Shameful. Atrocious. Embarrassing. Each of these words is an accurate description of Arsenal’s team performance Saturday at Stoke City. After a lacklustre start that just kept rolling along throughout the game, one never got the sense that Arsenal had that next gear to shift into at the bet365 Stadium. Despite holding on to the ball for a whopping 77% of possession, it would be difficult to come up with any moment (besides the 100% legal goal that was disallowed, but we will get there) in which Arsenal felt truly threatening. For a side that possessed so much attacking verve a week ago against Leicester City, this one will leave fans and players alike scratching their heads in disbelief.
This One Is On Them
Ok, so we all know what the criticism is going to be right? As is always the case with Arsenal, the blame will fall first to the feet of the man who is all too happy to shoulder it (with the fans all too happy to oblige): Arsene Wenger. But as I have often said in the past, particularly in losses like this one, this one is on the players. I don’t care that Bellerin was perplexingly at left wing back, that Sead Kolasinac was the defender taken off first, or that Alexis Sanchez wasn’t playing. The bottom line is that those 11 players should have been good enough to beat the 11 players that ran out for Stoke.
Mesut Ozil was predictably receiving criticism for his performance, which is a shame really, because I thought Martin Keown understood football. Admittedly, it is the hip thing to do, blame Ozil for the let down any time the Gunners are held scoreless for 90 minutes, but it would be inaccurate to do so with this match. When one is tasked with being his sides chief creator, it is a job made exponentially more difficult by teammates unwilling to pay the price to get in to the danger areas. Typically, when Ozil has a bad game, his effort and body language are as bad as you’ll see in the Premier League, but that was not necessarily the case against Stoke. His issue on Saturday was stationary teammates, not a lack of effort.
One of the team’s best and worst performers was Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. While it is a wonderful thing to see an Ox brimmed with confidence and in good form and fitness, his decision-making, both on defence and in attack, must be called into question. His positioning, either on the left or the right has simply not been good enough. Even against Leicester, he should have been there on the far post to stop the Okazaki goal from happening, as is the job of the wing back in those situations.
This week, it was his dribbling that was the most maddening of all. Using his pace and power, the Ox almost always beats the first man, but yesterday he thought he could beat the second and third as well, far too often running himself into a jam and losing the ball. His distance covered stats will probably be impressive, and fans are sure to remember his successful dribbles and leave him off of their worst performers lists, but the Ox needs to be much MUCH better if he is to reach his goals. What many fans would like to know is whether those goals include him taking that important role for Arsenal that Wenger has been trying to give him for three years now, or if they include becoming a homegrown quota filling cog in the Chelsea machine…
And that pass to a 10 yards offside Mustafi? Yuck.
And a Little on Monsieur…
Unfortunately for those fans hoping to experience a little unity between the club and its fans to open the season, Arsene Wenger is already back in the crosshairs. His substitutions against Leicester were perfectly timed and inspired the team on to victory, but against Stoke, he got it wrong. Subbing Granit Xhaka for Alex Iwobi would have been the worst decision he made if it hadn’t been for Theo Walcott coming in for Alexandre Lacazette at the same time. If you are keeping score at home, that is your only holding midfielder off for a player whose inclination is to drift into harmless areas on the flank and your best goalscorer for..ah…well… a player whose inclination is to drift into harmless areas on the flank.
Serious question: what sort of Kompromat does Nacho Monreal have on Arsene Wenger? There must be something because surely he can’t be looking at the ageing left back and think “Ah, oui! There is a centre-back for a 3 man back line if I ever saw one!” But then again, this is the man who refused to put Lukas Podolski (surprisingly, more on him in a moment) at centre-forward because…well who knows, but he did do.
Andre Marriner and His Band of Fools
Of course, the British press is going to have a field day with Arsene Wenger’s post-match comments about a lack of penalties in Arsenal’s favour, but the statistics (and my recollection) are starting to bare it out. Teams that complete as many passes in the final third as Arsenal do typically have their fair share of awarded penalties, but Arsenal never seem to catch the breaks where, had it happened to their opponent, would have resulted in an immediate whistle and probably a booking to Granit Xhaka (Premier League referees really love to do that for some reason).
Let us assume for a moment that Hector Bellerin wasn’t taken down in the box twice (he was), or that a blatant handball in the box didn’t happen (it did). Alexandre Lacazette was onsides, he scored a goal, and if the linesman didn’t mistake a ball bouncing off the turf for an Arsenal player, these other transgressions may have been forgiven. Taken as a whole though, this is yet another indictment on the secretive, corrupt and worsening standards of professional football referees in England.
Unlike Mike Dean, who is to football referees what Donald Trump is to US Presidents, Andre Marriner is actually reasonably well respected. Well, at least Jose Mourinho likes him (now THERE’S your conspiracy theory Arsenal fans!). His problem, is that he seems to totally lack a sense of the magnitude of a moment, and as a certain fan website has done an incredible job uncovering, has a tendency to blow the big one. You know, the one or two, maybe three calls a game that a referee absolutely must get right. I repeat, this is one of the more respected referees in England.
Calling On Alexis Sanchez
Enough of this already. You’ve made your point. Loyalty is a one-way street. You getting to sit in the stands and make sure everyone sees your new girlfriend is cool..I guess. But it’s time to come back. We know you aren’t really injured, and you know you are just a flavour of the month to Manchester City. Next year they will find someone else with 90% of your ability but much younger than 30. You do remember that you’re getting on towards 30, right? You do also remember how Pep Guardiola sold you because he didn’t think you had that Barcelona unselfishness, right? Are you a mercenary? Forgive me, I thought you gave your all for the team, or have we given up on that narrative now that you appear to be flirting with rivals? I’m asking for a friend.
It is plain to see that Arsenal misses Alexis on the pitch. Even with cameras trained on him every time play stops, hoping to catch one of his patented reactions to his teammates, he is as good a player as exists at Arsenal. Without their best player they are a bunch of artists in need of an assassin. Whatever it takes, Arsenal need to lock their man up because right now there are no better options out there. Alexis Sanchez is more valuable to Arsenal than he would be to Manchester City, and that alone should make him feel as though he should get back on the pitch as quickly as possible. It is impossible to say where his head is at, but a return to the starting XI in time for the massive match against Liverpool next weekend will do much to settle this team.