Football is about winning duels. The Gunners lost 3-2 to Stoke on Saturday because they were not at the races in the first half. They came close to salvaging a point in the second half but could not overcome a three-goal deficit, suffering a fourth defeat in 15 Premier League games.
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Wenger made three changes to the side that edged Southampton 1-0 on Wednesday, with Bellerin, Gibbs and Giroud replacing Koscielny, Monreal and Welbeck in the starting lineup. The changes at the back made Arsenal more vulnerable since Koscielny is more physical and stronger in the air than Bellerin.
On the other hand, the lack of rotation in midfield contributed to Arsenal’s lack of movement and commitment. Injuries to Arteta, Wilshere, Ozil, Diaby and Rosicky mean that we can only rely on Flamini, Ramsey and Cazorla in midfield. For the first time this season, the bench looked relatively weak with Ajayi and Maitland-Niles as possible substitutes. Some of our players are exhausted and that clearly impacts our passing game.
Any team visiting Britannia stadium knows what to expect. Yet, the Gunners started the match like a friendly. Diouf met a cross from Nzonzi to feed Crouch for a tap-in after just 19 seconds. The Potters may be an average side, but any lack of focus can get punished at the top level. Gibbs failed to stop Nzonzi’s cross, Chambers missed his clearance and Bellerin slipped while challenging Diouf. Three lost duels in one play, that’s too much. The 19-year-old Chambers and Bellerin have learned the hard way that players must be switched on at kickoff.
Flamini at rightback
All our defenders had a poor game. Bojan cut inside Gibbs in the 14th minute to cross for Crouch, who outjumped Bellerin at the far post but could not make contact with the ball. Gibbs failed again to cut Walters’ cross in the 35th and Bojan ran past Mertesacker to volley home for a 2-0 lead. Mertesacker was our most senior defender on the pitch, but he set a poor example in the first half by cheaply giving the ball away three times.
On the stroke of halftime, Crouch redirected a corner toward an unmarked Walters, who slammed the ball into the roof of the net. Crouch is Stoke’s tallest player, so I don’t understand why the Gunners let Chambers and Bellerin deal with Crouch on that set piece while Mertesacker was the more appropriate defender.
Wenger replaced Bellerin with Welbeck at halftime as Flamini took over the rightback position and Ramsey moved into a holding midfielder role. Bellerin showed his naivety a couple of times, losing possession while trying to cut inside his marker. That move can work in a NextGen match but not in the Premier League. Bellerin might feel down after his performance, but he wasn’t as bad as Gibbs, Mertesacker or Chambers.
Chambers’ love for yellow cards
Chambers showed interesting potential in his first games with Arsenal, but the more I watch him, and the more I notice his flaws. He has already received eight yellow cards this season, more than any other Gunner. His slow first steps and his inability to turn quickly are the main reasons for those bookings. Even if the manager helps Chambers improve his self-discipline, it’s hard to see him become a starter for a contending team.
Chambers was booked in the 61st for holding Crouch. He received a second yellow card in the 78th for another cynical foul on Bojan, who was not even clean through on goal. His stupidity killed whatever momentum Arsenal had in the second half. Chambers was guilty on two of the three goals conceded by Arsenal. Stoke should have scored a fourth one in the 65th when Bojan cut inside Chambers to fire a low strike that Martinez palmed into his own net. However, the referee did not let the goal stand because Diouf obstructed the goalkeeper’s line of sight while in an offside position.
Martinez showed poise in his first couple of games with Arsenal but he was awfully shaky on Saturday, making a handling mistake for the goal that was disallowed and spilling two long-range shots. The only positive was his decent performance in the air. Martinez might be a good prospect in the long term, but Szczesny and Ospina are still ahead of him at this stage.
It could have been a different match if Giroud had converted his first chance in the 11th. Bellerin charged down the right flank to cross for an unmarked Giroud, whose downward header from six yards went wide. Shawcross more tightly marked the Frenchman after that play. Oxlade-Chamberlain skipped past a defender in the 16th to hoist the ball into the box but Shawcross blocked Giroud’s header. Giroud had another chance from a corner in the 38th but Begovic tipped over the bar his header that bounced off Shawcross. The French striker seemed to lose self-confidence in the second half and was replaced by Podolski in the 63rd.
Cazorla missed the target from 25 yards in the 19th but at least he had his shooting boots to convert a penalty in the 68th and cut the lead to 3-1 after Diouf tripped Flamini inside the area. His other contributions were a cross for Podolski, who headed the ball straight into Begovic’s arms in the 74th, and a low drive that the Stoke goalkeeper punched away in the 85th.
Ramsey’s positive week
An unmarked Ramsey brought back hope by volleying home a corner in the 70th. But Chambers’ ejection a few minutes later made the Potters’ defensive task much easier. This has been a positive week for Ramsey with an assist against Southampton and a goal against Stoke. However, he still needs to improve his defensive game. The Wales midfielder lost a duel in the 31st, allowing a free kick from Bojan to be flicked toward the far post where an unmarked Diouf was fortunately flagged offside.
The Gunners could have salvaged a point if they had been more clinical. Sanchez intercepted a pass from Nzonzi in the 57th, dribbled past a defender and rounded Begovic before hitting the post from a tight angle. Then Welbeck collected a through ball in the 70th but had his first-time effort turned around the post by Begovic.
Wenger complained about the officiating after the match. Let’s be honest, it was at times inconsistent but not too bad. When Bardsley brought down Sanchez while winning the ball in the sixth minute, I felt Stoke should have been penalized. But Taylor awarded the Potters a free kick. In most UEFA games, Bardsley’s tackle is considered a foul because there’s too much commitment. In the Premier League, players can still get away with that kind of challenge.
I thought Chambers’ ejection was justified. Any cynical foul is by definition a yellow card. My only disagreement with Taylor was his inconsistency. Gibbs was booked in the 71st for throwing an elbow in the air for the first time in that match. By contrast, Crouch did not receive any yellow card for two similar offenses in the first half. The Stoke striker was only booked in the second half for swinging an arm into Mertesacker’s face.
The Gunners are on pace to finish the season with 58 points. They’ll need to increase their cruising speed soon because the lowest total reached by a fourth-place team over the past 14 seasons is 60 points. The next two games are crucial as we face two rivals in the race for a Champions League spot: Newcastle next Saturday and Liverpool in two weeks. The title race has been over for Arsenal since October. December could be the month that will make or break our season.