Arsenal vs. Stoke: Sanchez becoming the heartbeat of his team in 3-0 win

Housemoving issues and working overtime have prevented me from writing about soccer over the past few days. It’s only one week after the 3-0 victory over Stoke that I’ve found the time to analyze that match. The Gunners played on their own terms, making technique and movement prevail over the Potters’ physical impact to stay three points behind Southampton before this weekend’s games.

Arsenal vs. Stoke

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Ospina, who is 6’0 tall, made his first start in the Premier League. He might be our shortest goalkeeper in the Wenger era as Seaman, Lehmann, Almunia, Fabianski, Mannone and Szczesny are taller than the Colombia goalkeeper. But his height shouldn’t be an issue since such great goalkeepers as Banks, Zoff and Barthez were also 6’0. Szczesny’s blunders in the 2-0 loss to Southampton definitely helped Ospina get a chance. However, Ospina is no slouch: he performed well in the 2014 World Cup and led Nice to a fourth-place finish in the French league two years ago.

Ospina had very little work against Stoke because Arsenal defended well, but I think he deserves a few more starts to show his worth. He’s a no-nonsense goalkeeper who won’t give you the jitters like the nonchalant Szczesny. Ospina has a better ball distribution and quicker legs than Szczesny. On paper, Ospina has enough credentials to claim the No. 1 spot in goal.

Forever dirty

Arsenal fans can’t stand the Potters for one obvious reason: they are a dirty team. Everybody still remembers how Shawcross shattered Ramsey’s leg in 2010. Pulis is no longer Stoke’s manager but not much has changed since his departure. As the ball was bouncing out of bounds, Arnautovic pushed Debuchy from behind in the 11th minute. The France fullback crashed into the advertising boards and was replaced by Bellerin because of a dislocated shoulder that will sideline him for three months. What makes you sick is that the referee didn’t call the foul and the crass Arnautovic didn’t even apologize to Debuchy.

Stoke’s intimidation show continued with Crouch swinging an elbow into Monreal’s face in the 36th, Shawcross shoving Giroud from behind off the ball in the 43rd, and Crouch tackling Coquelin from behind in the 63rd. Those disgusting tactics did not prevent the Gunners from dominating the match.

Within six months, Sanchez has become the heartbeat of his team. Last Sunday, he scored twice and had an assist. Sanchez made a pinpoint cross for Koscielny, who headed home in the sixth minute following a corner poorly cleared by the Stoke defense. The Chile forward then played a one-two with Rosicky in the 33rd to fire inside the near post for a 2-0 lead. Sanchez has such quick feet that defenders struggle to keep pace with him. Shawcross tried to have a head start by anticipating a shot toward the far post but that opened up some space at the near post for Sanchez.

Both a scorer and a team player

Sanchez notched his 12th league goal by curling home a free kick through a crack in the wall to make it 3-0 in the 48th. He’s often described as a soloist but he’s a good team player too with seven assists. Sanchez held off Wollscheid in the 15th to feed Oxlade-Chamberlain, whose low strike sailed wide. He then cut the ball back for Giroud, whose curling shot was palmed away by Begovic in the 21st. In the closing minutes, Sanchez led a counterattack to send Walcott clean through on goal. The pass was perfect but Walcott missed the target from 18 yards.

Walcott still looks rusty and I guess he’ll need at least a month to rediscover his finishing touch. Ozil is another player who is struggling to get match fit. In his return from a knee injury, the Germany playmaker replaced Giroud in the 73rd and fired wide from a tight angle in the 86th after collecting a through ball from Cazorla.

Walcott and Ozil would have been starters a year ago. But much has changed since last season. The club has hired two forwards, Sanchez and Welbeck, who have a tremendous work rate, while Chambo has matured in his reading of the game. I believe competition within the squad is crucial to bring out the best in every player. If Walcott and Ozil contribute very little defensively, then players who work harder for the team should definitely get the nod.

Better than your average fullback

Cazorla and Rosicky pulled the strings in midfield against Stoke. After four minutes, the Spaniard found Rosicky, who ran past two defenders but had his low drive palmed away by Begovic. Rosicky then slipped a through ball to Giroud in the 21st but the Frenchman fired wide. In the second half, Cazorla played a one-two with Chambo before chipping over the bar from a tight angle while an unmarked Mertesacker was waiting for a pass at the far post. Cazorla still lacks efficiency in the final third, but his passing skills and his defensive contribution help balance the team.

Bellerin smoothly took over at rightback, making a gutsy sliding tackle inside the Arsenal area to dispossess Arnautovic of the ball in the 54th. At 19, he’s still a raw player, but I like the pace at which he’s learning. His only major mistake was to cheaply give away the ball in the 90th and stop tracking Arnautovic, who played a one-two with Crouch before setting up Ireland for a low strike that Ospina saved.

To a certain extent, Bellerin makes me think of Azpilicueta. I remember Marseille fans didn’t like Azpilicueta in his first season at the French club in 2010. Azpilicueta was better technically than your average fullback, but his positional play could be erratic and therefore cost goals. He improved in his second season and was transferred to Chelsea, becoming one of the best defenders in the league. The bigger Bellerin’s defensive repertoire gets, the faster he’ll become a pillar of the Arsenal defense.

Roll of the dice

Defensively, the Gunners survived a few poor moments. Coquelin started at holding midfielder because Flamini had just recovered from a groin injury. Bojan too easily skipped past Coquelin in the 24th. The Frenchman also got rid of the ball a couple of times with long balls going nowhere instead of simply making short passes. Obviously, Coquelin doesn’t have Arteta’s passing skills but I think he can make an effort to keep a low turnover rate.

Stoke could have leveled in the 27th when Arsenal had a lapse of concentration. An unmarked Whelan connected with a free kick from Bojan but fired over the bar. Koscielny’s season looks pretty much like a rollercoaster because of his Achilles problems. Pieters ghosted past Koscielny in the 41st but couldn’t meet the cross from Cameron. One play in the 57th showed Koscielny wasn’t 100 percent fit. He gave away a free kick by coming out of the starting blocks a split second late to intercept a pass to Sidwell. That’s the kind of ball Koscielny usually wins.

Crouch got the better of Koscielny quite a few times. On the stroke of halftime, the Stoke striker skipped past Koscielny to drag a low shot. A few seconds later, he beat Koscielny to the ball to head Arnautovic’s cross wide. In the second half, Crouch got ahead of Koscielny to slide an effort wide. Relying on Koscielny this season is like a roll of the dice. You never know whether you’ll get the France international or a defender playing with two bad ankles.

Improving the chemistry

We have until Feb. 2 to make a move on the transfer market. The need for a centerback and a defensive midfielder has become more urgent since Debuchy (shoulder) and Arteta (ankle) will be sidelined for three months. While we are short at the back, we have maybe too many options up front. Wenger has therefore trimmed his squad to improve the chemistry in the dressing room by loaning out Sanogo to Crystal Palace and Podolski to Inter Milan. Sanogo needs playing time to keep progressing while Podolski has repeatedly voiced his frustration about his limited opportunities.