Arsenal vs. Stoke: Gunners survive poor finishing in 2-0 win

The Gunners defeated Stoke 2-0 on Saturday to earn their first victory at the Emirates stadium this season and their third straight clean sheet in the Premier League. Arsenal’s defensive solidity was obviously the main positive. The players made the efforts to impose the manager’s pressing game and get back into a compact shape after losing possession. The main negative was our finishing. The Gunners should have scored twice in the first 10 minutes and reached halftime with a 3-0 lead. And with a decent conversion rate, they should have won the match 5-0. You probably think: ‘We got three points without conceding a goal, so what’s the problem?’ Well, you can afford to spurn a few chances against the weak sides. But such a wastefulness becomes a problem in tight games against the good teams and can prove the difference between a win and a loss.

Arsenal vs. Stoke

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The centerforward spot is up for grabs this season. Wenger is hoping the competition between Giroud and Walcott will help them raise their finishing standards. Walcott has started the last two Premier League games while Giroud got the nod for the first three. On Saturday, the manager opted for the most in-form striker since Walcott scored twice against San Marino during the international break whereas Giroud couldn’t find the net against Serbia.

Outstanding first touch

Performances from both players were not really convincing. When Butland tipped Sanchez’s header onto the post in the third minute, Walcott followed up but hit the rebound wide from six yards. In a similar situation, Walcott also failed to catch the frame from four yards against Newcastle. I thought his miss in the ninth minute was worse. An unmarked Walcott headed Bellerin’s cross over the bar from six yards. There was no tricky bounce and the delivery was perfect. Giroud would have buried that chance.

Walcott needed a third opportunity to finally open the scoring in the 31st. Coquelin won the ball with a sliding tackle and fed Ozil, who looked up and spotted Walcott’s run in behind Muniesa. The Germany playmaker made a perfect 50-yard pass for Walcott, who controlled the ball with an outstanding first touch and held off Muniesa while slipping the ball past Butland. Giroud would have scored with a header in the ninth minute but there’s no way he could have made that kind of run. Again, we miss the complete centerforward. Henry and Van Persie would have converted both chances.

Walcott’s confidence should have improved after that goal. Unfortunately, the rest of the match highlighted his flaws. His four-yard pass to Coquelin in the 39th went straight into touch, reminding every fan of his poor link-up play. Walcott then lacked conviction when he met a Bellerin cross in the 67th, producing a tame effort from eight yards that Butland easily saved. Three minutes later, Bellerin sent Walcott clean through on goal but the England striker was denied by Butland, attempting a low strike while a chip seemed the better option.

Learning on the job

It’s obvious that Walcott doesn’t have Giroud’s experience at centerforward and that the manager wants Walcott to learn on the job. It might pay off in the long run but it will also cost us points this season. Giroud replaced Walcott in the 75th and wasted a clear-cut chance just a minute later. In a goalmouth scramble, the ball ricocheted off two Potters before falling to Giroud, who fired wide from eight yards. Giroud made amends by heading in Cazorla’s free kick in the 85th for a 2-0 lead. The Frenchman made a basic run at the near post but the Stoke defense didn’t seem to care. In stoppage time, the Gunners had a penalty shout turned down. Giroud connected with a pass from Bellerin for a sliding effort that sailed wide as Pieters clearly pulled him back.

Perhaps all that talk about the need for a clinical centerforward wouldn’t be relevant if Sanchez had opened his account on Saturday. Remember, Sanchez finished last season as our top scorer with 25 goals in all competitions. Sanchez had a header diverted onto the post by Butland in the third minute and a free kick turned around the post by the Stoke goalkeeper in the sixth. He then hit the far post with a 25-yard drive in the eighth minute before fading in the second half. I guess Sanchez must have been exhausted by his trip to South America while on duty with the Chile team.

Coquelin and Bellerin rediscovering their game

The main positive from Saturday’s game was our defensive focus. Stoke tried to put pressure on the Arsenal defense by using a 4-4-2 formation, but Cech was only forced into a couple of routine saves, stopping a long-range effort from Joselu in the 34th and an angled strike from Shaqiri in the 57th. It’s quite funny to see that when Koscielny and Paulista team up, Paulista is the more cautious defender while Koscielny remains the same impetuous player.

That proactive approach helped Koscielny make seven interceptions to only three for Paulista. Koscielny also had two scoring chances with a 35-yard drive tipped over the bar in the 24th and a header saved in the 89th. On the negative side, the Frenchman was shaky twice at the back. First, with a poor clearance that led to Shaqiri’s chance in the 57th. And then with a lost duel that forced Bellerin to block Shaqiri’s goal attempt in the 61st. Hopefully, the more games Koscielny and Paulista play together, the better their understanding will become. (Please, don’t screw up like Terry and Zouma did against Everton.)

Bellerin and Coquelin struggled a bit at the start of the season. On Saturday, both youngsters delivered a great performance, reminding Debuchy and Arteta why they are now second choices. Coquelin had the best statistics among the midfielders at the Emirates stadium, winning four of five tackles and 70 percent of his duels, according to the club’s website. He also made three interceptions, including the one that led to the opening goal. Bellerin had very little to do defensively, so he ventured forward and created four chances, three for Walcott and one for Giroud.

The international break’s impact

Cazorla ran the show in midfield, making the assist for Giroud’s goal and setting up Sanchez in the third minute and Koscielny in the 89th for headers that Butland saved. The Spaniard also had two scoring chances with a half-volley stopped by Butland in the 25th and a wide effort in the 78th. What I liked with Cazorla is that he helped keep a high tempo when his teammates slowed our passing game by taking too many touches.

Arsenal dominated the match with 68 percent of ball possession although Ozil had an average game and Ramsey performed poorly. The most obvious explanation is that Ozil and Ramsey had not completely recovered from the international break after starting two Euro 2016 qualifiers for Germany and Wales respectively. Ozil only won 38 percent of his duels and Ramsey 46 percent.

The Germany playmaker’s ball over the top for the opening goal was spectacular. He also played a one-two with Cazorla in the 69th for an angled effort that Butland parried. But Ozil’s turnover rate was high and he picked up a yellow card in the 38th for a cynical foul on Pieters. Ramsey is usually the kind of player you see all over the pitch, but his engine let him down on Saturday. It was quite telling that Ramsey slipped when Ozil teed him up for a 15-yard shot in the 55th. Maybe the manager should have rested them but injuries to Rosicky and Wilshere limited his rotation possibilities.

One injury away from trouble

The Gunners have a bit more breathing room after climbing to fourth place in the Premier League but they are entering a tricky period with seven matches in 23 days. That means a game every three or four days and therefore no rest at all. Rosicky and Welbeck are sidelined until December while Wilshere has suffered a setback in his recovery. If Giroud picks up an injury, Walcott is our only alternative up front. If Ramsey gets hurt, Oxlade-Chamberlain is the only attacking midfielder available, unless the manager wants to tweak his system and play with two defensive midfielders. I don’t consider Arsenal a legitimate contender because we are in that unenviable situation, one injury away from trouble.

We’re still better off than the Blues, who are under pressure with just four points in the league. Of course, five games are a small sample size, but if the Blues don’t beat Arsenal next Saturday, all the talk will be about a Chelsea team with no life left. You simply can’t bridge an 11-point gap if you have no fight in you.