Stoke City:0 Arsenal:0 Match Report

Despite showing much more defensive maturity and assurance compared to their previous away meetings at Stoke, Arsenal failed to score for two weeks running, and were held to another goalless draw.

Arsenal Line-Up

Arsenal lined up with their usual 4-3-3 formation.  Vito Mannone replaced the injured Szczesny at the goal. The defense was the same as the one that started against Sunderland last week: Carl Jenkinson replaced the injured Bacary Sagna at right back and Per Mertesacker started instead of the injured Laurent Koscielny at the centerback position, along with Thomas Vermaalen.  Kieran Gibbs was again preferred to Andre Santos at left back.

In central midfield, the line up was also the same as last week. Mikel Arteta was paired with Abou Diaby and Santi Cazorla occupied the most advanced midfield role.

Unlike last week, Arsene Wenger gave the new striker Olivier Giroud his first start, and shifted Podolski to the wide left position. Gervinho was preferred ahead of Theo Walcott on the right flank.

The Game

When the team sheets were released, most Arsenal fans must have feared for the worst after seeing that Szczesny was replaced by the third choice goalkeeper Mannone due to a rib injury, thinking that the inexperienced Mannone would be an easy prey for Stoke City’s infamous aerial bombardment. Yet, Arsenal had a very assured defensive performance compared to previous away meetings at Stoke, and completely nullified Stoke City’s aerial threat with an intelligent game plan.

Stoke City, as we are all painfully aware now after five seasons, have a very simple game plan.  It involves carrying the ball forward with long balls to the flanks and trying to win set pieces and throw-ins deep in opposition half that they exploit with annoying effectiveness by playing head tennis in the box until they find the net.

To counter this game plan and prevent Stoke winning headers inside or close to the Arsenal box, Arsenal held a high line which forced Stoke’s main aerial threat Peter Crouch away from Arsenal’s box. This high line was accompanied with a relentless pressing up front whenever the ball was lost in Stoke’s half.  Arsenal’s forward line Podolski, Giroud and Gervinho pressed Stoke’s defenders Huth and Shawcross and the two Stoke fullbacks before they could aim long balls towards Crouch. Most balls that came out of Stoke’s half had the quality of a rushed clearance and were easily mopped up by Vermaalen and Mertesacker.  Kieran Gibbs and Jenkinson also had very solid defensive displays winning most second balls and staying strong in the tackle.

With Stoke having no supply down the flanks, the remaining Stoke threat could have come from Arsenal losing the ball deep in their own half. In Arsenal’s holding midfield position, Arteta had a flawless game and used every ball patiently and safely. Diaby matched Stoke’s physical game and did not lose any balls in dangerous positions. With Cazorla’s tidy passing and link-up play, Arsenal had a big majority of the possession. Stoke threatened seriously  only once in the whole first half when Jonathan Walters finished Crouch’s knock-down, but he was correctly ruled offside.

Despite their assured defensive display, Arsenal did not have much fluidity going forward and looked toothless. Unlike last week against Sunderland, Gervinho had an extremely ineffective game on the wide right position where he was frustratingly wasteful. Podolski had a better showing on the wide left position and looked much more ready physically. It was Podolski who had the best Arsenal chance of the first half after an early Arsenal press won the ball, and Podolski was played in by Giroud. He looked almost certain to score from six yards when the Stoke City right back Wilkinson slipped, but somehow Podolski’s inbound shot was blocked by Wilkinson’s head.

Arsenal’s new striker Giroud had his first full debut and generally had a good showing, especially considering the difficulty of playing against the double monsters Huth and Shawcross. He won many headers from the Stoke center-back duo, and showed that he will not be easily bullied off the ball. Yet, his endeavors were mostly of physical nature and he was not able to get into good scoring positions.  Cazorla had a busy first half,  linking up with Arteta to find and create openings in Stoke’s center, but apart from a decent long range shot that was parried away by Begovic, he was not at his creative best. Perhaps, this was mostly due to the conservative approach of two Arsenal fullbacks, Gibbs and Jenkinson, who preferred to keep a tight shape instead of bombing forward at every opportunity.

Arsenal continued to nullify Stoke’s aerial threat and easily controlled the midfield in the second half, but apart from a string of half chances, they were never able to achieve much fluidity in attack. The ineffective Gervinho was replaced by Walcott shortly after he wasted Giroud’s cutback and Oxlade Chamberlein replaced Podolski for more direct wing play. An acrobatic Giroud volley from Cazorla’s corner missed the target.  Abou Diaby found himself in a good shooting position in the box after Jenkinson’s cross but he was crowded out and shot wide. Arteta created an opening after a one-two with Giroud, but also missed the target.

In the last 10 minutes, Wenger sent in Aaron Ramsey and took off the tiring Cazorla, but Arsenal’s late efforts to score their first goal of the season proved fruitless after Giroud took a long range shot from an impossible angle and shaved the crossbar, when a simple square ball would have played Ramsey in.

Conclusion

Arsenal looked very assured defensively and kept a good shape all game long.   A solid shape, however, usually comes with less creativity. Arsenal looked somewhat toothless up-front with Gervinho having a very ineffective game, and also with the two full-backs following a safety first approach and not stretching Stoke’s defensive shape by bombing forward often enough.

The serious defensive attitude with every single player pressing Stoke very effectively did look promising. The fact that Stoke could not win a single corner to bully Mannone illustrates how comfortable Arsenal were defensively, compared to previous meetings at Stoke.

There is no reason to panic yet, but Arsenal fans would like to see Giroud and Podolski firing sooner, as soon as next week against Liverpool.

