Arsenal 3 Stoke City 1
First of all, my apologies for the lack of a Sunderland match report last week. Matters of the booze took hold last Sunday evening and with the flight to Marseille on the horizon; I didn`t get the opportunity on Monday. Nevertheless, the week has gone rather well in my sabbatical. A timely win in France courtesy of an improving Aaron Ramsey and three points collected against Sunderland via the world`s best striker means that, as the team`s understanding is gradually growing, so is their momentum.
With the Victoria line up the spout and Transport for London deciding to reduce overground services as well, the journey into the ground was rather unfamiliar compared to the usual routine. Not even so much as a sniff of a beer pre-game. Shocking. What was perhaps less surprising was the manager making good on some of his midweek hints that Robin van Persie was in need of a warm blanket and a cup of cocoa. I`m sure Stoke`s aerial threat informed his decision that this would be the game to give Chamakh a run out.
The result was hardly surprising. Chamakh showed plenty of willingness, but without van Persie, Arsenal lacked the movement upfront to trouble Stoke. It was frustrating watching Chamakh, quite correctly, offer himself as a sounding board to his midfield, only to watch Walcott miss chance after chance to spin off and curve his run into the centre into the space Chamakh had vacated. He doesn`t make a compelling case to be played in the centre at all. Perhaps it was less surprising that Arsenal`s first chance of note came from an Arteta corner which Chamakh headed just wide.
The Gunners didn`t show any lack of guile in midfield, with Ramsey and Arteta pulling the strings. With Chamakh out of sorts and Walcott putting in a quite baffling performance, they lacked a target. Fortunately Gervinho was slightly better attuned and could have opened the scoring when he latched onto Ramsey`s lofted through ball, he chested down in the area but just ran out of space as Begovic thwarted him. But the connection between Ramsey and Gervinho would not be forgotten.
Another Arteta set piece caused a flurry in the Potters back line, drifting to Gervinho on the back post. The Ivorian tucked the ball back to Ramsey whose fulminating shot flew centimetres wide. It would have been dulce et decorum est for him to score in front of the Stoke fans. Ramsey looked Arsenal`s most likely sorcerer and the support Arteta offers him in midfield is not to be underestimated. Arteta isn`t going to split defences 6 or 7 times a game, but he doesn`t cede possession, he plugs gaps, he makes tackles that need to be made. He is a sensible head in a team that has made a name for itself for its propensity towards shooting itself in the head. This is what you get when you buy a 29 year old with six years Premiership experience.
But after 27 minutes of relative toiling, Arsenal broke the deadlock. Arteta found Walcott on the edge of the area; he tried to pick his way through a Maginot line of Stoke defenders. The ball trickled back out to Ramsey who picked out another sumptuous clipped pass to the run of Gervinho, this time the Ivorian had space to chest the ball down before lashing it through the legs of Amir Begovic. It had been brow moistening work, but it had paid off via the home side`s two most threatening players. But the lead only lasted five minutes before old defensive frailties resurfaced. For some reason, Lee Mason judged the excellent Laurent Koscielny heading the ball to be a foul. But from the resulting free kick, Arsenal`s biggest attacking threat became our defensive bane.
I was on the same side as Shawcross; I saw his run from the corner of the area. So did Gervinho. Song yelled at him to cover Shawcross, Gervinho looked back and spotted that he had peeled off. Yet he stood idle as Whitehead clipped a free kick towards the far post, leaving Shawcross with a free run towards the flight of the ball. For some reason, the North Bank cheered ironically, thinking the ball was sailing out of play when it wasn`t even close. (I`m astounded that people that pay so much money to watch football pay so little attention to it). Shawcross headed back across goal; Walters got a flick inside the six yard box leaving Peter Crouch to convert from close range. A poor goal to concede having laboured so hard to assume the ascendancy. Gervinho had ostensibly scored one and cost us one. He`d make those maths more favourable by the game`s conclusion.
The Gunners looked stung once again and struggled for any kind of rhythm. Van Persie`s vigorous half time warm up suggested a swift introduction, but the manager kept his ace firmly tucked up his sleeve. As a result, the Gunners created very little. Ramsey and Arteta brought the ball forward willingly, but were met with a wall of static from Arsenal`s forwards. One could almost feel the players` eyes drifting towards the bench again, imploring their captain to come save them again. He duly arrived and within seconds he created our best opening of the half. Immediately he demonstrated the sort of movement we had lacked to pick up a pocket of space between full back and centre half, shimmed some space and stood up a cross to the back post which was just a fraction high for Koscielny.
Arsene then sent for Arshavin and he made a difference too, running more directly at Stoke`s tiring backline, as opposed to the running into it favoured by Walcott to that point. It was to be a direct piece of running from Gervinho that would yield the Gunners` second. Gervinho nudged the ball past Danny Pugh to the by line. Van Persie once again did, quite simply, what Chamakh couldn`t. He moved in the penalty area, sauntering past a sea of statuesque Stoke defenders towards the front post to meet Gervinho`s pullback and stab it past Begovic. Pulis immediately sent for Jones and Jerome from the bench.
But as the lactic acid gripped Stoke legs and as they pushed for an equaliser, Arsenal used the gaps at the back to punish the visitors. Arshavin played a measured ball down the line for Gervinho. He left Andy Wilkinson for dead, again racing to the by line. Again, van Persie saw the opportunity to attack the ball and met Gervinho`s cutback to stab it past Begovic again. Gervinho had scored one, made two and cost us one, leaving his account well in credit for the afternoon. A paycheque he banked in the form of a standing ovation as he left the pitch to be replaced by Frimpong. Meanwhile, Arsenal`s skipper can reflect on a calendar year that has now gleaned 25 goals in 26 games. Those are Henry-esque numbers and I will call him the world`s premier centre forward without fear of reprisal. A word too for Laurent Koscielny who dealt with Stoke`s aerial threat with ease. A partnership really seems to be developing between he and Mertesacker.
A semblance of understanding is beginning to emerge in the team and quietly, after a horrendous start, we now find ourselves two points behind Liverpool. Slowly but surely the team looks to be getting there. Ramsey`s influence is growing by the game; Gervinho gave us reason to rise from our seats. Koscielny is turning into the defender I always suspected he would be. A defender that just loves to defend. But the jewel in the crown is clearly the captain. The movement he demonstrated says to me that he shouldn`t play off of a main striker as many suggest, he would be too missed inside the area. He would also be too heavily missed, anywhere else other than our team sheet. LD.
13.SZCZESNY, 20.DJOUROU, 4.MERTESACKER, 6.KOSCIELNY, 11.A.SANTOS, 17.SONG(c), 8.ARTETA, 16.RAMSEY, 14.WALCOTT (23.Arshavin `71), 27.GERVINHO (26.Frimpong `90), 29.CHAMAKH (10.v.Persie `66). Unused; 7.Rosicky, 9.J-Y.Park, 21.Fabianski, 30.Benayoun.
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