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Arsenal’s attitude problem ensures tame defeat at Stoke

Stoke 3 Arsenal 1

Jones 28, Pennant 40, Walters 82; van Persie 81

A week after deservedly beating champions-elect Manchester United, Arsenal surrendered meekly to a Stoke side with one eye on next Saturday’s FA Cup final. Defeat underlined that Arsenal, for all their undoubted talent, remain sorely lacking when it comes to matching the work-rate and desire of so-called lesser teams week in and week out.

Gaël Clichy and Samir Nasri both missed out with hamstring problems, resulting in call-ups for Kieran Gibbs and Andrey Arshavin. And with Cesc Fàbregas still sidelined, Aaron Ramsey continued to deputise in midfield on his return to the ground where he had his leg broken in a tackle with Ryan Shawcross 15 months ago.

Szczęsny

Sagna– Djourou– Koscielny – Gibbs

Song – Ramsey

Wilshere

Walcott – van Persie – Arshavin

Arsenal had previously won 1-0 at the Emirates, courtesy of an early goal by Sébastien Squillaci – the last instance of a headed goal by an Arsenal player. It was, of course, also the last match before the fateful Carling Cup final defeat – since when they had won just two out of eight in the Premier League (and three out of 12 in all competitions).

The same old story

With a stiff wind at their backs, Arsenal played the prettier football and dominated possession in the first half, but went in at the interval 2-0 down. It was a not unfamiliar story which typified this up-and-down season.

Arshavin could have put Arsenal ahead in the first minute (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

They could have scored twice in the first six minutes. The game was less than a minute old when Jack Wilshere‘s determination carved out an opening for Arshavin, only for the Russian to drag a shot from 12 yards wide. Leading goalscorer Robin van Persie then fired over from an angle.

Meanwhile the home side, while enjoying less possession and resorting to a more direct approach, nonetheless gave Arsenal’s back line plenty of cause for concern, particularly from set-pieces and throw-ins. Wojciech Szczęsny was the busier of the two goalkeepers as he faced an intermittent aerial bombardment. Indeed his counterpart Asmir Begovic had still not had to make a save when Stoke took the lead in the 28th minute.

Jermaine Pennant, who put in a man-of-the-match performance, drew a needless foul from Arshavin near the corner flag. He whipped the free kick into the six-yard box where Kenwyne Jones, who had eluded Johan Djourou far too easily, bundled the ball in with his chest. It was Stoke’s division-leading 22nd goal from a set-piece this season.

Arsenal’s response was tepid. With Begovic an unoccupied spectator, they counter-attacked ponderously, walking the ball up to the edge of the area. Too often they allowed themselves to be funnelled inside, where attacks repeatedly ran aground against the rocks of Shawcross and Robert Huth. And when they did get the ball into profitable wide positions, the final ball was frequently aimed at a single yellow shirt and then horribly errant.

Five minutes before half-time, with Arsenal seemingly confounded by their opponents’ solid rearguard, Stoke doubled the advantage. There was a large slice of luck, but it was preceded by yet more lackadaisical play by the visitors. Possession was given away sloppily in midfield. Pennant was allowed to advance unobstructed with the ball as Djourou needlessly backed off, and his shot from 22 yards deflected off the Swiss defender’s outstretched leg and looped over Szczęsny’s outstretched glove.

Things could have been worse. A minute later, with Arsenal’s heads still spinning, Jonathan Walters easily eluded Alex Song on the byline and saw his shot from a tight angle cannon back off the bar.

57 seconds of hope

Wenger responded at half-time by sending on strikers Nicklas Bendtner and Marouane Chamakh for Arshavin and an ineffective Ramsey. If anything, the move disrupted what little attacking rhythm Arsenal had. Bendtner looked lost stationed out on the left, and Chamakh linked up well from deep but looked increasingly fearful the closer he came to goal.

Indeed, Huth was unfortunate not to kill the game off almost immediately as he powered a header just over from a corner. All Arsenal could muster in reply was a Bendtner 25-yarder which Begovic was happy to watch drift wide and a weak shot by Chamakh which barely made it to the byline before going out. Indeed Arsenal’s first shot on target did not come until the 58th minute, an off-balance effort by van Persie which Begovic casually snaffled.

Van Persie scored for the eighth straight away game (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Stoke’s Bosnian keeper was at least made to earn his pay in the 73rd minute, as Bendtner played in van Persie and Begovic charged alertly off his line to block. But nine minutes from time he was finally beaten. Van Persie picked up the ball midway inside the Stoke half and drove forward, shrugging off a challenge, before unleashing a shot which slipped under Begovic’s body. It marked the eighth consecutive away game in which the Dutchman has scored, extending his own Premier League record.

However, any glimmer of hope Arsenal may have been fostering was snuffed out 57 seconds later. From the restart, Stoke advanced menacingly. Andy Wilkinson tried a speculative effort and Djourou stretched out his foot in an attempted clearance, but succeeded only in teeing up Walters to put the game beyond doubt.

It was no more than Stoke deserved. They had defended obdurately and without resorting to excessive physical force. Indeed, most of the worst tackles were perpetrated by Arsenal players as frustration got the better of them. It was pretty much the only sign of fight we saw from the team all afternoon as their title challenge was mathematically ended.

Post-match reaction and analysis

After the game, Arsène Wenger did not attempt to disguise his disappointment:

Yes, it was a disappointing performance. The competitive level of Stoke was higher than ours. I think we lost the game because Stoke defended much better than we did and with much more purpose.

