Stoke City 3 Arsenal 1
My Sunday started with a weary 5am alarm call. Having only arrived home from my nephew`s 18th birthday celebrations some three hours earlier, the temples were thumping, the red wine and London Pride propulsing through like some kind of Bacchalian wave of nausea inducing windsurfing. Pissing rain greeted our night bus journey to North London to pick up the coach at Queensland Road. Given that I`m currently reading Ian Kershaw`s acclaimed biography of Adolf Hitler, the conversation had turned to genocide and we hadn`t yet reached 7.30am. Some away games are better than others you know. The highlight of our day was to arrive some half an hour before kick off. Against our better will, we decided to have a couple of pre match liveners in the nearby Harvester pub. Terry, also suffering from the night before, found the pints weren`t going down well. We were ready to leave for the ground and he still had 80% of his Stella in his pint glass. Ever adverse to wasting sweet nectar, he took the ill advised decision to neck the whole thing. Which drew a round of applause. Until of course the previous night`s excess took hold of his guts and he promptly threw up- a good portion of the liquid chunder attaching itself to Luigi`s white tee shirt. It was to be the high point of the day; we should have gone home then.
There was no requirement to motivate the away support. The feeling between the two teams is mired in mutual dislike. Defiant chants of "There`s only one Aaron Ramsey" were countered by the home masses responding, "We`re Stoke City, we`ll play how we want." The team too should have found motivation enough. This morning, Stoke will feel vindicated in every sense. The mocking of the manager, the chants of "boring, boring" to our sustained, yet impotent spells of aimless passing and the home support gleefully labelling themselves "the rugby team" brought no response, no pride in the reaction. Te manager often talks about Arsenal playing the game we believe it should be played. After yesterday, I wonder how much the players do believe in it. They did nothing to protect the style they eulogise yesterday as the insults showered down on them. It was like watching a puppy whimper and curl up in the corner after being hit on the nose with a rolled up newspaper.
Arsenal began the game with aimless, slow, excruciatingly laboured passing. Still think we don`t need Cesc? Stoke knew what the other 19 teams in the Premiership know. Set up with two banks of four, force Arsenal out wide, they`ll be forced to toss in a cross that nobody will be remotely interested in attacking and the ball will be cleared and the whole process will start over again. You don`t have to do anything special to keep Arsenal out at the moment, 8 trained monkeys could do it. Just stay on the edge of the box and keep your position. Aaron Ramsey lifted a through ball to van Persie in the penalty area, but the Dutchman tried too hard to shift the ball onto his favoured left foot and blazed the ball well over the bar. Stoke weren`t exactly looking threatening or imposing, but it mattered little. In the circumstances, Arsenal are usually content to just gift the opposition a goal or two in rib tickling scenarios.
The first warning siren came when Szczesny failed to deal with Whelan`s cross and Jermaine Pennant hooked the loose ball just wide. But Stoke soon did break the deadlock with the bare minimum of effort. Arshavin tracked Pennant back to the corner flag, initially; he made a good, clean tackle. But then immediately eradicated any good work with a quite idiotic shove with Pennant going nowhere. Obviously, Arsenal really outdo themselves when it comes to defending set pieces, and they were to do so again. Pennant swung in a straightforward delivery, Djourou, who was meant to be picking up Jones, collided with Koscielny and Jones ran into the six yard box unchecked and just let the ball hit his knee and dribble into the net. He didn`t even jump or attack the ball. He stood there. It hit him. It went in. For a professional football team, never mind one that harbours title ambitions, that is a quite disgraceful goal to concede. Where is your bloody self respect boys?
Not content with defending amateurishly from set plays, the Gunners felt like dreaming up new and improved ways of making us all giggle uncontrollably at their defensive competence. Jermaine Pennant picked the ball up in central midfield. Djourou and Sagna ran away from him like giddy little girls playing kiss chase in the playground, the midfield trio stood idly with hands on hips and Pennant, not believing his luck, simply strolled into the open space and unleashed a dipping shot, which deflected off of Djourou and flew into the net. To call it "schoolboy" defending would be to insult the footballing intelligence of school boys. Utter, utter farce. I almost laughed at them. Almost.
At this point, I`m tempted to say Arsenal went into meltdown, but if what had proceeded prior to the end of the first half was not meltdown, then we probably inhabited some kind of post apocalyptic wasteland. Arsenal could and should have been 3-0 down when Jon Walters walked easily past Bacary Sagna in the area but curled his effort onto the bar. Arsenal passed the ball around midfield a bit. Which was nice. The sight of Chamakh and Bendtner warming up more vigorously than their comrades at half time gave me some minute hope. Huzzah! He`s realised that they system isn`t working; perhaps we have two players ready to contest some balls into the box now, since we`re being forced to throw crosses in. But no, of course we played exactly the same system and put our best header of the ball on the left wing. Because that tactic bought so much joy against Blackburn, Sunderland, Liverpool etc, etc, etc. Bendtner, for his part, carried the fight and curled a shot just wide from the edge of the area. Chamakh, whilst willing, fell to pieces the second he got close to the penalty area. Van Persie teed him up on the edge of the area, the chance to shoot opened up and….he tripped over the ball. Then sent the world`s tamest shot well wide.
