The Premier League is back! Someone forgot to tell the Arsenal starting XI as much, judging by their play during the first hour of their match with lowly Stoke City, but it is back nonetheless. The Gunners welcomed the Potters to the Emirates on Sunday, with both teams currently sitting well short of their goals in the table. It has been a disastrous campaign for Stoke, but they fought like mad to preserve the 0-0 draw and made life extremely difficult for the Arsenal attack. However, the Gunners eventually found their gear, and with the aid of 2 penalties and some quality substitutions, they ultimately walked away with the 3-0 victory.
Slow Start Left Some Prepared For The Worst
Before Sunday, Arsenal had gone 2 weeks since their last match, and it showed. The typically smooth Arsenal passing game was disjointed and out of sync for much of the first half, with Stoke’s compact defence causing a lot of problems when the Gunners tried to move into more dangerous attacking areas. At the half, frustrations in the stands and on social media were at full boil. To many, it felt like one of those matches against lesser opposition where Arsenal fail to put them away early, and ultimately pay the price when the final whistle blows. However, the team took a more urgent mentality into the second half, and put more pressure on the Stoke backline and on goalkeeper Jack Butland.
The game finally took a more definitive turn once Alexandre Lacazette came in for Danny Welbeck on the hour mark, shifting into the centre-forward role. The Gunners almost immediately found themselves with more attacking opportunities after the switch, and Lacazette himself could have scored on more than one occasion if he had been in peak form. The deadlock continued for another quarter of an hour until Mesut Ozil received the ball at the edge of the area in the 74th minute, driving toward Butland in the Stoke goal. Bruno Martins, forced into chasing the playmaker into the box, lunged for the ball and caught Ozil’s leg between his own, giving the ref little choice but to point to the penalty spot. It was the moment that ended Arsenal’s struggle for the match, as they played the last 15 minutes of the match with the easy freedom of a better team playing with a lead.
Rotation With Thursday In Mind
Though it should hardly be considered a valid excuse, considering the gulf in quality between the two sides, one possible reason for the Gunners’ first half struggles was the decision to rest certain key players with an eye toward CSKA Moscow on Thursday. The defence was seldom challenged by the Stoke attack, but the midfield and attack clearly suffered from the absence of the usual first choice players. Mohammed Elneny was given the nod over the rested Granit Xhaka, and while he put in a typically solid performance, the lack of Xhaka’s elite passing range made the Gunners far more predictable in their buildup play and kept Aaron Ramsey pinned to the Egyptian’s side, offering an easy outlet for his safe passing partner. Up top, Danny Welbeck worked as hard as ever, but as he offers neither the clinical finishing of Alexandre Lacazette or the creative inspiration of Henrikh Mhkitaryan, there was a real lack of fluency in the final third.
Unsurprisingly, the Gunners’ performance noticeably improved as more usual starters were brought on through substitution. Henrikh Mhkitaryan added a spark to the combination play in the final third and Alexandre Lacazette brought a new dynamic to the centre-forward position than Aubameyang had done for the first hour of the match. Granit Xhaka was given a cameo for the last 15 minutes and was solid in his brief appearance, but by then, Stoke had opened up slightly at the back as they sought a goal to help save their chances at a point. While the match ultimately required reinforcement from players Wenger might have preferred to leave out for rest, the players ultimately got the job done, leaving Stoke in a precarious position, fighting for their Premier League survival.
Sealing Their Fate?
Heading into Sunday’s match, Stoke City already faced a huge challenge in trying to stay away from their first relegation in over a decade. After their 3-0 loss at the Emirates, the job got that much harder for the Potters, as they sit 3 points from safety with the worst goal difference in the league and just 6 games to play. Stoke City have become something of a constant mid-table presence over the last decade in the Premier League, but the wheels have come off the once promising project over the last year. Time was, “a rainy night in Stoke” was considered a real challenge for visiting teams, particularly before Mark Hughes attempted to change the culture around the team toward a more attacking philosophy. For a time, it appeared as though his vision might work with the Potters, as they assembled an attacking midfield of technically astute players and played a more attractive brand of football, somewhat jokingly dubbed “Stokelona”. Unfortunately for the team, Hughes’ tinkering and the shift towards targeting a different sort of player on the transfer market meant the once formidable and intimidating defence started to weaken. By this season, the big, mean sides of the past had become a distant memory, and Hughes was finally fired at the beginning of January.
Some might be sad to see Stoke drop out of the Premier League next season, but you can be certain that Arsenal and midfielder Aaron Ramsey are not among them. The Welshman has perplexingly become an object of hate for the Stoke fans, who have taken to singing “He Walks With A Limp” at him, a reference to the horrifying tackle by current Stoke captain Ryan Shawcross in 2011 that left Ramsey with a leg in 2 pieces. Though the two have long since put the incident behind them, the bad blood between supporters of both teams has persisted. As a result, many Arsenal supporters are enjoying Stoke’s current plight, and will shed few tears once they are officially relegated.
One of the best sights of the afternoon occurred with just a minute remaining when Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, sitting on 2 goals and with the opportunity to take another penalty to nail down his first Arsenal hat-trick, decided to hand the ball over to his teammate Alexandre Lacazette. The Frenchman, who was getting his first game action in a month, had a bit of a barren spell before going under the knife in February, but the goal made him the first Arsenal player this season to hit double digits. When asked why he passed up the chance of a hat trick, Aubameyang spoke about how the spot kick was a great opportunity to help Lacazette recover his confidence, an admirable position for a player to take with a teammate who is fighting for the same position in the starting XI.
The half-hour in which both transfer record strikers were on the pitch together was just the second such opportunity they have had since Aubameyang signed in January. The initial signs that the two can play together are promising, as their styles contrast enough to be complementary rather than redundant. Lacazette is the more agile of the two in short areas, and he showed great feel for the way Arsenal like to use their strikers to hold up play and work combinations around the box. The longer, leaner and faster Aubameyang is perhaps the most lethal counter-attacker in world football (though his former Dortmund teammate Marco Reus might have something to say about that), and it appears as though he is shifted into a similar “hanging” left wing role as Alexis Sanchez used to play when on the pitch with Lacazette. Too many writers and fans have turned the conversation into an “either/or” debate between the two strikers, but judging by the selfless actions on the pitch, and friendly photographs off of it, it could very well become one of the most lethal strike partnerships in Europe.
Arsene’s Sexy Phone Voice
Reporters were treated to a bit of a change of pace this week as an illness robbed Arsene Wenger of his voice, leaving the pre-match press conference duties to his deputy, Steve Bould. The former Arsenal defender was assertive in his praise of the manager, but otherwise avoided wading in too deeply on the questions he was asked, save for one about Jack Wilshere and his hope that the midfielder would remain with the club beyond this summer. Bould’s reputation as a loyal sidekick took no dents this week, and he was even afforded the opportunity to write the manager’s notes in the match day programme. By the time the match had ended, however, Arsene Wenger evidently felt his condition had improved enough to do the post-match interviews, and reporters were treated to a croaky (please, hold the frog jokes) manager, looking fatigued but relieved following his team’s victory. Luckily, the manager appears to be on the other side of his malady, as he will look to devote all of his energy and focus toward the massive first leg showdown in the Europa League quarter-final with CSKA Moscow.