Sunday, January 11, 2015

Arsenal beauty beats Stoke’s beasts

It does baffle me slightly when Stoke fans bemoan the reputation their club has gained since their promotion to the Premier League. In comparison to any other team that comes to the Emirates Stadium every season, the Stoke players look massive. Bojan looked out-of-place lining up alongside them against Arsenal as, apart from Per Mertesacker and Olivier Giroud, the Stoke players towered above the Gunners physically. As a team, they try to rough up the opposition with significant jostling, long balls and some needlessly strong tackling.
Stoke’s strategy has worked too often for them against Arsenal at the Britannia Stadium, but at the Emirates Stadium, they struggle to live with the beauty of Arsenal against their beasts. The Gunners’ comfortable 3-0 win was a prime example of that as Alexis Sanchez helped Arsenal run rings round the Potters and register a confidence boosting win.
The FA Cup win over Hull was good, but it didn’t feel like a proper test of Arsenal and how they’d respond to the disappointing defeat to Southampton, giving the first league game at the Emirates Stadium in 2015 an extra bit of significance. Along with the need to right a lot of wrongs from that first half capitulation at Stoke last month, there was a lot to play for, and Arsenal started in a manner that suggested they weren’t going to allow the same thing to happen again.
Too often this season, Arsenal have started games slowly and allowed the opposition the chance to slowly build pressure on a fragile defence, but there was none of that against Stoke. With the likes of Alexis Sanchez, Tomas Rosicky, Santi Cazorla and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain all looking to get forward at pace, Arsenal started at a high intensity. Begovic had to be sharp to deny Alexis and Rosicky in the opening moments.
Even just six minutes into the game, it felt like the opening goal was coming when Laurent Koscielny ghosted into space in the middle of the penalty area and guided a header into the corner from a great cross from Alexis. For a team famed for their work at set-pieces, it was astonishing to see Koscielny have a free header from 10 yards out against the Stoke defence, but it was good movement from the Frenchman to escape the attentions of the defenders.
Stoke did gain a little bit more possession after Arsenal opened the scoring following their barnstorming start to the game, but they struggled to test David Ospina. Keeping his place after the cup clean sheet against Hull, Ospina had another relatively straightforward game as Stoke struggled to create any clear opportunities. Picking the Colombian does send a strong message from Arsene Wenger to Wojciech Szczesny, stronger than any fine does, about the Pole’s need to improve discipline and mistakes. It’ll be interesting to see if Wenger gives Ospina a run in the side, and therefore start him at Manchester City next weekend, and make Szczesny the ‘cup keeper’, with the Pole getting a chance at Brighton a week later. Even though he hasn’t been properly tested, it’s hard to drop Ospina after two clean sheets.
Arsenal continued to look dangerous every time they attacked in the first half as Begovic was regularly tested. The team looked much better for having Olivier Giroud back as a focal point up front, and even though the Frenchman didn’t score or get an assist, he occupied the centre-backs well, creating space for those around him. No-one profited more from that space than Alexis Sanchez.
Just past the half-hour mark, the Chilean exchanged passes neatly with Tomas Rosicky before driving into the box. He shaped to open his body up to curl the ball into the far corner, but caught both Ryan Shawcross and Asmir Begovic out by fizzing the ball in at the near post. The brilliance of the disguise on the shot was matched by the power he generated from barely any back-lift. For all the faults in the team this season, and there have been plenty, it’s still amazing to think that Alexis Sanchez is an Arsenal player. He’s fantastically talented, but he makes sure he gets the most from his talent by working so hard.
It was no surprise that he scored the third goal, although there was a bit more luck about this one. Seeing how tall the Stoke wall was, Alexis went to fire it under the jumping wall, but the shot took a deflection and squirmed into the net via Begovic and the post. The goal effectively clinched the game and meant Arsenal could cruise through the rest of the match without many scares.
It gave Mesut Ozil and Theo Walcott the opportunity to get some much needed minutes off the bench. Walcott had a glorious chance to give Arsenal a fourth goal, but like against Hull last week, the finish was disappointing. It’s encouraging that Walcott is getting into dangerous positions, but he just needs one to go in. Walcott is a stereotypical confidence player, so hopefully he can get that first goal back sooner rather, and his form will quickly pick up.
The main negative from the game was the injury to Mathieu Debuchy. It was a nasty and needless push from Marko Arnautovic when the ball was off the pitch, sending the Frenchman towards the advertising boards, with the awkward landing dislocating his shoulder. Hector Bellerin came on and played very well, but given the paucity of options at the back, another injury in defence isn’t welcome. It could force Arsene Wenger’s hand in the transfer market, especially if the diagnosis isn’t good. Preventable muscle injuries are one thing, but an impact injury like that from a stupid shove is incredibly annoying.
That was the only disappointment in an otherwise excellent afternoon for the Gunners. Players are returning, the defence is looking more solid and we’ve got Alexis Sanchez.