In a match that saw an abundance of physicality and spurts of frenetic action, Arsenal was able to stave off Stoke City, 4-1 Saturday at the Britannia Stadium. Manager Arsene Wenger stuck with the 3 at the back formation, and for the first time was able to utilise both Shkodran Mustafi and Laurent Koscielny. The score does not necessarily show the extent of the physical battle that took place on the pitch, with several players from both sides spending time on the turf in relative discomfort. In a ground not known for being inviting to their annual North London visitors, and on a pitch seldom conducive to Arsenal football in season past, Arsenal hit their stride in the second half, pulling away from a tiring Stoke side. Without a flurry of Stoke City corners in the second half that led eventually to Peter “Nacho on stilts” Crouch’s handball goal, it was mostly a comfortable afternoon for the Gunners defensively. Arsenal currently sit just outside the top 4, 3 points behind Manchester City, and 4 behind third place Liverpool.
Here are the 5 major talking points from Saturday’s battle at the Britannia.
Keeping it Close
As any Gooner would readily tell you, if the month is May, two things are practically guaranteed: that Arsenal are probably playing some of their best football of the entire season, and that they are in the midst of chasing down a top 4 rival that pundits have assumed for weeks were finishing above the Gunners. Though Arsenal have squeaked into the Champions League through the back door in seasons past, the managers of those clubs did not carry the names Guardiola and Klopp: two managers far more accustomed to getting their teams into position at the end of the season than failing. To some, the season became a disappointment when it was confirmed that St Totteringham’s Day would not be happening this year. However, if Arsenal can win their final two matches in the Premier League and either get some help from Manchester City or Liverpool, they may yet find themselves playing Champions League football next season.
Class is Permanent
It may seem an obvious thing to say, but the best teams need their best players to play and perform like the best players on the pitch in order to be successful. With Arsenal, in both cost and reputation, there are two players that SHOULD stand above the rest: Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil. Though Sanchez has been consistently great for much of the year, with his problems being more attitude and histrionic related, Mesut Ozil was at his most infuriating for almost the entirety of winter. Recently however, we have seen Ozil commit much more effort to the cause, with his slumped shoulders and look of disgust at every misplaced pass being limited to seconds now instead of entire matches. Watching him go into sliding challenges has been a source of great humour for some supporters, but these challenges are indicative of increased effort, which is the one thing Gooners have craved most of Ozil’s play.
Against Stoke City, both were extremely influential in the final third. Sanchez is moving with supreme authority, often leaving quality defenders for dead in his wake. Meanwhile, Ozil is once again finding himself on the ball in dangerous areas looking to create or run in behind himself for an attempt on goal. When Ozil is struggling, Alexis starts looking to be both chief creator and goal scorer, severely bottlenecking the Gunners’ attack through him. When Ozil is playing as he did against Stoke, the two most expensive signings in Arsenal history can start to look like 2 kids on the playground having fun. The telepathy, precision and utter cheekiness of Sanchez’ assist to Ozil’s goal had fans and commentators alike in awe.
It appears that both have decided to show the fans that Arsenal is their home, with Ozil responding to criticism by upping his effort, and Alexis’ recent goal celebrations taking on a certain badge thumping, “this is my home” tone. What has been obvious for large stretches of the season, however, is the need for one more truly elite player to compliment them, and perhaps even entice both stars to commit their futures to the club. Acting quickly and decisively at the opening of the transfer window could go a long way towards signalling their intent to challenge for a title.
