Saturday’s 1-0 loss at Stoke does not bode well for the Gunners in the title race. They trail Chelsea by four points and surrendered second place to Liverpool on goal difference. They could even slip to fourth place if Manchester City wins one of its two games in hand. Arsenal’s form has been erratic lately with just eight points earned from its last six matches in the Premier League. That’s clearly not good enough for a contender.
At the exception of Gibbs who replaced the injured Monreal, Wenger fielded the same starting lineup that beat Sunderland 4-1 a week ago. Maybe the only surprise was to see Ozil on the bench. There were quite a few times this season when the manager played Ozil despite the Germany midfielder’s apparent exhaustion or poor run of form. Wenger has been very protective toward Ozil since his arrival at the club. But when you are in the middle of a title race, there’s simply no room for sympathy and the manager must make choices in the team’s interest.
How Stoke escaped a red card
The Gunners knew what was coming at the Britannia Stadium. But they were still outmuscled in duels by the Potters, who showed more commitment and even dominated possession in the opening minutes. Wilshere, Arteta and Giroud were frustrated not to get minor fouls called by the referee. Visibly intimidated by Stoke’s physical game, Arsenal made a lot of turnovers and its passing game never really clicked.
Wenger wasn’t happy with the officiating although he refrained from criticizing too much the referee after the match. Let us be honest: Jones had a poor game. He gave a free kick to the Potters in the 36th minute when Whelan should have been sent off for stamping on Giroud’s ankle. And when Adam planted his studs into Giroud’s leg in the 68th, Jones did not give any card. To Jones’ credit, he booked Pieters for a late challenge on Giroud in the 44th and gave Wilson a yellow card for a cynical foul on Wilshere in the 77th.
In my eyes, some of the British referees are way too lax and don’t pay enough attention to the players’ physical integrity. If the English Football Association does not improve its officiating standards, more and more referees will be exposed in international games. Remember De Jong’s kung-fu kick on Xabi Alonso’s chest in the 2010 World Cup final? Webb was the infamous referee for that match.
Arsenal’s poor finishing
Stoke clearly tried to unsettle the Gunners by roughing them up. When you realize that the officiating is poor, either you feel sorry for yourself or you try to adjust. Unfortunately, Arsenal was never able to play without having the Potters’ aggression in mind.
In the first half, Stoke had only one scoring chance with a long-range strike from Whelan that Szczesny parried in the 42nd. The Gunners created five half-chances but were let down by some poor finishing. Cazorla skipped past Adam in the 18th but curled his shot over the bar. Giroud also missed the target with a header from a Gibbs cross in the 22nd before sending the ball straight into Begovic’s arms from a Sagna cross in the 30th. Arteta then led a counterattack in the 33rd but Podolski fired into the side-netting under pressure from two defenders. Two minutes before halftime, Rosicky knocked down a high ball for Cazorla, who shot straight at Begovic while Wilshere, unmarked to his left, was waiting for a pass.
In the second half, Arsenal enjoyed more possession but also showed its defensive frailties. Defending set pieces is still an issue. An unmarked Crouch connected with a free kick from Adam in the 53rd but wasted the chance by attempting a high volley instead of heading the ball. Sagna then poorly cleared a corner in the 66th and the loose ball fell to Cameron who missed the target from 10 yards.
Much has been said about Arsenal’s team spirit, but the wingers failed to track back at least twice. A cross from Cameron in the 48th forced Szczesny to come off his goal line and knock the ball away as Crouch got ahead of Mertesacker. Then Crouch outjumped Koscielny in the 65th to meet a cross from Pieters for a header that Szczesny turned around the post.
Stoke finally opened the scoring with a penalty from Walters in the 75th after Koscielny handled the ball inside the area. The French defender was a bit unlucky since he had not much time to react and pull away his arm when Walters chipped the ball over him. But Koscielny would never have been in such a tricky situation if he had beaten Walters to the ball. Koscielny had a decent game on Saturday but his performances against Crystal Palace, Liverpool and Manchester United were really poor. Maybe Wenger should buy a better centerback this summer.
What if Chambo had started?
The Potters wasted a lot of energy to press Arsenal high up the pitch in the first half and their intensity dropped by the 60th minute. Wenger tried to add more offensive pressure by replacing Podolski with Ozil in the 67th and Rosicky with Oxlade-Chamberlain in the 74th. But it wasn’t until the manager shifted to a 4-4-2 system by sending on Sanogo for Wilshere in the 80th that the Gunners created chances again. Ozil combined with Giroud before shooting wide from a tight angle in the 83rd. Chambo charged down the right flank in stoppage time to cut the ball back for Sanogo, who fired over the bar from 12 yards.
In hindsight, maybe Flamini would have been a more appropriate choice than Arteta to match the Potters’ aggression. Podolski went missing again and there’s no doubt that Chambo would have caused more problems for the Stoke defense with his pace and directness.
In the end, this loss at the Britannia Stadium highlights the team’s weaknesses. Among our four regular starters at the back, Koscielny has been the weak link this season. In midfield, Ozil does not have the impact that a world-class player should have. In fact, Ramsey has been much more valuable than Ozil in that area. Up front, we have no world-class striker. Giroud is too often wasteful and will never be able to score a goal out of nothing like Suarez or Van Persie. Sanogo missed a golden chance in stoppage time, but don’t forget that he’s just 21 and has only played eight games in the French league before joining Arsenal. Wenger mentioned Anelka to boost Sanogo’s confidence, but Anelka had a limited impact in his first season in England and the Premier League was much weaker in 1997.
Is Arsenal’s title bid finally fizzling out? Things look similar to the 2007-08 season when the Gunners surrendered the lead to Manchester United after 29 rounds. The Red Devils had a six-point lead over Arsenal by the end of March. At that time, Eduardo’s broken leg was seen as the main reason for the club’s lost momentum.
Last month, the Gunners lost the lead to Chelsea after 24 rounds. Ramsey’s injury has clearly been the main factor in the team’s declining performance. On paper, Arsenal could go back to the top of the league with victories over Chelsea and Manchester City in a few weeks. But the FA Cup is our most realistic chance of silverware this year. The Gunners will need a lot of mental toughness against Everton next weekend to end the club’s title drought.
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