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 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.
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.
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.