What has been perhaps the biggest surprise of all with Arsenal’s recent uptick in form and results: the newfound adaptability of Arsene Wenger. For months, myself and countless others have spoken of a possible disconnect between Wenger’s hyper-attacking tactics and principal Assistant Steve Bould’s inherently conservative nature and defensive organisation. Since the surprising shift into a back 3, it seems that a harmonious balance has grown out of the carpet like training pitches of London Colney. The switch has allowed the team to adapt far more to their opponents tactics, from maintaining a rigid back line of 5 when out of possession against more dangerous opponents like Manchester United, to squeezing the pitch all the way into the opponent’s half as they did against Stoke City when in possession. Maintaining a back 3, even while sending numbers forward in search of a goal, has allowed the Gunners to keep from being exposed on the counter attack. Goals scored earlier in the season by teams perfectly content to play for a scoreless draw could have been prevented by the increased security of having three centre-backs on the pitch.
On Saturday, Wenger wisely resisted the urge to play the same team he had midweek against Southampton, opting instead for a more physically robust lineup. For the first time, the ideal (according to me) back 3 got its first ever match together, with Rob Holding continuing to enjoy his football on the right, Mustafi mostly in the centre, and Laurent Koscielny moving to the left side. With Kieran Gibbs out with a knock, it is hard to say whom Wenger would prefer at left wing back between he and Nacho Monreal, but both have shown glimpses of promise down the left side. With Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain also out injured for the match, Hector Bellerin got to play a full 90 minutes and looked quick out there. The defence was able to contain the Stoke attack throughout much of the match. Francis Coquelin came into the team for Aaron Ramsey and played pretty well, matching the physicality of Joe Allen and the rest of the Stoke midfield. While many may have been incensed that Ramsey was out and Coquelin was in, the most polarising inclusion was Olivier Giroud in for a Danny Welbeck at centre forward. Gaining notoriety both for his recent excellence as a “super sub” and his inconsistency in matches that he starts. 90 minutes and a brace for the Frenchman later, he now hast least 10 Premier League goals in every season he has been at Arsenal.
Crushing the Bogey
There always seem to be teams that, even with far fewer resources and talent, love to make it hard for Arsenal. The Britannia Stadium has been one of Wenger’s toughest venues to play at, with poor results often combining with decimating losses due to injury. Much has been written this week, and every week since Aaron Ramsey had his leg brutally broken by Ryan Shawcross about the animosity between the two sides, but it is the stark contrast in play style that has traditionally made it such a difficult match. Since Mark Hughes has taken over at Stoke, that contrast has been lessened, even if the results turnaround had been slow to come for Arsenal. With the 4-1 victory coming away from home, as well as the one goal for Stoke going in illegally off Peter Crouch’s hand, perhaps Stoke City’s status as pain in the Arse(nal) should be put on hold.
The Cost of Victory
Injuries were already a slight concern for Arsenal as the FA Cup approaches, but that concern could be a full-blown crisis if talisman Alexis Sanchez is unable to get back ready for the final two league games as well as the Cup Final. Though it looks like a similar sort of thigh strain to the one he all but ignored earlier this season while on international duty, the club unequivocally need their best player fighting fit if they are to best Antonio Conte’s Chelsea at Wembley Stadium. Danny Welbeck, who most likely was just rested on Saturday for the sake of his knee, should be ready to go for the early week clash with relegated Sunderland, who will be looking to leave their mark on a league that they won’t see for at least the next season. It is tempting to mention Lucas Perez, given that he seems to fit magnificently with what the team try to do when he is on the pitch, but history shows that Wenger is not likely to look towards the quiet Spaniard for answers even when he does come back from his most recent injury troubles.
The Mr Bean of Refs
Ok this isn’t an official match point, but it should be noted that Mike Dean had himself another…well Mike Dean sort of day. After allowing play to continue through what could have been 4 legitimate whistles, he then was duped by the gangly hand of 36-year-old striker, taking no issue with the play in real time. A referee known for some of the most bizarre behaviour on the pitch, he was at least able to refrain from celebrating an opposition goal. A man who exists seemingly to prove the fallacy of the FA’s claim to 98% accuracy in the league’s officiating decisions, he has trouble keeping control of his matches when they get overly physical and hostile. Here is hoping the Gunners see as little of him as possible next season.