Gallows humour is something the British are very adept at and, as such, the abject darkness of the performance was neatly summed up by a group of gentlemen behind me who began to chant, "Let`s pretend we`ve won the league" followed by an ironic chorus of "champions!" I really wish more people would have taken to it so it had been audible to the players. Booing and bickering doesn`t provide much effect because it just sounds bitter and a bit immature. Hearing a chant like that would have got the message through in a way that no impotent, willy waving march on away kit colours could ever hope to achieve. Stoke threatened to stretch their lead as Arsenal pushed. Danny Pugh broke free on the right. Glenn Whelan motored past a static Arsenal midfield to run unchallenged onto Pugh`s simple through ball, but Szczesny tipped his shot around the post.
The Gunners were denied a consolation when Bendtner squeezed the ball through a throng of bodies to van Persie, but Begovic sprawled at the feet of van Persie to make an excellent save. It was the defining difference between the sides, on the rare occasions we got around Stoke; their players were willing to put everything on the line to keep the ball out. Arsenal exploded like rat bags in the same situations. Tempers flared briefly when Wilshere bared his studs in a hard tackle on Jermaine Pennant. Pennant took umbrage, as did Wilkinson, who somehow went unpunished for his retributory scythe on Wilshere. Both Pennant and Wilshere were booked. Jack was lucky to escape further sanction. Though he took the ball, he knew what he was doing by going in with his studs up. It was reckless, had he missed the tackle Pennant would have been in trouble. There are much better ways for Jack to channel his frustration. In a converse way, it was nice to see one player frustrated at what was going on. But he`d be better off showing it in other ways. Stoke fans ironically chanted, "Arsene Wenger, he didn`t see that." My attempt at starting the away fans with a response of "he`s not that type of player" went unheralded. Shame.
With ten minutes left, Arsenal gave themselves a life line. Tomas Rosicky nudged the ball towards van Persie and, seemingly out of sheer frustration, motored into the box and lashed a right footed shot underneath Asmir Begovic. 21 goals in 2011, goals in each of our last away games. One bright note of a quite awful three months has been that he belongs to us. He only needs a quarter of an inch in the box and he scores. He has that decisiveness and belief in what he does in the area that few other Arsenal players have. But just as you were thinking an unlikely comeback was on the cards, more Keystone Cops defending. Danny Pugh`s shot dribbled towards Arsenal`s goal, Johan Djourou produced a clearance that, again, deserves to be laughed at, pure and simple. The ball fell straight to Jon Walters who poked the ball past Szczesny and killed Arsenal`s revival before it had even started. Arsenal need to be subjected to a few days of Clockwork Orange style treatment. The team should have their eyes held open with hooks and be forced to watch those three goals over and over again to a soundtrack of Jason Donovan singing Nirvana covers. Honestly, they should be completely and utterly ashamed of the defending in each of the three goals, if it didn`t keep some of them awake last night, there`s something enormously wrong. What strikes me is the complete lack of professional pride and self respect in conceding such goals.
That`s not simply a criticism of the centre halves- for what it is worth I thought Koscielny was one of the few players that played at full tilt. The team simply do not have any respect for that side of the game and it`s becoming ludicrously repetitive. This scenario is becoming a tad worrying, it feels like we are constantly psycho analysing the players after another dreary, below par performance. Is it self pity? The manager seemed to point to a lack of motivation. Why are both or either of those things pouring out of these players? Are they not listening to the manager anymore? Or are they incapable of following his instructions? Given the football they were playing at the turn of the year, I can`t believe it`s down to ability. Whatever it is, it needs to change and fast. The 4-3-3 is a system that has clearly now been snuffed out by even the most mediocre defences (Birmingham have won 4 of their last 22, Bolton 1 of their last 5, either side of drawing at the Emirates, Sunderland were beaten five times each). The players obviously have motivation issues for the next two league fixtures, so an experimentation with another system with a long view to next season is a must. Not being flexible enough to adapt style and system makes us easy to play against when we are in any sort of a funk confidence wise. Some players need to ask themselves big questions regarding what they want for their Arsenal careers. I can`t help feeling the last two games are going to be an audition of sorts in the manager`s mind.LD.
53.SZCZESNY, 3.SAGNA, 20.DJOUROU, 6.KOSCIELNY, 28.GIBBS, 17.SONG (7.Rosicky `79), 19.WILSHERE, 16.RAMSEY (29.Chamakh H/T), 14.WALCOTT, 23.ARSHAVIN (52.Bendtner H/T), 10.v.PERSIE(capt). Unused: 5.Vermaelen, 13.Lehmann, 18.Squillaci, 27.Eboue.
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