So the truth is out. I am a massive RPG geek to add to my obsessions with sport and history and acting. Normally I keep it under the hat, but when the tribe of Pulis comes to town, it’s hard not to go all a bit Lord of the Rings.
However, it is important to distinguish between the traditions of Stoke City FC and its current incarnation (link to my other blog). We used to be friends, and perhaps after the current regime moves on, we can be again. Or perhaps the divisions encouraged by Tony Pulis are now too great.
As for the game, it was the epitome of a ground out result.
With Arsenal’s infamous defensive vulnerability, many opponents have visited The Emirates with a more pro-active approach than in previous years, pressing high up the pitch, and trying to exploit our porous defensive set up.
No such optimism from Pulis. It was a like a throwback to relegation threatened sides visiting north London when Arsenal were genuine title contenders. Only five teams have conceded less than Stoke this year (remarkably Arsenal are one of them), but only two have scored less. It’s not difficult to see why. The team from the potteries barely ventured into the Arsenal third for most of the match, and invariably played with their usual risk averse men behind the ball, long-ball to the striker approach. Time wasting started in the third minute, and Chris Foy, the Premier League’s most lenient official allowed a certain amount of spoiling tactics to go unpunished. Wilkinson must have caught Walcott three or four times in the first half before a free kick was even awarded, let alone a booking.
It was most fitting that he should be booked for the cynical foul on Walcott which conceded the free-kick from which Podolski scored via a deflection.
Credit where it’s due.
That said, Stoke’s tactics were effective. Arsenal found themselves forced into crab mode, shuffling the ball across the pitch in an increasingly frustrated attempt at creating space into which to move the ball. On the few occasions the Stoke backline was breached, Arsenal were plagued by hesitancy, average finishing or the increasingly consistent excellence of Begovic.
‘The Potters’ defensive work-rate was very impressive, and Huth in particular was outstanding without ever crossing the line with his physical play. It was only really in the second half, when Arsenal were turning the screw where the likes of Whelan were forced into a greater reliance on physicality. And lest we forget Whelan was the first on the scene and stayed close providing comfort as best he could when Ramsey had his leg snapped in half by Shawcross.
Ah…Ryan Shawcross. He will forever be the Arsenal fan’s pantomime villain for that incident, the last in his ‘not that sort of player’ collection of opposition leg breaks. Just as I had got the point of publicly praising the Stoke Captain for cleaning up his game, he overruns a ball in midfield and flies studs first into Koscielny’s most sensitive area. As the commentary team said, he was a little fortunate to escape with a yellow. But more for me the charging into a tackle he can’t win, but yet not pulling out was very reminiscent of the leg-breaker he put on Ramsey. It shows that he hasn’t really learned and remains a danger to opposing players, especially when playing for a manager who puts such emphasis on physicality.
Even Michael Owen seems to have been infected by his manager, having feebly lashed out at Arteta after a heavy challenge. Foy remained lenient, which was probably in these case the right decision though the FA may disagree.
In short, it was one of the dullest games of football I have seen this season.
Only one team wanted to score, but took too long to do so for the game top open up. Stoke have yet to pick up a point at the Emirates, and with their approach, it is a statistic that is unlikely to change. Walcott looked dangerous and determined, Wilshere drove the team on, and it was good to see Arteta back and the impacts of Podolski and Cazorla off the bench, but it was pretty much six or seven out of ten all round, even with Oxlade-Chamberlain still struggling for form. Solid and ultimately effective, but without providing much excitement.
The presence of Diaby (despite slowing the game down too often), Mertesacker (much more vocal than normal) and Giroud provided much needed height and strength, and Stoke only twice got within long throw range. Thankfully, despite the probably illegal special ball-drying material on the front of his shirt Shotton’s delivery from hand not as effective as the now departed Delap. It is also nice to see the manager for once tailor his selection and approach to the opposition with Diaby starting and Cazorla on the bench.
“We played Diaby because in front of the defence he can win some headers. In England you have to cope with all kinds of football without losing the quality you want to play and that is not always easy because if you have 10 Cazorlas, you would have a very good technical team but against Stoke you would struggle.”
That revelation aside, the game was only notable for the instant debut of Thursday’s new boy, the Basque Natxo (Nacho) Monreal. He fitted in seamlessly looking like a taller, slightly less attacking Gibbs. He wasn’t really put under any pressure defensively, but he looked comfortably going forward, can cross on the run and understands his role positionally, unlike Andre Santos. While not the statement signing I was hoping for, one that improves the squad, whilst probably also ensuring our cuddly Brazilian maverick will be off in the summer. Even the Daily Mail and Alan Hanson agreed.
We largely stuck in the transfer window, when perhaps we should have twisted. The manager continues to protest about the lack of quality available in the transfer window, but we really should have competed with Newcastle for Moussa Sissoko, who irrespective of his instant impact, has shown a lot of promise over the last three years before losing his way over the last 12 months. For Newcastle to pay 2 million for a player touted at ten times that 2 years ago is good business. I suppose, as is so often the way, we are left waiting on the fitness of Diaby and Rosicky. Saturday was another good example of why the Frenchman can be so important for us, and perhaps rotating him in and out for tactical reasons will increase his chances of staying fit.
Now we just have to hope for an injury free run between now and May. Giroud especially will need a break soon, but we don’t really have another lone striker to call upon, unless you count the random charms of Gervinho.
Ah well. Fingers crossed!
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