Saturday, September 12, 2015

Arsenal Restore Order at Home, Beat Stoke 2-0

Arsenal returned home from the international break hoping to reverse a recent trend that has seen them fail to score in five of their last six games at the Emirates. That streak should have been addressed before four minutes had passed, when a lovely lofted ball from Ramsey found a charging Sanchez, whose header hit the post. The rebound fell nicely to Walcott, but he missed a relatively easy chance caught leaning the wrong way – a troubling habit so far this season. Sanchez had another opportunity in the sixth minutes when his dipping free kick was well saved by Stoke goalkeeper Butland, before the Chilean hit the post again in the eighth minute. Arsenal were rampant but failing to take their chances with Walcott missing a second great opportunity on nine minutes – a free header from a perfect Bellerin cross. His third shot soon after was a meek effort and the woebegone calls for another striker past their expiration date, at least until January.

Stoke garnered their first sniff at the Arsenal goal in the 16th minute on a free kick sent in by new signing Shaqiri. It was a dangerous, lofted ball, but Cech came out strongly and punched the ball away. As the game passed the 20-minute mark, Arsenal must have been wondering how they weren’t ahead, and whether Giroud might have had a brace if he had started. On 24 minutes, Koscielny sent a powerful shot from 35 yards out that was heading for the roof of the net, before Butland parried it away. He had another great save a minute later, keeping out Cazorla from in close, for his fourth official save of the match. Arsenal were squandering chance after chance nonetheless, building on a record of the most shots and second worst conversion rate in the league heading into the game. Finally, on 30 minutes, Coquelin had a brilliant tackle that left the ball at Ozil’s feet, about 60 yards from goal. Ozil sent the ball 50 yards in the air to perfectly pick out a charging Walcott. His first touch was excellent and led him beyond the Stoke defenders and into a position to push the ball past the charging Butland. The Gunners finally had a well-deserved lead and could exhale a sigh of relief, having scored, ironically, on one of Stoke’s three forays past midfield in the first half.

Surprisingly, Theo Walcott now had 11 goals in his last 11 matches, even with all the missed opportunities this season, though three came on the last day of last year in a game of no significance. On 33 minutes, Stoke finally got forward with menace, with Osalu sending a powerful shot right at Cech. In a bizarre call by referee John Moss give minutes later, Ozil was given a yellow for trying to get the ball back after losing it on the right flank, with what was neither a cynical challenge nor one with any intent to injure. Koscielny got the better of winger Diof twice in quick succession as the game started to get chippy as halftime approached. A final corner for Arsenal failed to lead to anything and one could argue Stoke might be the happier side at halftime, having kept a game within reach that should have been beyond them.

The second half started back and forth and a little scrappy with half chance at both sides but nothing definitive. On 51 minutes, Coquelin sent Monreal in and his cross was inches from meeting Walcott, before a fine last second intervention. The resulting corner was easily dealt with my Stoke, reinforcing the notion that the Gunners are rather toothless on free kicks when Giroud and Mertesacker are off the pitch. Arsenal were pressing quite well, though, and Stoke having a hard time getting the ball out of their own half, as had been the case for most of the game. On 54th minute, Sanchez cut in from the left, but his shot was blocked for maybe the 100th time in this young season, as his moves appear to be too predictable so far in the early goings of his second season in the league (though he was unlucky not to have a brace in the first half, twice denied by the post). Ramsey had a free shot on goal a minute later, but slipped just as he hit it and sent it soaring into the stands high and wide. So wide, in fact, it would even have earned three points in the NFL this weekend. Stoke suddenly found their legs as the clock passed 55 minutes, with Shaqiri launching a dangerous shot that was well saved by Cech. Steve Ireland came on in the 57th minute to stir a little fear in the Emirates crowd, having inspired his team to a 2-2 draw from two nil down against Tottenham a few weeks earlier.

