Arsenal had not won at the Brittania in six years coming into their game against seventh-place Stoke City today. Make that seven years. While Stoke City no longer play the physical, ugly style of football they became infamous for under Tony Pulis, they are still a tough team to face on their home ground and continued their good form against the best of the EPL, having already scalped Manchester City, United and Chelsea this season. Arsenal were without their two biggest stars, with Sanchez adjudged to still be at least a week away from a return and Ozil out with a minor foot injury. In their absence, Arsenal’s slick passing attack was largely stymied and Stoke actually had the better chances of the game. As 0-0 games go, this was a pretty engaging game, but the Gunner’s will be disappointed to drop four points in a week. Three thoughts on the game:
1. Cech Saves Arsenal Again: Cech added to his record-breaking clean sheet tally today and clearly saved a point for Arsenal in the process. He had a number of impressive saves throughout, none more than the second half double save to parry a fierce Joselu shot and then get across goal to smother a Bojan rebound. Cech was excellent not only in saving shots but in claiming the ball in the box. Stoke will be upset they did not score from a number of quality chances, but it was Cech who made the difference, with Ramsey chipping in with a goal-line clearance late to preserve the point. Cech was a coup for Arsenal last summer and continues to show why he could well become the signing of the season; if Arsenal are able to secure the title.
On the other side of the pitch, Butland was almost as impressive, stopping two quality chances for Giroud to grab the lead. The first was after another silky pass from Campbell set Giroud free on the right side of the box. Butland came out quickly and cut off the Frenchman’s attempt to bury it. The second was a powerful free header from Giroud on a corner that Butland dove deftly to his right to deflect out for a second corner. Arsenal created substantially less chances than they do in an average game this season, with only 8 shots (3 on goal), but Butland made sure none of them counted. In the end, it was a great display by two goalkeepers at the top of their game.
2. Second Half Collapse on the Horizon or Fortitude on Display? It is hard to know what to think of the last week for the Gunners. It started with them cruising past Sunderland 3-1 in the FA Cup, after falling behind by a goal. They then fell behind twice to Liverpool, before pulling ahead 3-2, only to conceded a 90th minute equalizer. Today, they earned a point at a stop that has been giving them trouble for years. They have shown resiliency in all three of these games, are through to the next round of the FA Cup and still sit at the top of the League Table, though only by goal difference over Leicester and a point over a suddenly resurgent Manchester City. It is clear that Arsenal could be further clear at the summit of the table if they took their chances better, though draws against Liverpool and Stoke on the road are certainly respectable results. The 4-0 loss to Southampton was actually the only one since the 2-1 defeat to West Brom on November 21, with 8 wins and three draws over that stretch. However, with a visit from a Chelsea team that is undefeated under Hiddink a week away, the Gunners really need to get back to winning ways.
All Gooners are aware of our tendency to play better in one half of any given season, but it is heartening to know that our beloved Arsenal are actually undefeated since the turn of the new year. Can they take the momentum of the past 12 months and charge toward an elusive fourth title for Wenger? Only time will tell, but the imminent return of Sanchez should help build some momentum for the stretch run. This is made all the more important as Theo Walcott put in another stale performance where he appeared to give the ball away as often as he completed a pass or got by a defender. He appears well off his best at present and needs a stretch on the bench to regain some motivation (or form).
3. The Hughes Project Continues to Impress: when Stoke hired Mark Hughes two seasons ago, it was really a dual reclamation project. Stoke wanted to play a more attractive brand of football and make strides up the table. Hughes wanted to recuperate a reputation that had suffered since departing Man City. Both projects continue to move forward with impressive success. Last season, they finished in ninth place, on 54 points, their best haul since returning to the first division in 2008-09. This year, they are up to seventh, only two points outside the Europa League spot. The improvement has been from front to back, with an exciting forward line that includes Shaqiri (out in this game), Arnautovic and Afellay and a solid back comprised of veterans Johnson and Shawcross together with solid Pieters and Wollshcheid. The back line was impressive throughout this encounter, barely giving the Gunners a sniff of goal, as they played a physical brand of football combined with plenty of interceptions, crowding of the ball and cutting off the passing channels Arsenal are so good at threading the ball through. They were helped by the absence of Ozil, but that should not take away from another impressive result against a top side. And topping off the new approach is Jack Butland, who has become an able replacement for Begovich. Stoke can now pass the ball around, push forward with real danger and control games from back to front, and it is not beyond the team to push for that sixth spot.