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Arsenal:0 Sunderland:0 Match Report

Arsenal had a frustrating opening game against a Sunderland side that implemented their manager Martin O’Neill’s trademark “negative but resilient” game plan to a perfection.

Arsenal Line-Up

Arsenal played their usual 4-3-3 formation with Carl Jenkinson replacing the injured Bacary Sagna at right back and Per Mertesacker starting instead of the injured Laurent Koscielny at the centerback position, along with the new captain Thomas Vermaalen. At left back, Kieran Gibbs was preferred ahead of Andre Santos.

In central midfield, Mikel Arteta was paired with Abou Diaby (who started ahead of Alex Song as Song was excluded due to his ongoing transfer saga to Barcelona). The new signing Santi Cazorla occupied the most advanced midfield role.

The attacking trio had Theo Walcott on the right, Gervinho on the left, and the new signing Lukas Podolski as the central striker.

The Game

The game started as expected with Sunderland immediately taking up a solid defensive shape with two banks of four where the two Sunderland wide midfielders were instructed to play as auxiliary full backs to prevent any overlapping runs by Arsenal full backs Gibbs and Jenkinson.

In Arsenal’s central midfield, Arteta seemed to take up a more holding role, whereas Abou Diaby had a more penetrating role to launch attacks. Sunderland did not press Arsenal’s ball circulation through Diaby and Arteta deep in Arsenal half,  but rather preferred to keep their solid defensive shape intact. Their two most advanced players Sessegnon and Campbell retreated behind the ball very quickly, and prevented their central midfield duo (Cattermole and Collback) from being overrun by the Arsenal’s midfield trio. The two Sunderland wide midfielders, Larsonn and McClean, closed up the flanks by doubling up in front of their fullbacks as mentioned.

Despite this defensive shape, it was ironically Sunderland who had the first clear chance of the game as early as the fourth minute. Missing Alex Song’s pressure on the ball, Arsenal midfield watched a through ball played by Sunderland left back Kieran Richardson to McClean, who advanced freely from the channel left wide open by Vermaalen and Mertesacker,  but his shot was saved by Szczesny.  Another good Sunderland build-up a few minutes later raised the eyebrows about the lack of pressing in Arsenal’s midfield, as Collback had a free shot at goal after being set up by Larsonn, which was again saved.

The most positive aspect of the first 15 minutes (in fact the whole game) from an Arsenal point of view was the absolute quality of Santi Cazorla in the advanced central midfield position. He displayed a class on the ball and vision that was missing from Arsenal’s midfield since the departure of Fabregas.  In between the two Sunderland chances, Cazorla broke through Sunderland’s midfield cover, and fired a left-footed missile from outside the box saved by the Sunderland goalie Mignolet.  His tricky movement and clever one-touch balls avoiding the Sunderland press was a joy to watch for most of the first half.  When he set up Gervinho for a run into the box from the wide left position,  Cazorla almost scored from Gervinho’s cutback, but missed the target as the generally disappointing Podolski distracted him by also making an attempt on the ball.

As the first half progressed, the game became increasingly one-sided with Sunderland losing all their interest in breaking forward, and being solely occupied with keeping their defensive shape.  Cazorla set up Theo Walcott on the right whose cross was cleared by the excellent Cuellar in Sunderland defense just when Podolski was about to finish into an open net.  Cazorla then whipped in a great cross with his right foot from the left, which was ridiculously missed by Theo Walcott, who did next to nothing positive in the first half.

With Sunderland ever happy sitting back, Arsenal lacked the intensity, quick passing and tempo to break them, and relied mostly on Cazorla’s scheming and Gervinho’s solo direct runs from the left. Gervinho had a very busy afternoon, yet he almost always faced two Sunderland men closing down his flank.

In the second half, the game continued in the same fashion and Sunderland’s tenacity was the telling factor, especially with Cuellar excelling with numerous blocks and key interventions.  Sunderland offered absolutely nothing going forward in this second half, yet it was interesting that the always adventurous Vermaalen did not leave his post to join attacks, probably due to the understandable fear of exposing Mertesacker’s lack of pace in a Sunderland counterattack, which never materialized.

Arsenal played many home games last season like this with the opposition set up merely to frustrate, and it was typically an Alex Song-Van Persie moment of brilliance that won the game for them. When Cazorla found the substitute Olivier Giroud ten minutes from time with a brilliantly disguised ball, Arsenal fans thought that the moment of magic have arrived once again, only to see the last season’s top scorer in France to miss the sitter in spectacular fashion.

Conclusion

Overall, there were some positives for Arsenal despite the frustrating result. The main positive was Santi Cazorla who, despite his grueling travels with Spain over the Atlantic in midweek,  looked every bit of the kind of class that departed with Robin Van Persie last week.  Gervinho showed a lot of energy on the day, yet he was subdued with Sunderland’s doubling up his flank whenever he ran at them with the ball. Diaby had a decent performance, but lacked the drive, quickness and penetration to open up Sunderland’s center, despite having a good shot saved in the first half. Gibbs looked solid defensively, but it is fair to say that Sunderland did not have much of an intention to remove the double cover on their flanks by sending their wide attackers forward. Podolski had a quite disappointing debut by all accounts with his confused movement and did not link up well with the midfield runners.  Giroud gave a glimpse of the mobile and hungry target man he is supposed to be, but missed an absolute sitter to win the game. I expect Giroud to start as the central striker next week against Stoke City in the traditional “most annoying away game” of the season.  Arsenal seemed to have a good shape and discipline all game long, but were not checked defensively because of Sunderland’s lack of ambition going forward.