Reaction: Stoke City (H)
A much needed 1-0 victory at home was sealed by Poldolski’s late freekick. Arsenal dominated the game from start to end but was unable to find a breakthrough until a tactical switch was made. Wenger, often criticized for being rigid with his tactics, should be given some praise for getting his strategy right today. The team had to face a final five minutes of controversy before leaving the field with the job well done.
Tactics Well Timed
Arsenal chose to rest Cazorla and Podolski as Wilshere, Diaby and Arteta filled the central midfield positions with the Ox on the left wing. This is the first time since the first 2 months that Arteta and Diaby lined up together. I was hoping to see a more solid midfield – one that is more secure but less inventive in attack. That was the case of the first half.
The team put a good shift in the first half, prodding and pushing the moment gaps opened. However, with Stoke’s ‘keeper having a brilliant game and some poor choices from Giroud and Chamberlain, the Gunners could not break through. Well into the first half, Arsenal controlled the game and were secure even on the counter. Arteta and Diaby covered our center backs well. Sagna shook off some serious recent dips in form to marshal the right flank while Monreal was quick to close off the left. Stoke did have a chance or two but their long range efforts were well wide.
What we observed before Cazorla and Podolski came on for Diaby and Chamberlain was reminiscent of the first few solid games that we played this season. As a fan, you felt that the team was defensively comfortable. Our flanks were secure and the center backs were confident. That rubbed off WS1 as well as he got his positioning right and was ready for any residual attempts. However, this calm and reassuring presence came at the cost of attacking prowess.
This calm and reassuring presence came at the cost of attacking prowess.
Like the bleak games after that international break, we were a little flat going forward. Walcott was the only spark for the first half partly due to the terrible Williamson. Wilshere was having difficulty because Diaby didn’t provide sufficient penetration through the middle. He ended up swinging towards the right and Ox started to fill the gap left by Diaby. As the game went on with our half sealed tight, Stoke defended in numbers and nothing worked through the middle. We swung the ball horizontally from left the right, attempting to get to either flank to put a hopeful cross through. To the team’s credit, we did actually make it work but a-backs-to-the-wall Stoke did their job. The problem with this secure approach is the lack of unpredictability that opens up defenses.
This is where Wenger got his tactics right. We are weak in the first half. That has been the story of the season – so what should you do? Give the team a confident start. Give them something to build their game on. It doesn’t matter if we don’t score in the first half, as long as we do not conceded ridiculously soft goals. Stoke had a very real danger of doing that to us. One good cross and a Crouch header was all that was needed. But Wenger’s decision to approach the game with caution paid off. Crouch was left without service as Sagna and Monreal prevented crossing situations. And if a ball went to Crouch and co, Arteta and Diaby were ready to help Mertesacker and Kosc to deal with the second ball. Crouch was rendered completely ineffective and this has happened in both Stoke games this season.
Wenger’s decision to approach the game with caution paid off.
And so we needed unpredictably and better movement. The time was right and Poldi and Cazorla was brought on for Chamberlain and Diaby. That move immediately opened the game up. Santi was given space by Wilshere’s pressing moves as he played behind our #10. Poldi showed the Ox how playing the LW is done. It was not just one way. In our more open approach, Stoke found more space but at that point we did seem to have the physical edge. As Stoke continued fouling, a freekick opened up and Poldi fired a rocket low that had a slight deflection before beating the very excellent Begovic.
I liked the way we approached the game. It was covered our weaknesses and it took full advantage of using Podolski and Cazorla as super subs. They are new to the league and they need time but their passing and understanding (especially with Giroud) is something that breaches defenses for us. Put both of that together and you could see why we remained dominant throughout and sealed the 3 points. Switching Diaby for Cazorla was a signal to step it up a gear and go for it. The defensive part of the team was already feeling more comfortable and Stoke had their minds affixed on leaving with a point.
What makes Diaby such an important figure in our midfield is not only his physical size. Diaby is able to transition between defense and attack seamlessly. I rate his defensive prowess higher than his ability going forward. He knows where to be and that is something that his fellow CMs can learn from. When Ramsey and Wilshere filled that role, they were somewhat the reverse of Diaby – better going forward but poor in defense Maybe Ramsey will soon learn that trade as Wilshere seems to be preferred at the pinnacle of the midfield trident.
The positive to take away from that is we have an interesting array of midfield options. Here’s a breakdown:
- Wilshere CAM/CM): Does best at CAM but can play a supporting CM role.
- Cazorla (CM/CAM): Ideal when he has a more physical and direct partner with him. CAM with Diaby or CM with Wilshere is perfect for his game. He is defensively better than the rest bar Arteta, Le Coq and Diaby.
- Diaby (CM): Suited for just the CM role due this box to box nature. Is a key member in aiding the defense and opening up attacks when we need that extra defensive cover. Also, our own physical option.
- Ramsey (CM/DM): He was built to be a CAM but has not impressed in that role post injury. The extra time he gets as a CM makes him suited for a reverse Diaby role. His defensive work isn’t that sharp but his support play and willingness to cover the entire midfield gives us that ‘attacking version’ of Diaby. He is being played as DM in bits probably to work on the defensive parts of his game.
- Arteta (DM/CM): A CAM that was converted to DM, he has been one of the most important players to the team. His ability to win the ball even against stronger players and distribute the ball well means that he is our Pirlo styled player. He is best fit as DM but his ease in transition further up, especially when we need to pour forward in numbers, gives us a welcome option.
- Le Coq (DM): Still raw but willing to put his 100% all the time. He is somewhat like a more defensive minded Ramsey. Only a DM will suit him well at this time thanks to his industry and ability to slip a ball out of a difficult situation.
The flexibility of our midfield options means that Arsene can afford to rotate his tactical approach like he did today.
The flexibility of our midfield options means that Arsene can afford to rotate his tactical approach like he did today. Start with the more defensive players and make required switches as the game proceeds. When the team is defensively confident, he can pick more adventurous starting options.
Monreal had a fine debut. He kept things simple and direct. We caught glimpses of his ability going forward. Twice he played clever one twos and tricked both the opposing RB and RCB by drifting in before pulling out with speed. In doing that, he managed to float two good crosses, one of which was wasted by Giroud.
Defensively, he did a great job bar two back to back mistakes. Stoke hardly got a cross in from the left flank and Nacho conceded just one corner and a throw the entire match.
However, I won’t get too excited about his ability that quickly. He didn’t have a perfect game and he did skew a very long range shot wide a la Santos when he should have crossed or passed.
Chris Foy will have much to think about especially with regards to his leniency. His inability to stamp his authority early in the game showed at the end as players from both teams began to retaliate and scuffles broke out. Shawcross’s studs up challenge and Owen’s retaliation were results from a match official that was too ready to simply let the game flow.
His linesman should be ashamed of casting doubts over Podolski’s goal as well. Foy had to reconsider the goal because the linesman thought that Walcott was offside. I can understand that offside calls are tough but Walcott wasn’t even involved in the goal. He was the furthest away from the action and whether or not he was offside was not an issue. Worse still, the free kick took a minor deflection off a Stoke player as it was heading in. What was the linesman thinking?
A Job Well Done
It’s been quite a long while since we saw a steady performance like this. Both types of Arsenals were in play today and Wenger switched styles at the right time. There’s no resting on one’s laurels as every league game is now a must win. Till the next game, enjoy the three points!
For more posts like these, follow @davejunia on Twitter.