Arsenal vs. Stoke: Bellerin helps Gunners fight back in 3-1 win

The Gunners consolidated second place in the Premier League and moved four points clear of Manchester City by coming from behind in a 3-1 win over Stoke on Saturday. Bellerin’s return from injury and the end product from the wingers helped Arsenal defeat a team that had lost only one of its nine previous games.


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In an attempt to inject freshness, Wenger made 6 changes to the side that routed Basel 4-1 last Tuesday in the Champions League with Cech, Monreal, Mustafi, Coquelin, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Walcott replacing Ospina, Gibbs, Holding, Ramsey, Iwobi and Perez in the starting lineup.

Despite 64% of ball possession, the Gunners did not produce a performance as dominant as the scoreline might suggest. They had 6 shots on target compared to 5 for the Potters. Arsenal played at an average tempo and gave too much space in the first half.

The referee’s leniency did not help as Stoke slowed play down by taking 30 seconds for each goal kick. Grant only received a warning for his time-wasting tactics in the beginning of the second half. That’s really poor officiating. Mason should have warned Grant before his second goal kick instead of allowing a player to disrupt the flow of the game for 45 minutes.

Mustafi’s hamstring injury led to Bellerin’s introduction in the 25th minute with Paulista shifting from rightback to centerback. Bellerin is a key factor in Arsenal’s attacking fluency. His presence down the right flank allows Walcott to drift inside and be more often in a scoring position. Bellerin also provides more ammunition than Paulista with his pace and technique. The Spaniard finished the game with 3 key passes.

Triangular play

Bellerin’s first foray was not successful as he crossed the ball into the stands in the 33rd. Three minutes later, his low cross for Ozil was cleared by Diouf. However, the Stoke defense was helpless in the 42nd when Sanchez released Bellerin down the right wing. Walcott got ahead of Martins Indi to flick home Bellerin’s offering. It was a triangular play similar to the second goal scored against Chelsea. On the stroke of halftime, Bellerin created another chance but Oxlade-Chamberlain sent his first-time effort over the bar from 14 yards.

Walcott had a decent game with 3 of his 6 goal attempts on target. He made a run in behind Pieters to collect a deep pass from Mustafi in the 12th but Grant stopped his angled strike. Walcott was again denied by the Stoke goalkeeper after skipping past two defenders in the 82nd.

The Ox had mixed fortunes on the left wing. He made 2 key passes and had 3 successful dribbles out of 3, but his passing accuracy was down to 69.6%, the lowest percentage among Arsenal players. The Ox set up Arsenal’s second goal in the 49th with a ball over the top for Ozil, who beat an advanced Grant with a looping header. The England international could have also found the net with a bit more composure. The Ox met a cross from Sanchez in the 53rd for a downward header that sailed wide. He finally tested Grant in the 58th by chesting down a long ball from Sanchez to cut inside Muniesa and curl a low shot that the Stoke goalie saved.

Competition on the wings

Iwobi came off the bench to replace the Ox in the 69th. The Nigeria international quickly had an impact as he made it 3-1 in the 75th. Martins Indi fouled Sanchez on the edge of the box, but the referee played advantage and Iwobi beat Adam to the loose ball to net with a low curling shot. Iwobi, who also scored against Basel a few days ago, is rediscovering his form. With the busy Christmas period coming up, it doesn’t hurt to have competition for starting spots on the wings. Especially if Iwobi improves his defensive awareness. He made 2 blocks and won 1 of 1 tackle. Saturday’s game also shows that the team doesn’t have to depend on Sanchez for goals.

I guess the big difference between the top players and the good ones is the capacity to perform consistently even on an average day. Sanchez had none of his 3 shots on target and none of his 2 dribbling attempts was successful, according to Squawka. But he was involved in the build-up of 2 goals and made 5 key passes, more than any other player.

Even if he doesn’t get goals or assists, Sanchez will always put in a shift. Sanchez won 3 of 4 tackles, and made 1 interception and 1 block against Stoke. He nearly embarrassed Grant by charging down the goalie’s clearance in the ninth minute.

