It’s often cast as the sporting equivalent of the descent to Hades – where brutality reigns for what seems an eternity and only heroes emerge unscathed – and Arsenal prepared as if they were entering the Britannia Stadium as such. But just as Stoke City had a gameplan to stop Arsenal based on exaggerated muscularity, so did The Gunners to show their technical superiority. And for a while, it’d look like they had too much quality for Stoke as they passed the ball around crisply and with purpose, and relentlessly buzzed around Stoke when they didn’t have it, to ensure they didn’t build up momentum. However, they were checked back as Peter Crouch opened the scoring in somewhat inevitable manner, the ball crossed in from the left after Bacary Sagna had given it away.
But if Arsenal contributed to their own downfall with the goal, it doesn’t make Stoke’s style any less valid because they put pressure on Arsenal all game. The Gunners, though, pressed hard high up the pitch to ensure that a game based on percentages as a direct style entails, was made less accurate. However, giving the ball away cheaply in their own half would have been forbidden. Nevertheless, that proved to be the only moment of complacency in the defence as Arsenal got their gameplan spot-on.
Arsène Wenger has often been criticised for not accounting for opposition strengths when planning matches but on this occasion he made sure; not only did he prepare his players mentally, but also they rebuffed Stoke’s tactics. We’ve talked about how they pressed high up the pitch and tried to ensure Stoke had as little of the play by moving the ball quickly – and indeed, that’s how the Arsenal goal came about. Yet, if the equaliser was in keeping with Arsenal’s character this season, striking back just after going behind, they petered out very quickly after the first-half just as they have in recent games. Perhaps this time, there was an air of cautiousness, as you are never safe at the Britannia Stadium, but they also seemed to run out of energy and, more crucially, ideas. Creatively Arsenal are a bit short in the middle and when Abou Diaby pulled up with an injury late in the game, it summed up Arsenal’s problems.
The layout they used, however, against Stoke may indicate how they may be best set up as Alex Song played in front of Aaron Ramsey and Tomas Rosicky. It was not, though, a 4-3-3 but one that flitted in-and-out 0f one to make a 4-2-3-1 when needed as Song showed the discipline to protect the defence. That allowed Arsenal to press up the pitch early on with effervescence and it liberated Ramsey, who showed great mental strength to not only ignore the boos but also make sure he was at the fore, making the most passes on the pitch. But as Arsenal tired, they were more vulnerable to the aerial threat, however, with Alex Song sitting in front of the back four, he helped clear up any loose balls and used his height as a third defender.
Thomas Vermaelen told Arsenal Player: “We didn’t give away too many chances in the whole game and that is a good thing.
“The whole team showed a good spirit and we fought hard – we deserved a point. Defensively the shape was good, with Song in front of us and he helped us a lot.”
Song has sometimes been harshly criticised for trying a lot – and it’s the same argument that has been levelled at his potential team-mate or replacement, Yann M’Vila this season – but Song has been one of those players who has looked both quick enough and strong enough to stop attacks while looking lively at the other end of the pitch, too. Wenger might scorn to use the “transitional” but there’s nothing to suggest this season has been otherwise and Alex Song has shown why he has been key in making that period less painful. All together now, just as Tony Adams would say when watching Arsenal during the last two seasons: “Thank God for Alex Song.”