Having been present and correct at the Emirates for all Arsenal Stoke matches since the latter team returned to the Premier League, it was an unusual experience yesterday to witness the Gunners beat the Potters using tactics which City have used to excellent effect themselves over the last four seasons; namely old fashioned set piece moves. Arsenal v Stoke games are rarely classics. It was a case of role reversal throughout much of Arsenal’s 3-1 win. Mark Hughes’s side attempted to play a passing game – a welcome change from the Pulis era – whilst Wenger’s men, struggling to find their fluidity and looking a little jaded, carved out an often scrappy win through a more route one approach. Ramsey thumped home the first from a rebound, and Mertesacker and Sagna scored from looping headers. It’s a welcome throwback to days of yore, when Arsenal caused chaos in opponents’ boxes from dead ball situations.
Historically, many of Arsenal’s greatest triumphs and goals have come from set piece routines. Alan Smith’s vital first goal at Anfield in 1989 came after he latched onto a lofted free kick, and two years earlier, Charlie Nicholas scrambled the ball home after the ball had bobbed about in the Liverpool box courtesy of a Paul Davis free kick. George Graham’s side’s victory in the 1993 FA Cup Semi Final win against Tottenham came from a Tony Adams header after another lofted free kick. Although Arsene Wenger’s sides have preferred to play the ball around on the floor, there have been numerous occasions when his sides profited from an aerial approach, especially in the days when the old back four was still present and correct. The link between the class of ’98 and 2002 is the Adams – Bould central defensive axis, although the latter had retired by the time Wenger’s team won its second Double. It’s Bould who has convinced his manager that not all Arsenal goals need be a work of art, or be contenders for the goal of the season. And Bould should know, perhaps better than anyone at the club.
Arsenal’s grizzled central defensive warriors knew perfectly how to cause mayhem from free kicks and corners. I recall travelling to a Derby v Arsenal clash in 1991, when the Gunners needed a victory to push on with their title challenge. Arsenal eventually ran out 2-0 winners, and both goals were carbon copies of one another. The second the corner kicks were dispatched, Steve Bould shoved his marker in the back to create a yard of space, took a step back, and flicked the ball onto Alan Smith, who headed home emphatically. Both goals were straight from the training ground, admittedly in an era when referees let far more incidents go. Bould and Adams did whatever it took to create space; shoving, nudging, treading on their markers’ feet…whatever it took to create that vital distraction and gain that extra yard of space. It was Bould himself who looped a header over goalkeeper Walter Zenga in a breath taking Cup Winners Cup Semi Final at Highbury against Sampdoria in 1995, in a match which Arsenal won 3-2 on the night. Bould had also rammed home the first. There’s little doubt that Zenga was distracted by the presence of Ian Wright, who climbed with him (in fact Bould’s goal that night is remarkably similar to Mertesacker’s yesterday, right down to the Stoke goalkeeper being pressured by the proximity of other Arsenal players), and Bould’s reaction to his goal 18 years ago speaks volumes for his long held belief that effective set pieces should play a vital part in all football teams’ repertoire.
Bould commented: “I’d say the vast majority of supporters would rather one of our goals came from a flowing passing move. But the game is far more complex than that, and goals can come from all areas of the park. Football is as much about power and strength as it is about skill and guile. A successful team needs to be proficient from both open play as well as set pieces. Brian Clough said that football should be played only on grass, but it can also be played in the air. As a defender, I can see the beauty in a headed goal too, although to be honest when I scored tonight, I was only flicking it on. I was delighted when I saw it had gone all the way in!” Successful dead ball routines require the presence of a skilled deliverer. For much of George Graham’s tenure, midfielder Paul Davis had an unerring knack of lofting a ball onto the head of whoever he was seeking to pick out in the opposition box, and Robin Van Persie also scored direct from a number of superbly delivered free kicks. With the signing of Mezut Ozil, Arsene Wenger now has another master practitioner, who can float or curl a ball into the opposition’s box when the occasion dictates. The German is a player who is adept at putting the ball on a proverbial sixpence.
The key point is that successful Arsenal sides are ones that can score goals from all over the pitch, and in different ways. The Gunners can’t rely just on Olivier Giroud to continue scoring, from rapier like counter attacking, or from the currently prolific Aaron Ramsey. If they are to mount a realistic challenge, they need to probe for weaknesses at the heart of the opposition’s defence, and get balls into the box to apply constant pressure from free kicks and corners. Just like they did yesterday. To win titles, you have to be prepared to mix up your style of play all the time and scrap for victories on days when things aren’t quite flowing as you’d like.
The match against Stoke City won’t live long in the memory, and those goals certainly weren’t classic strikes, but at season’s end, those three points could just make all the difference.