Even by Arsenal’s standards, things fell apart pretty quickly at the Britannia Stadium last month. Stoke has not been a happy hunting ground for the Gunners in recent years, but it took just 19 seconds for Peter Crouch to open the scoring, and 45 minutes for the Potters to establish a three-goal lead that, despite Arsenal’s second-half fightback, proved insurmountable. But for all the suggestion before any game between these sides these days that Stoke are the Gunners’ bogey team, their last victory away from home was in 1981, and today was their thirteenth defeat in a row at The Emirates and Highbury in league and cup matches. Arsenal, meanwhile, have now lost just once in 28 Premier League games at home since an opening day defeat to Aston Villa in 2013/14, and have scored in every league match at the Emirates this term. Football scholars have tied themselves in knots for years seeking to explain such discrepancies in home and away records – and for what it is worth, in a league table of away results this season alone, Arsenal would sit third – but the fact remains that this game, like the reverse fixture, was only going in one way from the first minute. The Gunners need to cultivate this level of control away from The Emirates if they are to challenge again at the top.
Arsène Wenger was at it again the other day. While José Mourinho does it through conspiracy theories and Peterborough chairman Darragh MacAnthony does it in 11-point rants on Twitter, Wenger takes his relief from the mundanity that too often pervades football analysis by philosophising. This week’s rumination was on the modern take on defending, and particularly why he has been unable to rediscover the back line resilience he inherited when he joined the club. “Maybe because our societies are less aggressive in the football education system you cultivate less that intense desire,” he told the Guardian. But Chelsea seem to be able to find something similar, and Southampton kept things pretty tight at the back when beating the Gunners on New Year’s Day. Today’s selection, then, at least saw a back four of square pegs in square holes after the Debuchys and Chamberses who (largely due to injury, of course) have infiltrated the central pairing, and there was an air of calm among the back five at least until Per Mertesacker became so bored by his team’s level of control that he started slicing clearances in an effort to make things interesting. Marko Arnautovic was neutered, Bojan kept at arm’s length, and in all honesty, the Gunners rarely found themselves challenged. They will have much more difficult days, though, and Arsenal fans will hope that Wenger does not look at today as a case for his current defence.
There were little more than glimpses of Stoke as an attacking force this afternoon. Glenn Whelan was outclassed and first Steven Nzonzi and then Steve Sidwell outfought at the base of midfield, leaving Bojan and Arnautovic, a scheming duo the likes of which Potters’ fans have not seen for some years, to wander fruitlessly in search of inspiration. From the little that ensued in an attacking sense, it was clear to see why Stoke have been winning games as much as winning back plaudits – such threat that they were able to create came about through intricacy and interplay as much as blood and thunder – but there needs to be a solid basis, some snap in midfield, in order for the ball-players to have an effect. There will be more than enough Pulis-ball in the Premier League now that Stoke’s former manager has found a place in the dug-out at West Brom, and Mark Hughes should be commended for finding a different way to win games. Today, though, the visitors’ fans would have been forgiven for wishing they could have seen a bit more of the old ways.
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