Monday, August 21, 2017

New Season, Same Old Arsenal (Stoke 1 Arsenal 0)

This is a headline I’ve written in five of the past six years, and one that just might keep coming up until fundamental changes are made in the side. To be fair, Arsenal largely dominated this game and should have won easily but for some poor refereeing decisions and even worse finishing. Yet a good chance to head to Liverpool with maximum points from their first two games is gone and that matchup next weekend takes on even greater urgency. For Stoke, it was a win over a team in the top half of the table, a feat they only accomplished once all last season.

Three thoughts on the game:

1.    Refereeing Was Downright Awful … and One Sided
Each of the decisions that went against Arsenal was tight, from the offsides call on Lacazette’s equalizer to the three or four penalty claims that were ignored by Andre Marriner and his assistants. The most obvious of all the decisions was a clip on the back of Welbeck when he was about to shoot on goal from close range. If that wasn’t a penalty, I'm not sure what is. In the first half, Bellerin was clearly fouled by Diouf as he charged toward the goal from the left. His touch might have been a tad too heavy, as it is certainly possible Butland would have gotten to the ball anyway, but that’s not really the point. He was taken out with a chance to slot in, inside the box. The Welbeck penalty claim was even more obvious. And there were two other instances when a penalty could have been called.

On top of this, Arsenal somehow accrued more fouls throughout the match, 11 to 6, even with 77 percent possession and Stoke leaving Gunners flattened across the pitch. The days of referees clearly favoring Arsenal’s opponents have withered in recent years, but this was a poor performance by Marriner that was about as one sided as any match I’ve seen in recent years. Marriner, by the way, booked more Gunners last season than any other team …

2.    Awful Finishing by Gunners
The poorly refereed game should not be cited as the sole, or maybe even primary, reason for this disappointing loss. Besides bossing possession to the tune of almost 80 percent, the Gunners outshot Stoke 18 (6) to 11 (4). They created chance after chance, particularly in the second half, but were truly inept in front of goal. Welbeck missed four good chances beside the penalty claim, Ramsey missed three of his own (though one was excellently blocked by Butland, who had a great game in goal) and Giroud missed a great opportunity to save a draw with an open header in extra time. This was less of a problem last season, but with Sanchez still out injured and Lacazette surprisingly short of supply in a game so dominated by Arsenal, it was left to players whose scoring records are suspect, to say the least.

Welbeck has never been a prolific scorer and while he has improved marginally since leaving United for Arsenal, he continues to lose his cool at the most inopportune of moments. Forwards need to be able to finish one of every two or three chances to be value for money, and Welbeck is substantially below that throughout his career. Ramsey had actually been on a hot streak coming into the game, having scored in his last three competitive appearances, the bookend matches of Everton last season and Leicester this one, with an FA Cup goal sandwiched in between. Before that, however, he went 28 appearances without a solitary goal. Yesterday, he had every chance to continue the hot streak, but blew it. Giroud, to be fair, has been excellent off the bench, but missed his one great chance and scorned another half one.

Ultimately, the poor finishing of the forwards, a below average game from Ozil (who was eviscerated by pundits including Steven Gerrard) and the same defensive frailties that keep coming up, all led to Arsenal losing a game they clearly should have won. The Brittania has often been a bogey visit for the Gunners, but they had eked out a draw and an impressive 4-1 win in their last two trips to the Northwest. Dropping points like this could well be the difference between returning to the Top 4 and spending another year in the doldrums of Thursday night football.  

3.  Stoke New Additions Shine
Mark Hughes has been trying to change the identity of Stoke for most of his four plus years in charge. While he has made progress, with three straight finishes in ninth position, they took a step backwards last season, slotting in at 13th. To seek to address that drop in form, Hughes has brought in a number of new faces, including José (via PSG after years with Real), Darren Fletcher (of Man United lore), Bruno Martins Indi (from Porto) and Zouma (from Chelsea). Ironically, Stoke now have more Champions League winners in their side than any other team in England, though one should mention that most of them never got off the bench in those Finals.

In any case, Stoke were dominated for much of this game, but looked bright on the counter, defended stoutly and saw Butland put in another impressive performance, as he seeks to further his case to become England’s number one. Arsenal bossed possession, as I mentioned, but Stoke stayed compact, played a physical game that reminded of Pulis’ time in charge, and found ways to stop attack after attack with last second interventions (though three or four were likely penalties if the referee had not blinked his way through the most important moments of the game).

Hughes has a decent side and could improve on last season’s form, but moving into the Top 7 appears to be too big an ask. A cup run? That seems the only likely path to glory for these stalwarts of the midtable since their arrival in the Premiership in 2008.          

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