Arsenal were getting careless with the ball and allowing Stoke to get into the game, with two Shaqiri shots blocked by Bellerin in quick succession as the teams entered the final third of the game. Diouf was marginally offsides before a foul in the back by Gabriel that could have very well earned a penalty and the Gunners were suddenly reeling, though a Bardsley shot from distance on 62 minutes was rather tame, ending the threat momentarily. Arsenal did start to move the ball around with more intent before the stretch ended with Ozil earning a free kick on the left hand side eight yards outside the box. Cazorla’s free kick almost found Koscielny but for a Cameron defensive header right in front of him. Arsenal appeared to have awoken from their short slumber, earning another corner on a deflected Ozil shot. On 66 minutes, a nice move down the right led to a cross met by Walcott from six yards out, but without enough conviction to get it past Butland. Ozil was the liveliest player on the pitch and earned another corner as the clock neared 68 minutes, though Sanchez sent a bizarre snap toe poke about 12 yards wide of the near post. Ozil should have scored after a great one-two with Cazorla soon after, but tried to beat Butland on the near post without success. And then Walcott blew yet another chance on 70 minutes, one-on-one with Butland, showing a passivity in those situations that seems to indicate the limitations of him as a centre forward (contrasted in the late game by the impressive move of a Henryesque Martial for United).

A tame shot from Walcott in the 74th minute became his final intervention of a mixed bag game, as Giroud came on at the same time Bojan replaced Diouf for Stoke. Giroud had a great chance to score within his first minute on the pitch after another block of a cut in shot from Sanchez fell to the Frenchman a few yards out with a gaping goal. He sent it wide and yet another chance was gone – the 24th in 25 chances they had failed to convert just today. When Stoke sent in a decent cross with 77 minutes on the clock, the entire crowd and every Gooner in the world’s heart shrunk in terror for a moment, before Cech collected the ball. Cazorla cut across goal on the other end and sent a strong shot toward the near corner, though it was wide of the mark. With about seven minutes left on the clock, Ox and Arteta came on for Ozil and Sanchez, as the Gunners tried to preserve the three points.

Ox quickly earned a free kick on the left from a Bardsley foul, and Cazorla’s pitch perfect cross found Giroud free in the middle, with his powerful header easily beating Butland to finally wrap up the points. It was two goals from the two main Arsenal strikers but still a game they should have put away much earlier. Walcott score first, obviously, but failed to impress overall, missing five or six other opportunities. Giroud scored his second of the season four days after being booed off the pitch by the French fans in a win over Serbia, but missed a couple of other good chances himself in a shorter stint on the pitch. Butland added yet another impressive save in the final 90 seconds of regulation, as a Koscielny header appeared certain to bury itself in the far corner of the Stoke net. A strong penalty appeal was ignored in the final minute of extra time as a Stoke defender grabbed Giroud’s right arm when he was about to score a second goal. Moss, in fact, had a rather terrible game, though luckily it had no effect on the final result.

Looking back on the game, the inability to finish chances seems to be the biggest issue for Arsenal at the moment, as they have started the season strong on the defensive end, with three straight clean sheets after the early fumbles by Cech arguably contributed greatly to at least two of the three goals they conceded in the first two games. They are creating chances at a high rate and have largely been in control of all the games they have played, showing a stronger spine led by the continued excellent play of Coquelin arguably affecting all those around him. Mistakes are still being made, but better finishing could see them mount a more sustained title challenge, particularly as City start to drop points – which has to happen at some point, doesn’t it? The Citizens were luck to steal all three points in the 90th minute at Crystal today, after looking certain to walk away with a goalless draw. But even after the uneven form of the first four games, the Gunners are tied with United in second place, five points behind City and an astonishing six above a reeling Chelsea, who were beaten rather summarily by Everton 3-1.

Stoke lost for the 13th straight time away at Arsenal and for the third time in five games this season, to go with two draws. That puts them at the bottom of the table, a disappointing position after an impressive ninth place finish last season. The problem has been goals, with only three scored in the five games and two of those in a nice late surge against Tottenham. Mark Hughes has improved the style of the team, but now they have to continue the good work of last season and find ways to start earning points. The good news for them is they can already check Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham off the list for the first half of the season and now have a run of fixtures where they should be able to pick up some points.

Arsenal, on the other hand, head into an important part of their young season, as they travel to Dinamo Zagreb for the first group game of their Champions League season then to Chelsea, Tottenham and a hot Leicester City three weekends in a row before returning home for a UCL Group game against Olympiakos and then a matchup with United on October 4. The only good news is Chelsea is playing their worst football in years and Tottenham cannot seem to put the ball in the opposition’s net at the moment. It will be a defining stretch where Arsenal can get a good start in the group and solidify their position near the top of the table, or see their title hopes unravel early, as they did last season. COYG!

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