Arsenal 2 Stoke City 0
After a couple of very dispiriting league defeats, an unholy Friday night mix of sambucca and Guinness welling in the guts as well as the teeming rain in the capital, Stoke City at home didn't feel the most glamorous game but it certainly felt important. It's interesting how often pre match pub conversation can be foreboding and so it proved on this occasion. I asked who everybody felt would take Arsenal's penalties in the absence of van Persie. My vote was Eduardo but we all agreed we'd like to see Cesc step up as he is a good striker of the ball, has the nerve and also the confidence that any miss wouldn't scar him unduly. The conversation drifted thereafter, Brian and I whiling a good hour or so away talking about the Beatles and the music industry of the 1970s. Understand, that when Brian and I talk about the Beatles, it isn't so much, 'Isn't Yer Blues a great tune?' It's more a case of how John Lennon's middle class upbringing with his Aunt Mimi affected and informed the 1971 Plastic Ono Band album!
There was something of a surprise in the team selection, the very low on confidence Eduardo was ommitted owing to a thigh injury. I make that his fifth thigh injury in seven months. Therefore, Arsene opted to play Andrey Arshavin at the helm of the front three. It worked like a dream. As early as the sixth minute, Fabregas collected the ball midway inside the Stoke half, Arshavin found a pocket of space on the half turn, Fabregas duly delivered the pass and Arshavin was in on goal, but he took a hefty first touch and Sorensen was out to smother. The Russian dynamo was finding nooks and crannies all over the Stoke defence and he was instrumental in Arsenal's next opportunity. Eboue came down the right and fed Arshavin on the corner of the penalty area, he turned a delightful reverse pass into the path of Samir Nasri, but Sorensen closed the angle and beat away Nasri's fierce drive.
It would be Arshavin again who would cause the Potters defence strife. Again, he drifted away from Stoke's giant centre halves Faye and Huth and found space on the corner of the box, he ghosted past Diao into the area, before shimmying past Delap causing he of the elastic shoulder blades to clumsily fell Arshavin in the area. Our pre match questions were answered as the captain took responsibility and stepped up for the penalty, he struck it well to the keeper's left but Sorensen guessed correctly and palmed the penalty away for a corner. It felt as though nothing was going to go Arsenal's way. But the Gunners showed admirable guts and did not allow themselves to become fortune's fool, continuing to play forwards with a purpose not seen for a few weeks. Traore looked for Fabregas from the left, he slightly overcooked his pass but Arshavin was intelligent enough to slip the loose ball back to Cesc, then find space between Faye and Wilkinson, picking Fabregas' return ball up on the half turn before sauntering into the box, resisting a stiff challenge from behind by Wilkinson and stroking the ball into the corner of the net with no backlift. Arshavin's strength in such situations is incredible for a guy of his slight frame and the intelligence of his movement had been too much for Stoke all afternoon.
Arsenal thought they were two ahead within two minutes, Arshavin played a well weighted pass to the onrushing Traore, Abdoulaye Faye toepoked the cross onto his own post, the ball broke to Fabregas eight yards out with Sorensen stranded, but his shot towards the unprotected goal was unwittingly blocked on the line by Emmanuel Eboue. Shades of Nicklas Bendtner against Liverpool two seasons ago. A few hours later, we would watch a Nicolas Anelka shot cannon in off of Emmanuel Adebayor's back and into the unguarded net. Such are the slings and arrows of fortune I guess. But at half time, I was incredibly pleased with the response of the side. With confidence low I hadn't expected anything approaching a vintage Arsenal performance, but the Gunners were attacking with conviction and should have been at least three ahead at the interval. Though there was some more maudlin news at the break with Rosicky succumbing to a groin injury and depleting our attacking options further still.
Arsenal's level dropped slightly in the second half, the longer we went without scoring the second goal, the more you felt tension permeating the side. Arshavin again was unfortunate not to add to his tally, once more playing sapiently on the half turn, he received Eboue's pass in the area before quickly unleashing a low shot which Sorensen was equal to. It was not only Arshavin's movement that made him such an effective striker on the day, but the swiftness of his actions. Arshavin doesn't delay if a chance for a shot or a killer pass presents itself as a lot of other Arsenal players do, he is a player who makes quick decisions and can strike a ball with little backlift. He also has two good feet and God knows that Carlos Vela and Eduardo would rather drink a pint of goose fat than use their weaker foot, which makes them both very easy to defend against in tight situations.
Though the tension was palpable, Stoke offered very little in the way of goal threat. Most of Delap's long throws were dealt with, though Almunia did not cover himself in glory with a couple of errant attempts at punches in the first half. Their clearest opportunity was a half chance at best when Collins smashed a long ball downfield which went over Gallas' head to Tuncay, but Gallas got in a good block as Tuncay attempted to control and shoot. The Gunners were left to curse lady luck again on 71 minutes when Aaron Ramsey played in fellow substitute Carlos Vela on the right, his low cross hit Nasri on the back before arriving at the feet of the omnipresent Arshavin, but his close range shot was deflected onto the bar unwittingly by the floored Abdoulaye Faye. The tension did eventually lift in the 79th minute as the home side grabbed a much needed and well deserved second goal. Aaron Ramsey probed forwards from midfield, using Carlos Vela as a soundboard, picking up a loose ball on the edge of the box before motoring towards goal, he cleverly decieved Sorensen by shaping to pass to Fabregas before delivering a deceptive shot with the outside of his right foot and into the bottom corner. Job done.
It's easy to underestimate this victory as routine, but Stoke have a very impressive defensive record and Arsenal haven't exactly been free scoring in the last three weeks. Even with confidence very low and with the vultures circling, Arsenal managed to stick to their gameplan effectively and plough forward courageously. Even with some outrageous fortune in front of goal, they were undeterred and did not make any defensive mistakes. In playing Arshavin as a central striker, Arsene might well have stumbled on a solution to shifting the balance upfront. Arshavin has the subtlety of movement, the quick brain in the area and the strength- all of which he demonstrated in abundance yesterday. He even worked quite hard off the ball! It wuld be remiss to suggest this definitely is the answer on the evidence of a single game, but with Fabregas picking passes behind him, Arshavin as a central striker might just be the way forward. Should he play there at Anfield next week, I know the Liverpool defence would not be at all happy to see him.LD.
Team: 1.ALMUNIA, 3.SAGNA, 10.GALLAS, 5.VERMAELEN, 30.TRAORE (18.Silvestre '88), 15.DENILSON, 8.NASRI, 4.FABREGAS(c), 27.EBOUE (16.Ramsey '54), 7.ROSICKY (12.Vela H/T), 23.ARSHAVIN. Unused: 6.Senderos, 19.Wilshere, 21.Fabianski, 32.Merida.