Written by 26may1989
After all the prematch neurosis, that was what this game was about. Not Shawcross, not Ramsey, not Pulis; just the points. And they’re ours.
Le Boss summarised things nicely:
“Tonight was a night when nobody else played [well] and if you can take three points and glide closer to the top, that means that your team is really hungry for success. The number of games we play, not to make a mistake at any stage… we were less sharp creatively but you could feel the team did not want to make a mistake and that’s a very positive sign.”
Couldn’t agree more.
The opening ten minutes contained much of the game’s creative content: Fabregas, Bendtner and Walcott carved open the Stoke defence three times, and Theo was very unlucky to see his first effort bounce back off the post to Begovic rather than nestle in the net. And on the 8th minute a corner pinged around the box, before being deftly knocked back into the danger area by Bendtner to Squillaci, who nodded in from no distance, with Stoke’s defending surprisingly weak. And that was that, 1-0 to the football team, which is how it stayed till the end.
This was certainly no classic. No surprise there, the Stoke way makes classics a different thing to achieve. There’s a reason fans watching Stoke have seen fewer goals than any other team’s fans other than those of Fulham and Birmingham (only West Brom fans have seen more goals than Gooners). But without doubt, our boys weren’t at the top of their creative game either. Fabregas’s early departure must be a big part of the reason for that, the remaining players seemed to lose their fluency and dynamism as soon as El Capitan limped off, and didn’t really get their mojo back before the end of the first half.
There was a strange lack of intensity to both teams in the first half – where the appearance of Shawcross a year after he split the tibia and fibula in Aaron Ramsey’s right leg was meant to fire up this game, it was a calcio, uber tactical, sterile exchange, with Arsenal working hard but failing to string many moves together. However, the defence staying strong and disciplined in terms of shape and position. Stoke started in more of a 4-3-3 but after a while Walters and Pennant spent most of their time in midfield, making it a 4-5-1. Neither John Carew nor Wojciech Szczesny saw much of the ball before half-time, save for one sparkling, powerful drive from the Norwegian that our young Pole saved without much fuss.
Things picked up in the second half, as Stoke came out of their lair and tried to press us more aggressively. That, plus the inevitable rubbish from the referee, prompted a more vigorous style of play from our guys, with Nasri in particular coming into the game more effectively than he had done up to that point. Walcott, who had been one of the bright sparks before half time, faded a bit, before being chopped down from behind by Whitehead without Peter Walton spotting the foul. Walcott was stretchered off and will now miss the League Cup Final. Thanks Stoke. I guess we should be grateful the doctors aren’t debating whether one of his limbs needs to be amputated.
Szczesny and the defenders had to deal with the inevitable artillery barage from throw-ins, corners and free-kicks, and for the most part they dealt with it well. They were assisted by Stoke’s undisciplined approach to our offside trap, Stoke’s front players often being lazy in holding their position. But Robert Huth ought to have scored from one of the deadball mortar shells lobbed into the penalty area to consolidate his position as Stoke’s top scorer. Fortunately for us, he headed over.
Arshavin worked hard throughout, and unlocked the Stoke defence beautifully when he took his defender to the line and cleverly beat him, then set up Walcott in the centre, only for Theo to miscue when he should have buried the ball in the net. There were occasions when we carried some threat to Stoke, usually when one of our attacking players received the ball between Stoke’s midfield and defensive lines. But truth be told, they were few and far between.
This was a serious performance from Arsenal, one that suggests the appetite and focus that they’ll need if they are to overhaul United. There were no frills or thrills, and no hysterical attempts at revenge, just a determination to bag the points in a game against an obnoxious but potent opponent. The price for those points may have been high: we’ll have to see what the morning brings in terms of the injuries suffered by Fabregas (who appears to have the tightest of hamstrings) and Theo. But fingers crossed, they’ll be able to resume duties, at least when we play Sunderland and West Brom.
Here are my rankings, which I think will prompt disagreement:
Szczesny: 8 - Dealt with what was thrown at him well and without panicking. That’s more than we can say about either Fabianski or Almunia.
Sagna: 7 – Disciplined, no nonsense performance.
Squillaci: 7.5 – Showed the doubters that there is more to his game than he’s often given credit for, the goal just being the icing on the cake. Clearly more comfortable alongside Djourou than Koscielny.
Djourou: 6 – Positionally superb and dealt well with the ball in the air, but on a number of occasions he was uncharacteristically error-prone with the ball at his feet, exposing us to unnecessary risk.
Clichy: 7 – Again, a disciplined performance, along with some of the usual Clichy bite, and some of the usual misplaced passes.
Song: 7.5 – Efficient with the ball, with very few errors, and executed his defensive duties well.
Wilshere: 8 – What more can be said about this boy? He is a marvel, it’s astonishing to think he was playing youth team football not long ago. His maturity with and without the ball in a game like this is incredible. MOTM.
Nasri: 6 - Not his best performance but worked hard, and got some traction in the second half.
Walcott: 7 – Fantastic and explosive beginning. He saw less of the ball after Fabregas went off, but still worked hard. Went down a couple of culs-de-sac in the second half but was still one of our better creative players.
Fabregas: 7 – He was only on for 14 minutes, and looked mighty unhappy when he had to come off, but in the time he was on, he looked willing and able to spring the Stoke defence.
Arshavin: 7 – Worked very hard, and used his tricks to good effect. Has clearly got over his difficult phase, he’ll be a big part of our run-in.
Bendtner: 7 – Again, worked hard against Huth and Shawcross often without support, and got an assist for the goal plus was at the heart of our early chances.
Denilson: 7 – Very astute substitute for the injured Walcott when the logical choice might have been the off-form/in decline Rosicky – Denilson did what he does best, retained possession and completed a very high proportion of his passes, just what we needed.
Chamakh: 6.5 – Didn’t do much wrong, and did well in the air for the short period he was on, but no sparkling contribution either.
The fans’ lack of spark also contributed to the mean fare that was on offer. It really isn’t good enough on such a crucial night for our fans to put in such a poor shift – we have a lot to contribute to the push for the title. Playing Barcelona is all very well, but let’s be realistic, we’re not going to win the Champions’ League; our season is about these league games, and we need to contribute to the drive for the title.
Finally, and on a very different subject, I just wanted to send my best wishes to everyone in Christchurch. I have family in NZ, and know the country and Christchurch very well, having even gone to school in the Christchurch suburb of Sumner for a few months. My parents are in NZ visiting my brother right now, and were only 60km up the coast from Christchurch when the earthquake hit. They’re fine but seeing the devistation done to the city and its people is shocking, and hearing that rescue efforts for those trapped are now being wound down is deeply depressing. My thoughts are with Christchurchians and all Kiwis.