Sunday, December 11, 2016

Arsenal recover from another penalty to beat snide Stoke

Even though Stoke City have signed a few more ‘flair’ players in recent times, there remains a horrible side to them as a team, and because of a section of their fans, as a club. Supporters singing ‘Aaron Ramsey, he walks with a limp’, goes beyond a bit of terrace banter and is just taking joy and mocking a player who had his leg snapped in half. And then there’s Charlie Adam. More on him later.
Despite being considered a bogey side to Arsenal, Stoke have a horrendous record at the Emirates as they haven’t picked up so much as a point in any of their games with the Gunners at the ground. But they remain a nuisance, and it was incredibly unhelpful for them to visit North London with Lee Mason selected as the referee.
Arsenal do have an unfortunate habit of conceding penalties this season, with five going against them. But the decisions seem to be becoming increasingly ridiculous. A few weeks ago, Callum Wilson got a penalty for jumping into the back of Nacho Monreal. On Saturday, Joe Allen bought himself a penalty by being shorter than Granit Xhaka. The Swiss international turned to control the ball in his own box, had Allen run into him and get a penalty for a suposed elbow from the Swiss international. Xhaka did what you’d hope your midfielder would do in that situation by shielding the ball, but Allen’s face only went up to Xhaka’s arm and Lee Mason somehow believed Xhaka had deliberately elbowed the Welshman. It strikes me that if Granit Xhaka did want to elbow someone, he wouldn’t mess about – think Dennis Bergamp on Steve Lomas in 1998. It was an absolutely ludicrous decision.
Having started the game ok, Arsenal suddenly had to chase it from 1-0 in the first half, with Charlie Adam scoring from the spot.
But this Arsenal team are increasingly showing that they don’t panic after going behind in games. Ideally they wouldn’t have to come back as often as they are doing at the moment, but when the situation arises, there’s a confidence that 1-0 down isn’t a big problem for the team. The injustice of the penalty also helped fire the team up, and for the rest of the game, they looked really up for the challenge. There was good pressure from the front and a really good intensity to Arsenal’s play.
They stepped up the pace noticeably before half-time with Granit Xhaka and Francis Coquelin’s developing partnership working well to control the tempo of the game. The equaliser came when Arsenal showed patience in possession before working it wide to Hector Bellerin in space. His low ball from the right was well turned in at the near-post by Theo Walcott. Bellerin had only come on after Shkodran Mustafi went off with a hamstring problem, and while Gabriel has deputised commendably, it was clear that Bellerin’s introduction gave Arsenal another dimension going forward, and it livened up Theo Walcott as well.
Bellerin was involved again as Oxlade-Chamberlain fired over the bar from the edge of the box just before the break, but it wasn’t long into the second half before Arsenal did grab the lead for the first time in the game.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain continued his good run of form by contributing another assist as he clipped an excellent pass over the top of the Stoke defence, but it still needed a lot of finishing from Mesut Ozil. The German ran onto the ball and could have tried to bring the ball down before finishing, but noticing the goalkeeper slightly too far off his line, Ozil beautifully looped his header over Grant and into the net. It was a goal that typified the change in Ozil’s game this season win his willingness to run in behind the defence and his increased confidence in front of goal.
There were a couple of concerning moments at the back when Mame Biram Diouf headed wide when unmarked and Peter Crouch brought a good save out of Petr Cech with a header, but Arsenal always carried the bigger threat going forward. Oxlade-Chamberlain was unfortunate to get taken off after another positive performance, but his replacement, Alex Iwobi, brought fresh impetus into the team, building on his goal-scoring display in Basel. But in the build-up to Iwobi’s game-clinching goal, there was a nasty moment that should draw punishment from the FA.
Apart from the penalty, Lee Mason had no control on the game as the referee as he allowed Stoke to time-waste from early in the game, and even wasted more time by talking to the goalkeeper about it and not producing a card. This ineptitude just encouraged Stoke to push the boundaries of what nastiness they could get away with. Charlie Adam then stamped over that boundary.
Alexis was on a weaving run before he was brought down by Martins Indi near the edge of the box. The ball ran to Iwobi, who controlled well and clinically swept the ball into the bottom corner. But as he jumped on the chance to power towards goal, Charlie Adam, who still had a chance to tackle Iwobi and prevent his team from conceding a goal, decided the best course of action was to deliberately stamp on Alexis Sanchez when the Chilean was on the ground after being fouled. Why are you even a professional footballer if your first thought is to intentionally injure an opposing player, rather than trying to stop a goal going in against your team? It was a disgrace, but not the first time Adam has done such a thing, having tried to strangle Alexis and stamp on Olivier Giroud previous games. If Stoke want to lose their bad reputation, a starting point is to stop employing players who want to hurt others over stopping goals. 
Overall though, it was another extremely enjoyable afternoon and rounded off an excellent week. Competition for places is bringing out good performances, especially in the attacking positions. It now means Arsenal have goal-threats across the width of the pitch, rather than relying on one or two to score. With Everton and Manchester City to come away from home this week, it’ll be another test for the Gunners to overcome, but they’re in fantastic shape to get two good results from those games.