Having just returned from a holiday in the South of France; a country with a wonderful climate and a farming industry that provides its people with more or less everything that one could wish for – French supermarkets are the closest earthlings can get to heaven, if you are, like me, one of those who lives to eat rather than eats to live – I cannot help but wonder what the likes of Giroud (French, born in Chambery, situated in the wonderful French Alps), and Cazorla (Spanish, born in Llanera, North-West Spain) made of their trip to the Country of Wrath – The Land of the Orcs.
Just imagine our new signings pronouncing the word(s): ‘Stoke (on Trent)’: I reckon it would sound like somebody choking on a lump of baguette. Compare that to the poetic sounds of ‘Chambery’ and ‘Montpellier’, or ‘Llanera’ and ‘Malaga’, and I think you know where I am coming from.
Going to the North-West/East has seldom or never been easy for Arsenal, and Sunday’s trip to Stoke was the first big physical and mental test for both Arsenal as a ‘new’ team and for our new arrivals in particular.
Luckily, in quick succession, the Northern ‘B-teams’ – Blackburn, Bolton, Blackpool, Burnley – have dropped out of the Premier League in the last few years, resulting in fewer visits to that doomed corner of the country this season. And long may it continue.
Whatever Santi and Oliver made of the place, and its physically/intellectually/emotionally challenged people (booing Aaron Ramsey sums it all up), they showed no signs of weakness or need to adjust to their new surroundings.
That, combined with another fine performance by our defence, are the main positives we can take away from Sunday’s game.
From the start, it became clear Stoke expected us to dominate play and a row of 4 defenders and five midfielders were positioned in front of their goalie, in order to make life difficult for us. Arsenal combined well and was able to pin Stoke back from the first minute. The ball was being passed round the way we have become so used to over the last few years, and we were able to breach their bus-shaped defensive walls on a number of occasions. If, now and again, we lost the ball in Stoke’s half – especially Diaby and Gervinho had a few moments of weakness at the start of the game – our defenders pressed the opposition quickly and forcefully, resulting in us regaining possession almost instantly. On Sunday, we owned the area between their box and the mid-circle once again, and long may it continue.
We were bullying the Orcs and it felt fecking brilliant!
There were a number of opportunities in the first half. As early as the eight’s minute, Giroud combined with Podolksi in the box and the latter had a decent opportunity to score. The Stoke defender Wilkinson lost his balance as a result of Giroud’s and the Pod’s quick movement, and whilst falling over, the former, serendipitously, ended up in the path of Pod’s attempt on goal. He handled the ball but I don’t think it was a penalty, and we are not Chelsea of course; so nothing given.
The excellent Prince Poldi, who often could be found away from his left wing position, made a mazy run through the middle and was cynically fouled by Huth. The subsequent free-kick, from a promising position, just outside the box, was wasted by Cazorla. Unfortunately, it would not be the last free-kick to be wasted by Arsenal during the game.
Another good move led to a cross from the left which Giroud just could not reach with his head. On top of that, Cazorla had a number of shots at goal from distance, and all in all we deserved a goal from our efforts.
However, it is fair to say, that although we created a number of chances in the first half, we still looked quite rusty in our attacking efforts.
This should not come as a big surprise to us, as except for Gervinho, all our attack-minded players are new. On top of that, Diaby has not played regular football for a long, long time and Arteta has only just returned from a long-term injury as well. They will need time to gel so they can become more instinctive and effective, and the only way to do this is by training hard, and especially by playing more and more competitive games together.
Stoke were only able to get a few set-pieces against us and our defence, including our stand-in goalie Mannone, remained calm and organised – never allowing the crowd any satisfaction. Once again, we were the ones who controlled the game.
I can be short about the second half. It was disappointing to see we could not move a gear up with regards to our attacking efforts after the break. I have seldom seen Arsenal so risk averse. The FB’s did not offer as much support to our wingers as we’ve got used to over the years, and the CB’s stayed continuously behind. I felt Cazorla got more and more isolated and tired as both Diaby and, the once again excellent, Arteta sat back more and more. Diaby and Arteta helped out our defence when it really mattered though in the second half, which was great to see, as well as crucial.
The substitutions of our ‘wingers’ Gervinho and Podolski, by Theo and The Ox, made sense, but they also could not make a significant difference. There were still a few half-chances for Giroud, but a combination of tiredness and over-eagerness, meant he was not able to turn them into goals – although he almost clinched the three points for us with a beautifully imagined, and subsequently executed diagonal lob over the goalie from 25 yards or so. But, it was not to be.
I watched the game in a busy and loud pub, which made it difficult to analyse the game with a bit more depth. I would love to watch the game again with just one objective: to check out how much support both Arteta and Diaby gave to our attackers.
Having watched a couple of Chelsea games and also the game between Dortmund and Bremen in the last few days, I came to realise once again how important it is for one of the two deeper laying midfielders to support the attacking midfielder as much as possible, in order to dominate the opposition in front of their box and add creative thrust (without losing positional discipline of course). Chelsea’s Mereiles really impressed me on Saturday against NU. Every time he came forward to support the attacking players, the Barcodes were put under severe pressure.
In our game, I felt that Diaby and Arteta were not always effective enough in their support of our attackers/AM, but I would need to see the game again to see whether this was indeed so. Dare I say it; I thought we missed Song yesterday, although I also believe that both Arteta and Diaby will get better at supporting the sole AM as the season develops: they are both well-rounded, quality midfielders.
However, I thought both Arteta and Diaby supported our defence really well when it mattered, and I was pleasantly surprised by Diaby’s physical/aerial presence; especially in the second half.
I thought our defence played with discipline and focus and, on the few occasions they were called into action: they were a joy to watch.
Unfortunately, the departures of brave sir robin and Song means we will have to go through another year of transition. But I have no doubt that Cazorla, Giroud and Podolski are quality additions to our team, and whilst they are gelling together with our other players, they will get better and better.
The most important thing, though, is the back-to-basics approach with regards to our defence. We will not win anything anymore until we have a mean, lean, defensive machine again, and the first two games have been very encouraging with regards to establishing just that.
With Liverpool away, Southampton at home, City away and Chelsea at home, between now and 29 September, our defensive will face tougher tests ahead, but like many others, I am getting more and more confident that Steve Bould has been making real progress in making us defensively sound, this summer.
Add to that, that Giroud and Cazorla have come through the ‘Northern Test’ very successfully (and I expected nothing else from the Pod – the man is simply indestructible), and that Wenger keeps hinting there will be one or two more signings in the coming week, and there are plenty of reasons for us to be positive, despite the somewhat dull second half today.
After all, only the Southern Oilers have been able to win all their games and, as unlikely as it may sound after two draws, we are above the Spuds and Pool, just two points behind the Northern Oilers, and only one point behind the Mancs and the Barcodes. It looks like Lady Luck is helping us to settle this new team in this time!
Mannone and defence: 7.5 – all solid, disciplined and focussed – a real unit: 7.5.
Arteta: 7.5 – quickly getting back to his very best.
Diaby: 7 – better second half, despite tiring at the end. If he can stay fit for a while, he will become better and better. Fingers and all other body-parts crossed!
Cazorla: 8 – real quality: our new dynamo and a natural strings-puller. MOTM.
Gervinho: 5 – worked very hard, but this was not his best day.
Podolski: 7.5 – loved his energy, physicality and thrust. Really happy to see he can play effectively for us on the left wing. Goals and assists are just a matter of time.
Giroud: 7.5 – loved his energy, physicality, thrust and link-up play. Obviously, he is very eager to score goals and they will come. He just needs to settle in a bit.