Sunday, September 22, 2013

Stoke suffer from Arsenal's set-pieces

No, this headline isn’t the wrong way round. Stoke City really were undone by set-pieces against Arsenal in the Gunners’ 3-1 win at the Emirates Stadium. For Stoke fans wondering, the irony really isn’t lost on Arsenal fans.
Stoke are trying to change their style of play, and in fairness to Mark Hughes, the visitors to the Emirates on Sunday did at least try and keep the ball on the ground a bit more. However they looked like a team that still aren’t comfortable with their new identity. As soon as Shawcross and Huth received the ball at the back for Stoke, they immediately looked towards the striker before suddenly thinking they should pass it instead of their normal hoof.
For Arsenal, at the end of a tiring week where a similar XI have had to do the bulk of the work, facing a Stoke team that were unsure of themselves was welcome. The Gunners weren’t at their fluent best and did look tired in the second half, but the momentum and growing winning mentality saw the team through.
Even without Tony Pulis, it’s fair to say that Arsenal and Stoke don’t like each other. That makes the win all the more satisfying because of the way Stoke have been a banana skin that Arsenal have slipped on before. It’s always been Stoke that have troubled Arsenal with set-pieces, so it was a novelty to see Arsenal profiting from them against the Potters. At the heart of Arsenal’s danger from dead ball situations was a £42 million man making his home debut that showed another string to his impressive bow. Most people know about Mesut Ozil’s ability to pick a pass from open play, but it could be almost as useful to have a man who can set up chances from set-pieces.
The first goal came from Ozil’s free-kick being pushed out by Asmir Begovic, and man-of-the-moment Aaron Ramsey slid the rebound in. Initially, and somewhat unsurprisingly, there were some boos from Stoke fans towards Ramsey early in the match, but they were soon silenced as Ramsey hushed them in his celebration. As I said on Saturday, it’s been a long road to recovery for Ramsey, and to score against Stoke just topped off his recent revival.
It was worrying to see Stoke equalise as Arsenal eased off when 1-0 up, but then the Gunners’ Germans restored the lead. Ozil played in a good corner from the right, and Per Mertesacker rose well to place a header into the far corner. Laurent Koscielny almost got a touch on the ball, but his attempts ended up being a good distraction to Begovic. The goal was a good reward for Mertesacker after his excellent start to the season. He has revelled in wearing the armband with Vermaelen and Arteta injured and he’s someone that really connects with the fans. As he normally is, Mertesacker was the last player to leave the pitch on Sunday after making sure he’d applauded all corners of the ground.
There was a dip in the second half as Arsenal surrendered a lot of possession to the visitors, but there was always a sense of Arsenal being able to hold Stoke at arm’s length. Wojciech Szczesny had a tidy game in goal and wasn’t really tested except for when Stoke scored.
To alleviate any jitters, Arsenal nabbed a third goal from a set-piece with a third contribution from Ozil. His cross from the free-kick was good, and not to be outdone as an unusual goal scorer by Per Mertesacker, Bacary Sagna looped a header over Begovic.
Ozil already has the most assists in the Premier League, and that’s before he’s properly gained an understanding with his new team-mates. Fans can be optimistic that there are plenty more to come.
Whilst Arsenal didn’t miss his delivery from set-pieces, the Gunners did lose the injection of pace from Theo Walcott on the right. Despite being named in the starting XI, he picked up a slight knock in the warm-up. Having said that, Serge Gnabry had a good game in his first Premier league start. Whilst he didn’t pin the full-back in their own half like Walcott can do, Gnabry performed very well for someone that was thrust into the side at short notice.
It was great to see Mikel Arteta return from injury from the bench, but he has a real challenge on his hands to get back in the team ahead of Ramsey and Mathieu Flamini. The Frenchman was constantly talking to the team during the game and cajoling them along. When the energy levels dropped in the second half, Arsenal definitely benefitted from having Flamini on the field to keep everyone focused.
Flamini did also provide one of my favourite moments of the game. After a neat turn near the end of the game when faced by Jermaine Pennant, leaving Pennant on his back-side, Flamini passed the ball on and turned round to pump up the crowd. Like Mertesacker, he’s someone that understands what it means to wear the shirt.
It’s still early in the season and the Gunners need to get more players back to rotate the squad, but it is great to see Arsenal sitting at the top of the table. Seeing Arsenal prove they can score a variety of goals does give fans hope that it’s not an impossibility that the club could still be there at the end of the season.