empty away stand and a Wimbledon side in its death throes who brought fewer supporters than you’d find in your average bus queue. But on Saturday it definitely seemed to have an impact on both sides – in very different ways.
3) Take a bow, Jon Walters
Though his continued selection continues to be a source of contention among fans, Jon Walters again showed the zeppelin-sized bags of character he possesses with a typically indefatigable, matchwinning display.
Most of us felt queasy when he picked up the ball to take the penalty he himself had won, but he is nothing if not fearless, and though his spot kick - placed, not blasted as normal - wasn’t the cleanest strike, it was enough, with the keeper going the wrong way.
This kind of game, in which the bullying of big sides is required, is right up Walters’ street, as he proves a muscular irritant to opposing full backs, particularly in the air. It was nevertheless curious that in the first half we seemed determined to attack predominantly down our right, where JW’s lack of pace meant he rarely had the beating of Gibbs, especially since Arnie was looking a lot more threatening down the left.
Still, he did manage to find space at times and was always available for Crouch and Cameron to look for, and it was his well-timed run beyond Crouch that led to the penalty. He also did a strong job defensively, throwing himself into blocks and challenges high up the pitch and driving forward on the counter as best he could. Nobody on the pitch made more interceptions, and only three players made more tackles.
I still think that his gradual phasing out will be one of the first genuine signs of ‘pushing on’, and even now you wonder if there’s a place for him in games against the lesser lights where the onus is on us to unlock their defence. But Walters is one of the good guys, and in this age of the here today, gone tomorrow ‘stepping stone’ generation of player that clubs like us increasingly have to embrace, he, like Wilko and Shawcross, is a throwback to the days when there was a clearer connection between player and fans, and that’s why, even on his worst day, the vicious slating of him from some quarters just makes me sad.
Well played Jon. Still, let someone else take the next pen, eh?
4) Fine performances all over the pitch, but Arnautovic stood out
This wasn’t quite up there with our best wins over Arsenal, like the two 3-1s or the Olofinjana stumbling winner game. Yet it was a match where grit and strength were the primary ingredients required, and those were delivered throughout the side. We’ve come to expect excellence from Begovic and Shawcross as standard, the former being as dependable as ever, the latter again leading, directing, stopping and even playing one sumptuous 60-yard pass in behind the defence to Arnautovic.
Yet others stepped up the plate as well. Glenn Whelan had another very good game - a barbarian in the tackle, sweeping up at the base of midfield and playing some good forward passes into space for the likes of Walters and Cameron. Steven Nzonzi too was more positive, shielding the ball expertly and bringing it forward with real purpose. No Stoke player made more passes and the moment where he protected the ball just outside his own box and pivoted, taking three Arsenal players out of the game before setting off on the counter attack, was sublime. We also saw his importance his height brings in the middle as he won numerous aerial duels – only Crouch won more. At a time when question marks have again appeared over his future, he reasserted his status as the best midfielder at the club.
As you’d expect from our first clean sheet for 12 games, our defending was impressive throughout. Marc Wilson has had a tough time of things of late, his lapses costing us several goals, but he was every bit as good as his captain against Arsenal, showing his flinty side in sticking tight to Giroud and reading the game expertly. After Nzonzi and Whelan he was our most consistent passer.
We also saw arguably Erik Pieters’ finest game in a Stoke shirt. I’ve not always been convinced by the Dutchman but this was a textbook full back performance, as he regularly and intelligently got forward to support Arnie but was also a marvel at the back, making more tackles than anybody else and matching Walters in terms of making the most interceptions.Jones’ worst decision was the joke of a yellow card he dealt out to him for what was a fierce but brilliantly-timed challenge on Giroud.
Peter Crouch might not be a fan of the lone striker role, but once again performed selflessly in toiling away up front, acting as a final-third fulcrum for the three behind him to play off. Not only did he win loads of the knock-downs that are his bread and butter, but he also looked to bring the ball down and lay it off, pulled wide to make space for the likes of Adam and generally made sure the ball stuck to him high up the pitch. It was an important, unsung job and his commitment to it could not be questioned.