If you do not turn up with the same competitive spirit in every game you can lose games everywhere. Stoke defend well and make it difficult for you. The most important thing here is not to be 1-0 down and with the first free kick we were 1-0 down. In a game like that, we did not penetrate enough. At the end of the day we were not dangerous enough.

And he admitted his team’s fundamental weakness on set-pieces:

We [have] conceded, I think, 21 from set-pieces and only 17 in open play. Less than anybody else in open play [but] we have been caught on set-pieces. Today, [Kenwyne] Jones didn’t even need to jump to head the ball in. That is something we have to correct. It is the easiest thing to correct in the game but you still must understand the flight of the ball and want to be first to the ball. I feel we are sometimes a bit naïve.

There is clearly a technical or organisational weakness on set-piece plays, but more than anything there is a lack of burning desire to be first to every ball and to do some of the ‘dirty’ things that even the most elegant of defenders must do. That means doing the same bumping, barging, blocking off, and even shirt-pulling which every other team does as a matter of course.

Bacary Sagna summed it up well when he told Arsenal TV Online after the game:

I think we are too nice. We have to fight a bit more. We have to push them [opponents] as much as they push us and be a bit more ‘killer’. It can be put right on the training ground because it is in our mind. We know we are very good players but sometimes we have to fight a bit more.

We didn’t deserve to win on Sunday. We didn’t give enough, we didn’t play as we can and that’s what happens when you don’t give the maximum – you get beaten everywhere.

Johan Djourou is perhaps more guilty of this than anyone. A fine and elegant defender when on form, he is too easily lost by his opponent at set-pieces and beaten to the first ball. Jones’s opening goal here was a prime example of this. Djourou had a nightmare in this game, even though he has been generally very good since he came back into the team at mid-season.

Not all Arsenal’s problems are defensive, however. The attack can become too predictable against well-organised defences. Even with Theo Walcott in the side, they rarely force defenders to turn and chase down the channels, preferring instead to pass the ball neatly around in the centre of the field and allow opponents to set themselves comfortably. Of course, no one is advocating the direct approach. It is more that Arsenal seem to have lost the ability to attack at pace and (Walcott aside) run at defenders with genuine menace across the full width of the pitch in the manner that became customary in the days of Thierry Henry, Robert Pirès and Freddie Ljungberg.

There is much food for thought for Wenger over the summer, much of which I have already covered in greater detail elsewhere. But talent is not the problem here – attitude is. Pound for pound, Arsenal are at least a match for United or Chelsea. In terms of mentality, though, they fall well short. The ‘Invincibles’ of 2003/04 had both talent and toughness. Wenger’s task over the summer is to at least maintain the former while instilling a large dose of the latter. Answers on a postcard, please.

Arsenal conclude their home fixtures next Sunday against Aston Villa, with only the short trip across town to Fulham to follow thereafter. Realistically, four points should be enough to guarantee third place and an automatic Champions League place next season. There is still that not insignificant bonus to play for. But has anyone told the players that? Third place will not come automatically. It has to be earned.

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

4 Responses to Arsenal’s attitude problem ensures tame defeat at Stoke

  1. Football says:

    The Gunners have had an attitude problem the whole season but I wouldn’t blame them for this defeat as there was not much to play for in this game. Moreover, Stoke is a difficult opponent for any traveler on Britannia Stadium.

  2. Martin says:

    Arsene Wenger is quoted as saying that Arsenal’s problems from set pieces are the easiest to fix in the game. Do you think that they do practice defending set pieces in training? Or do they just play 5 a sides as has been reported? Does anyone know how much of a focus is placed on defendig set pieces in training, if any? It has been noted that Arsenal are physically smaller than other teams, however their keeper is 6-5″ and Djourou and Kosielny are hardly small. Van Persie and Diaby (when plays – Diaby must be worst header of ball of anyone 6-4″) also have a presence at set pieces. So I do not agree that it is down to physicality. My fear is that Arsenal have become so self indulgent that they are not prepared to put the same hard hours in as other teams in the premier league such as Stoke, Bolton, etc when it comes to set pieces and therefore refuse to prepare for matches adequately. A bit like having a 28 ounce steak and bottle of red for lunch before the game. Arsene would certainly not approve of this? Furthermore, Arsenal were once famed for their set piece ability – remember Bould, Adams, Keown etc these players played (and coached) during the Wenger regime. How is it then that this art of defending (and attacking remember??) ha been lost without memory during Wengers tenure? Again I believe as many others do that this comes from a lack of desire, will, appetite or whatever you want to call it on the training pitch. It does not come down to ability – no one is going to convince me that Ryan Scawcross has superior physical attributes or anywhere near the overall ability of Djourou yet at set pieces there can be no comparison – one attacks the ball the other doesn’t – so it must come down to lack of preparation? The worst part of all of this is that in addition to great defenders having worked under Wenger during his regime he also has one on his coaching staff managing the youth team??? Surely Steve Bould can take an hour out of his day to oversee a set piece session? How great would it be to see a near post flick on from Kosielny hammered home at the back post by Djourou ala Bould and Adams. We can all but dream. However in all seriousness to overlook an asset such as Steve Bould when training points again to lack of preparation. Why not call in some of the Arsenal greats like Keown (who am sure could do with a rest from the BBC) and Adams (who I’m sure would take a hiatus from Uzbekistan?) to teach these new recruits how to attack a football at set pieces. It may not be as pleasing on the eye but is certainly a large part of the beautiful game Arsene. Open your eyes, we have run out of time on “I did not see it” because everyone else has.

  3. Pingback: Arsenal the villains as Villa show the value of being Bent « The armchair sports fan

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