Stoke vs. Arsenal: Cech salvages point as Gunners stay top

Cech pulled off some great saves in a goalless draw with Stoke on Sunday to help Arsenal retain the top spot in the Premier League. The Potters had the better chances, so earning a point was definitely a good result. To put things in context, the two Manchesters lost at the Britannia stadium while Leicester also dropped two points.

Stoke vs. Arsenal

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Wenger made only one change to the side that drew 3-3 with Liverpool on Wednesday with Oxlade-Chamberlain replacing Ozil in the starting lineup. Ozil and Sanchez were not even in the squad as Ozil had a swollen foot according to the club’s website and Sanchez was not completely fit after recovering from a hamstring injury. Unsurprisingly, the Gunners created very few chances. Without Ozil, the quality of the final ball dropped. Without Cazorla, our passing game was never sharp enough to split the Stoke defense. And without Sanchez, we missed a forward who can score a goal out of nothing.

The manager gave the playmaking duties to the Ox, who struggled to dictate the tempo pretty much like in the FA Cup game against Sunderland. The Ox often held onto the ball too long as he struggled to read the game and see his passing options. He attempted a complicated pass to Campbell that was intercepted in the 26th and lost possession with poor passes to Walcott and Bellerin respectively in the 45th and 65th. You can’t blame the Ox for his work-rate though. He won 2 of 2 tackles, made 1 interception and 2 blocks, and won 66.7% of his duels.

Shaky centerbacks

Let’s be honest. This has been a season of regression for the Ox. He knows it and you can see that it affects his confidence on the pitch. He lacks a bit of tactical maturity to reach the next stage. Technically, his passing, dribbling and shooting skills are good enough for any top English club. I feel that he would perform better in the final third than in midfield. The Ox had a curling shot tipped over the bar in the 29th and a half-volley deflected out in the 30th. Again, if the Ox plays on the wings, he must still improve his reading of the game to make smarter runs.

Koscielny and Mertesacker are more exposed with Flamini and Ramsey in midfield than when Coquelin and Cazorla patrolled in front of the back four. The pair of centerbacks looked shaky on Sunday, forcing Cech to make 5 tough saves compared to just 3 for Butland. Koscielny produced an energetic display with 13 clearances and 5 interceptions, but he also lost 44.4% of his duels and had a passing accuracy of 71.1% (the lowest percentages among Arsenal defenders).

When Koscielny took Ramsey’s backpass in the sixth minute and had his second touch blocked by Joselu for a throw-in, I thought for a split second about his mistake that led to Sunderland’s goal in the FA Cup. The French centerback was a couple of times casual in possession. He gave the ball away to Walters in the 24th and to Johnson in the 66th. Johnson slipped the ball to Joselu, who cut inside Koscielny for a low strike that Cech turned around the post.

Cech’s double save

Mertesacker also had his share of mistakes. Joselu pounced on a poor clearance from the German defender in the 35th for a header that Cech easily caught. A minute later, Whelan intercepted Mertesacker’s pass for the Ox and fed Bojan, whose low curling shot sailed wide.

The Potters mostly relied on long-range efforts and counterattacks to create chances. Afellay missed the target with a 25-yard drive in the 20th while Whelan’s 30-yard half-volley was headed out by Koscielny in the 89th. Stoke’s first big chance came in the 57th when Campbell ran into traffic and lost possession. Arnautovic led the fast break and picked out Joselu, whose 18-yard strike was palmed away by Cech into the path of Bojan. Somehow, the Czech goalkeeper quickly got back on his feet to deny Bojan. That was a really bad situation with just three Gunners (Mertesacker, Koscielny and Flamini) facing four Potters (Arnautovic, Joselu, Bojan and Walters) because Campbell and Giroud did not track back while Monreal was out of position, still recovering from a blow.

My main concern now is the level of fatigue in the Arsenal squad. It’s no coincidence if both Liverpool and Stoke finished stronger. The Potters could have scored the winner from a corner in the last minute of regulation time. Walters got ahead of Giroud at the near post for a reverse header that Ramsey cleared off the line. Joselu beat the Ox to the second ball for a volley that Cech stopped with his leg. The Ox lacked positional awareness on that play as he never felt Joselu’s presence in his back.

Should Walcott play on the right wing?

The officiating was a bit lenient at the Britannia stadium. Walcott knocked the ball past Wollscheid in the second minute and would have been clean through on goal if Wollscheid had not body-checked him. The referee gave a free kick but no card. In my book, any cynical foul to kill a chance should be a booking. Wollscheid was smarter in the 52nd, briefly pulling Walcott’s arm on the edge of the box. The referee ignored the foul, which put Walcott off his stride and prevented him from collecting Ramsey’s through ball. Arsenal also benefited from the referee’s leniency when Flamini tried to stop a counterattack with a late challenge on Arnautovic in the 49th.

Giroud did not get much service but tested Butland with his only two scoring chances. Chasing a through ball from Campbell in the 21st, Giroud was denied by the Stoke goalkeeper who quickly came off his line and made himself big. Giroud then lost his marker to head a corner from Ramsey in the 47th but Butland made a diving save. Campbell made a great pass to set up Giroud in the 21st but he still needs to work on his finishing. Concluding a counterattack in the 85th, the Costa Rica forward should have caught the frame from 15 yards.

I’m still not convinced by Walcott on the left wing. Walcott had no shot and a passing accuracy as low as 69.2%. His runs look more natural on the right wing. Of course, he can cut inside from the left wing and shoot with his stronger foot, but he can’t really make crosses. His work-rate has also dropped. When Johnson dispossessed him in the 33rd, Walcott made no effort to track back. I’m pretty sure the manager would bench Walcott if injuries did not deprive him of options on the wings.

Strengthening the squad

The winter transfer market is an opportunity for clubs to strengthen their squads. Last Thursday, Arsenal signed versatile midfielder Elneny from Swiss club Basel for about 7 million pounds. That gives Wenger some room to rest Ramsey and Ozil. Coquelin, Rosicky, Wilshere and Welbeck were back in training a few days ago, but it will take them a couple of weeks to be ready for competitive games.

The next step for the manager is to deal with the Debuchy case. The French fullback has been too vocal in the past few weeks about his desire to get some playing time. I think the staff should offload him as quickly as possible to protect the chemistry in the dressing room. We’re in the middle of a tight title race and simply don’t need that kind of distraction.