Arnautovic meanwhile, deserves to be singled out for praise. This blog has been critical of his insufficient contribution in many games this season but he has finally started to come into his own. His delivery has improved dramatically, with one dazzling curved cross in for Crouch being particularly good, and his touch is superb. He popped up all over the place, probing for space and making angles for himself and others, and is full of good ideas and ambitious passing. We’re also seeing greater acceleration as his fitness improves, which was important on the break as he was in effect our only outlet.
His double act with Pieters provided our most common passing combination and the duo were behind many of our most dangerous attacking moments, with the Austrian creating the highest number of chances of any individual in the game.
His idiosyncrasies can still annoy, such as his tendency to stand there, hands on hips, when he loses the ball rather than chasing to win it back, but as an attacking threat you get the sense that he’s about to explode and then we’ll really see the best of him.
With Assaidi out and the alternatives being either square pegs or an ageing Etherington, there’s an awful lot of pressure on Arnie now to be our chief creative threat out wide. If this display was anything to go by, he won’t disappoint.
5) Hughes outfoxes Wenger (again)
One stat bandied around in the wake of this result is that Mark Hughes is now the first man to beat Arsenal with four different clubs. On the day, our manager got virtually every decision spot on. Being robbed of two of our only reasonably quick players through injury, Assaidi and Odemwingie, could have been damaging, but Hughes opted to return to the 4-2-3-1, restoring Nzonzi to the side, and though this change possibly contributed to our overplaying at the back at times, overall it was the right move as both the Frenchman and Glenn Whelan played very important roles in our victory.
The decision to replace Charlie Adam just after he’d created a couple of half-chances was questioned by some (not least the Scotsman himself), but he was tiring visibly, had been caught in possession several times, and was walking a tightrope with the referee. Stephen Ireland buzzed around closing Arsenal’s midfielders down, which was just what we needed in the last 20 minutes. Adam’s retrospective three match ban is harsh, given bigger names have got away with similar ‘offences’ and intent is almost impossible to determine, but his absence could prove a blessing in disguise. Teams are wising up to his influence, and he endured a difficult afternoon, with Wenger clearly earmarking him as our danger man (which he, erm, proved to be in some ways). The ban gives him a rest so that he comes back fresh for the run-in, and he’ll only miss one home game. Away from home, there’s an argument that Ireland is better-suited to a counter-attacking style anyway, as he moves the ball quicker, while there’s always the option of trying Arnautovic in that position again.
Wenger’s team selection was very strange. He always seems to second-guess himself on visits to ST4, which should say something about his and his team’s mental block when it comes to playing in the Potteries.
Having spent the week leading up to the game droning on about physicality and our place at the bottom of the fair play table, you have to wonder why he picked pretty much the most lightweight team available to him. His midfield trio of Rosicky, Wilshere and Cazorla doesn’t exactly scream ‘ready for battle’, even if they did dish out their fair share of punishment, with Borstal-faced Wilshere particularly niggly. Why, in this game of all games, did he leave out perennial arse-kicker Mathieu Flamini, who could have provided protection for Cazorla? The Spaniard saw plenty of the ball but it was easy for us to prevent him doing anything of note with it. Similarly the broader, stronger Oxlade-Chamberlain caused us more problems in 16 minutes than Rosicky had in the previous 74.
Despite his shocker of a miss, the tank-like Yaya Sanogo has shown real promise in his first starts for Arsenal and would likely have given our centre-backs more problems than pantomime dame Olivier Giroud, whose regular bouts of histrionics at any Stoke player getting anywhere near him transmitted loud and clear to our boys that he could easily be wound up – something they wasted little time in doing, with Wilson, Whelan and of course Adam meting out the rough stuff.
This was the worst Arsenal performance at the Britannia Stadium to date. You just never got the sense, from about the 10th minute or so, that we were going to lose. Wenger is known as ‘Le Professeur’ but his teams have shown time and again that they lack mental strength and he has failed to rectify that. Like a counsellor at Camp Crystal Lake he appeared to fill his players’ heads with horror stories about the demons lurking at the Brit, and as a result they looked petrified almost before a ball was kicked.
The upshot is that Arsenal’s most significant title challenge in years lies in ruins thanks in large part to the club whose name they have spent so much time belittling and besmirching. Nasty, dirty Stoke City. And that feels pretty damn good.