Sanchez was disappointed when the manager replaced him with Giroud in the 77th, but the Chile striker has to look at the bigger picture: Giroud was a greater asset in the air against Crouch and fans still remember how Arsenal badly struggled last season when Sanchez picked up a hamstring injury. If the FA is serious about punishing violence, Adam should be suspended for his deliberate stamp (notice the change in his stride) on Sanchez’s leg in the 75th.

Ozil’s lax coverage

Ozil scored the second goal and made 2 key passes, but his defensive contribution is becoming an issue. He made no tackle, no interception and no block. A week ago, West Ham took advantage of Ozil’s lax coverage of the zone between the striker and the central midfielders to hit long balls.

The Potters used that same trick to create chances with Adam and Imbula combining for 7 accurate long balls, according to Arnautovic ghosted past Koscielny to chase a long ball in the 37th but Cech came off his line to head the ball away. Diouf then beat the offside trap to collect Adam’s long ball in the 65th only to have his shot deflected out by Paulista.

Stoke also relied on crosses to put the Arsenal defense under pressure. Monreal failed to stop a cross from Shaqiri in the 48th but Bellerin managed to put off Pieters, whose tame header sailed wide. Pieters got the better of Bellerin in the 69th to make a cross for Diouf, who missed the target despite some poor marking from Koscielny. Hugues sensed an opportunity and sent on Crouch for Diouf in the 72nd. That move from the Stoke manager nearly paid off as Crouch outjumped Paulista and Koscielny to meet a corner from Shaqiri and force a save from Cech.

Paulista and Koscielny did OK at centerback if we except one play in the 41st when Allen outmuscled Bellerin to feed Arnautovic inside the area. Arnautovic dribbled past both Paulista and Koscielny and only a timely challenge from Monreal prevented the Stoke striker from pulling the trigger.

The gap between the back four and the midfield

Allen proved a live wire in the first half and exposed a weakness in the partnership formed by Coquelin and Xhaka. Arnautovic controlled a long ball from Adam in the 23rd to cut it back for Allen, who fired wide from a good position. Neither Coquelin nor Xhaka tracked Allen on that play.

Basically, Allen exploited the small gap between Arsenal’s back four and the central midfielders. There are two remedies to that kind of threat. Either zonal marking with each central midfielder in charge of one side of the pitch. Or man-marking, with one central midfielder protecting the defense while the other is tracking Allen.

The Wales midfielder flew under the radar again in the 27th. Unmarked inside the area, Allen took a pass from Shaqiri with a clumsy first touch. That gave Xhaka enough time to challenge for the ball. Running away from goal, Allen managed to poke the ball past Xhaka, who turned around in an attempt to put his body between Allen and the ball. That soft obstruction looked worse when Xhaka’s elbow went into Allen’s face. Maybe the referee wouldn’t have awarded a penalty if Allen’s face had crashed against Xhaka’s back, but the golden rule is that you have to win any challenge inside the box. Adam converted the subsequent spot kick to give Stoke the lead.

Finding a better balance

Xhaka and Coquelin made their fifth start together in central midfield. I thought Xhaka was less shy than against West Ham, making 87 passes, 22 more than any other player, and hitting 6 accurate long balls out of 10. However, Xhaka was a bit too hyperactive to my liking. The Switzerland international made more tackles and won more aerial duels than Coquelin, while both created 2 chances each.

It would make more sense to have Coquelin do more defensive work so that Xhaka can focus on his pacesetting duties. To be fair, Coquelin also made 4 interceptions and 3 blocks compared to 1 interception and 2 blocks for Xhaka. It’s obviously a young partnership so they still have room to find a better balance.

The Gunners have two tough trips in the Premier League before they can enjoy a one-week break. They will travel to Everton on Tuesday and then play at Manchester City on Sunday. Maybe Ozil or Sanchez could have a breather at Goodison Park since it is the game with the highest risk for an injury. The manager has rotated on the wings but not yet in the No. 9 and 10 positions. Mustafi’s hamstring injury also means Paulista may start the next 3 games at centerback. Will the Brazilian defender rise to the occasion?