Sunday, March 2, 2014

Lack of pace and urgency as Arsenal suffer at Stoke

The way Arsenal played against Stoke on Saturday, it was nigh on impossible to know that the Gunners were in the thick of the title race. One subdued, lifeless performance and Arsenal are now in danger of being on the periphery of it. Liverpool are ahead on goal difference and Manchester City have games in hand to get past the Gunners, and Arsene Wenger’s men are about to embark on their toughest run of fixtures this season.
The worst aspect of the Arsenal performance in the 1-0 defeat was the lack of pace and urgency shown but the team. There was the occasional piece of high pressing, but when Stoke had no pace in behind the Arsenal defence, Wenger’s team should have pinned the hosts back further.
After the demolition the previous week against Sunderland, it was understandable that Arsene Wenger selected the same team, with the exception of Gibbs returning for the injured Monreal. However the manager should have been willing to make substitutions earlier in the match when it was clear what was lacking in the team. When the pace of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was introduced, suddenly Arsenal had an outlet to stretch Stoke with and therefore they created some openings.
It also felt like a match that was made for Mathieu Flamini. Yes, he probably would have got a yellow card at some point, but it would have been worth had it given the Gunners an extra edge in the centre of the pitch. Stoke would have been reluctant to put in some of their more robust challenges as they would have then been on the receiving end of them from the Frenchman. Remember, it was against Stoke that Flamini got a warning for threatening to blind someone earlier in the season. Some of that bite wouldn’t have gone amiss at the Britannia. Flamini also wouldn’t have let those in front of him slack from working hard. In comparison, Jack Wilshere had a stinker, as everything he tried just didn’t come off for him.
On a real off-day for Arsenal, it was hardly surprising that it was compounded by some generous refereeing decisions for the home team. The winning penalty was never deliberate handball from Laurent Koscielny, whilst Olivier Giroud was on the receiving end of a couple of stamped challenges on his leg. The second of which from Charlie Adam was frankly disgraceful and should be looked at by the FA. Robust challenges are ok, cowardly stamps off the ball are not. As much as the FA should throw the book at Alan Pardew this week, I hope they find some time to give Mr Adam a call.
The crux for Arsenal though is that they didn’t create enough chances to make those decisions irrelevant. Passes weren’t sharp, the movement was slow and predictable and the hunger seemed to be bizarrely lacking.
The margin for error in the rest of a March was always going to be small given the Gunners’ run of fixtures, but now it’s non-existent. Another performance like the one against Stoke, and the fading title hopes will be virtually extinguished. Stoke didn’t play well, but they didn’t have to. The better teams coming up for Arsenal in the next few weeks would punish them heavily for a similar performance.
Arsenal have to regroup and regain their focus before next week’s FA Cup quarter final with Everton. With the title hopes fading and progress in the Champions League unlikely, there is now a lot of pressure on that game. Wenger can rotate in the likes of Flamini, Ozil and Oxlade-Chamberlain, and hopefully they’ll be able to spark a similar performance to the opening 20 minutes against Bayern Munich. Arsenal have to show urgency and come out all guns blazing to make sure they keep up hopes of taking something from this promising season, rather than letting it fade away.