Arsenal vs. Stoke: Capitalizing on the schedule

Call it the luck of the schedule. Despite an average performance and a depleted squad, the Gunners defeated Stoke 3-1 on Sunday to take the top spot in the Premier League. That was Arsenal’s seventh straight win in all competitions. The media frenzy after opening day is a reminder that we shouldn’t go overboard after a match, whether it’s a loss or a victory. Five rounds are a small sample and there’s still a long way to go before the end of the season.

The Gunners have faced one potential contender (Tottenham) and four weak sides (Aston Villa, Fulham, Sunderland and Stoke) so far. It’s only in November that they will play Liverpool and Manchester United before taking on Manchester City and Chelsea in December. Basically, we will have to wait until the end of this year to know what is Arsenal’s true level.

In the meantime, the Gunners will face Swansea next weekend and West Bromwich, Norwich and Crystal Palace in October. That’s a great timing for the club because Rosicky, Cazorla, Podolski, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Walcott are injured. With a depleted squad, Arsenal still has a chance of beating weak sides but would struggle to match potential contenders.

Arsenal lacked pace and penetration against Stoke as it had no established winger available. That helps explain why Ozil had very few opportunities for through balls. At Real Madrid, he could rely on the runs of Di Maria, Cristiano Ronaldo and Higuain to split a defense. On Sunday, Ozil was surrounded by Giroud, Wilshere and Gnabry. Giroud is not really fast, Wilshere is a midfielder by trade and Gnabry is inexperienced.

In his first Premiership start, Gnabry showed a bit of his potential. Disciplined and sturdy in challenges, the German teenager had very few turnovers and made a good defensive contribution. He released Ozil down the right flank in the 41st minute, and the former Real Madrid midfielder played the ball back to Gnabry, who fired wide from 25 yards. Gnabry often slowed down Arsenal’s passing game by not releasing the ball quickly enough. In one play, he even made seven touches without skipping past any opponent. That’s clearly a lack of experience. You need to read the game much faster in the Premier League than in the NextGen Series.

Gnabry adjusted in the second half by getting rid of the superfluous. He cut inside Pieters in the 48th to take his chance from 25 yards before setting up Giroud in the 53rd. Begovic parried the Frenchman’s long-range strike. Wenger replaced Gnabry with Miyaichi in the 73rd to protect Arsenal’s lead.

The Gunners were clinical on set pieces Sunday, scoring three goals from two free kicks and a corner. To a certain extent, they reminded me of Manchester United last season. The Red Devils did not impress with their game but often found a way to outscore their opponents on their way to the title.

Arsenal capitalized on a foul from Adam on Wilshere to quickly open the scoring. Ozil’s low free kick was palmed away by Begovic, but Ramsey beat Walters to the ball to tap in from a tight angle in the fifth minute. It’s quite a change from last season, when the Gunners often conceded an early goal and spent a lot of energy to rally.

However, Arsenal became a bit complacent after the opener and played at a slower pace while trying to keep the match under control. It’s understandable to protect a slim lead in the last minutes of a match, but it doesn’t make sense when there’s still 85 minutes left. Stoke won the ball in midfield and Nzonzi made a cross for Arnautovic in the 26th. The Austrian winger outpaced Mertesacker for a low volley that struck the post. But Cameron followed up to slam the rebound home. You could see the complacency in that play: Gibbs gave away the ball on his left flank, no one pressured Nzonzi who had plenty of time for a perfect cross, and no one tracked Cameron on the rebound.

The Gunners quickly refocused. Wilshere played a one-two with Ozil but had his 16-yard effort blocked in the 32nd. On the ensuing corner, Pieters cleared a header from Mertesacker. The German defender took his revenge four minutes later, connecting with a corner from Ozil to give Arsenal a 2-1 lead.

Bould must have been happy with his team’s defensive display. Whereas Sunderland created plenty of chances the previous weekend, Stoke had just one clear-cut opportunity on Sunday. Szczesny was only tested by long-range attempts in the second half. The Poland goalkeeper denied Wilson in the 63rd and Arnautovic in the 74th.

The Potters slightly dominated possession in the second half, but Arsenal was the more threatening team. Ozil slipped the ball to Giroud in the 57th, but the off-balance Frenchman missed the target. From a Szczesny clearance in the 63rd, Giroud won a header that was redirected by Wilshere into the path of Ozil. Begovic stopped the Germany playmaker’s low strike from a tight angle.

Just when Stoke had a spell of domination, Sagna outjumped Wilson and Walters in the 72nd to head a free kick from Ozil into the top corner. Arsenal could have added a fourth goal in stoppage time. Giroud found Ramsey in the 93rd and the Wales midfielder rolled away from Ireland to unleash a powerful drive that Begovic tipped over the bar.

Arsenal fans have been whining about the lack of silverware since 2005. On paper, the League Cup is the easiest trophy to win. But our squad is so skinny right now that it’d be foolish to field a full-strength team against West Bromwich on Wednesday. The club’s trade-off is obvious: either Wenger rests some key players in the third round of the League Cup but gives his club a chance to contend for the Premiership title, or he spreads his squad too thin by risking injuries. In fact, Wednesday’s match would be a good opportunity to blood young players and find alternatives on the wings.

Arsenal vs. Stoke

Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com

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