Stoke City 0 Arsenal 0
So to the first early morning of the season. The first alarm call that arrests your slumber even earlier than it would on a work day. With a 7.50 train from Euston to negotiate, it even meant night bussing part of the way given that nothing works in London on a Sunday. Sleepily removing my four pack of red stripe from the fridge, I felt and looked every inch a bum. Posh baguettes and coffee were duly coiffed at Euston`s variety of over priced food outlets before we surrendered ourselves to the inevitable debauchery of the train.
Kris, aka "Sweden" attending his last game before moving back to, errr, Sweden, had attempted a bedsheet banner which looked like the product of a very depraved mind. Which is about right. The names Nasri, van Persie and Adebayor sprayed across it with a black mat finish and an attempt at a skull and crossbones underneath which, to be polite, looked more like Snoopy wearing a gas mask. It never made it off the train. We arrived in a surprisingly sunny Stoke shortly after 11am. Ricky decided to leave his I phone on the train though so it could continue to tour the Northwest.
Ordinarily away fans are herded into the spacious student union bar at Staffordshire University, but with it not being term time and all, we were instead shoehorned into the nearby Terrace pub. It`s not just a cute name. It is literally a converted terraced house. One presumably that used to belong to a family of two and is, therefore, somewhat ill equipped for a couple of hundred Londoners. I still have the bruises on my ribs from that queue for the bar.
By now one knows what to expect at the Britannia. But without Rory Delap and Ryan Shotton, The Potters just never posed a threat. Much to the disappointment of many a slack jawed local. Wenger masks had been purchased by many of the home support, hoping to repeat April`s joke of aping Wenger`s wavy arms routine on the touchline. Stoke troubled Arsenal so little that he barely got to his feet. The easily amused home fans clambered to their feet to execute their witticisms when Wenger so much as sneezed. Frankly, last season it was remotely amusing. But repeating a joke at inopportune moments takes the sting out of it.
That said, Arsenal found it difficult to threaten Stoke too, with three of Arsenal`s four most attacking players still new to one another and to the league. None were fazed however by what is rightly considered to be the toughest examination of one`s physical credentials in the Premier League. Indeed it was Pulis clambering to his feet and waving his arms at the official on the touchline when Podolski simply chest bumped Geoff Cameron out of the way early on in the game. Rather than allowing Crouch to pull off onto Arsenal`s full backs to win aerial challenges, Arsenal stationed Diaby on the Stoke striker whenever the home side had the ball. Diaby was more than a match in the air, but even on the occasions he couldn`t win the ball, Diaby`s presence meant the centre halves could stay stationed where they were to deal with any knockdowns.
The one time the combo of a Crouch knockdown finding a Walters run actually worked, the Arsenal defence stepped up for offside meaning Walters goal did not stand. Arsenal did look to have carved Stoke open when Gervinho found Giroud on the edge of the area, Giroud steered the ball into the path of Podolski from the left, the German pulled the trigger but Wilkinson was across smartly with a block. Kightly stung Mannone`s palms with a long range strike after Arteta had done brilliantly to hold Wilkinson back on the right (the Spaniard made seven tackles on Sunday, more than any other player on the pitch). Meanwhile Cazorla let fly from range as Begovic scrambled across to paw the effort away. But the Gunners, perhaps understandably, lack cohesion in the final third. Trouble is pretty much all of our front three options offer variations on the same thing. Replacing Gervinho with Walcott for instance, is a bit like replacing butter with I can`t believe it`s not butter.
Arsenal are still struggling to find a balance. The full backs have been a lot more conservative this season, which has clearly helped our defensive record at the expense of extra width in our attack. On a personal level, though Gibbs and Jenkinson have done little wrong thus far, I`d expect this to improve with Santos and Sagna as our full back options. The second half brought further effort from Arsenal but little more invention. Cazorla found Giroud on the penalty spot with a clever left wing corner, but Giroud miscued his bicycle kick attempt. Arteta then miscued a shot when Giroud seemed to have played him into space.
Diaby was the guilty of being caught in two minds in the area when Jenkinson`s low cross ricocheted into his path in the box. Despite being positioned eight yards from goal, Diaby still dithered and lingered over the possibility of a pass, before changing his mind, causing him to lose balance and stab the ball well wide. It was a microcosm of Arsenal`s game. Plenty to be enthused about in the build up, but a lack of spontaneity hindered them at the final turn. Stoke looked to have created a chance to seek an undeserved win when Kightly`s excellent pass with the outside of his foot saw Walters sneak in behind the Arsenal defence. But Walters lack of a left foot saw him try to stab the ball past Mannone with the outside of his right. He scarcely connected and the chance was gone.
Arsenal almost won the game in its final throes. Arsenal defended a Stoke corner and Chamberlain manfully battled Palacios on the left touchline as Arsenal broke. The Ox nudged the ball up the line to Giroud, who spotted Begovic off his line and went for an audacious forty yard chip which had the Stoke goalie beaten all ends up, but the ball drifted agonisingly onto the roof of the net. Ramsey had made a run centrally and the pass subsequently looked the better option. However, the television angle is guilty of a slight deception here. By the time the ball hits the roof of the net, Ramsey is in acres of space close to goal. But when Giroud released the shot, Ramsey was not in quite so prosperous a position (though breaking his neck to get there). At the time Giroud released the shot, the ball to Ramsey would needed to have been of Bergkampesque vintage to have made it.
A draw is never a terrible result at Stoke. I don`t recall ever having been there and felt so little trepidation in a defensive sense. When buying new players you`re always going to need to give them time to adapt to one another. Ordinarily, you`d prefer to bleed them in slowly but once again we`ve lost key players this summer, so they have become first team mainstays out of necessity. Overall I was enthused with all of the new boys. Their ages would, hopefully, make their acclimatisation period somewhat shorter. None looked perturbed by the physical challenge of Stoke, least of all Giroud who won more aerial duels than he lost. The new boys can`t be blamed for our austerity on front of goal thus far. I`d say it`s a mixture of, well, not really having much of a mixture upfront and the need for debutants to become talisman pretty much straight away. Summer 2013 needs to be a very quiet one. LD.
STOKE: 1.BEGOVIC, 12.WILSON, 4.HUTH, 17.SHAWCROSS(c), 28.WILKINSON, 7.PENNANT, 2.CAMERON, 6.WHELAN (30.Shotton `79), 21.KIGHTLY, 19.WALTERS, 25.CROUCH (8.Palacios `81). Unused: 9.Jones, 20.Upson, 24.Delap, 29.Sorensen, 33.Jerome.
ARSENAL: 24.MANNONE, 25.JENKINSON, 4.MERTESACKER, 5.VERMAELEN(c), 28.GIBBS, 8.ARTETA, 2.DIABY, 19.CAZORLA (16.Ramsey `81), 27.GERVINHO (14.Walcott `72), 9.PODOLSKI (15.Chamberlain `72), 12.GIROUD. Unused: 11.A.Santos, 20.Djourou, 22.Coquelin, 36.Martinez.