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Van Persie’s fourth quarter magic lifts misfiring Gunners

Arsenal 3 Stoke 1

Gervinho 27, van Persie 73, 82; Crouch 34

On a day when the NFL came to London and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers narrowly failed to complete a fourth quarter comeback against the Chicago Bears, Robin van Persie came off the bench for the final quarter of a game to provide the spark necessary to ignite an otherwise lacklustre performance by his Arsenal teammates. His late brace of close-range goals inspired a 3-1 victory, the Gunners’ sixth straight at the Emirates and their sixth in their last seven games overall. The win moved them up to seventh in the table as Arsène Wenger‘s rebuilding side continue to exhibit steady signs of improvement.

Even though he had spoken during the week about the importance of giving his leading goalscorer a break, it was still a surprise when Wenger named his captain on the bench, with Marouane Chamakh earning a first league start of the season. With backup right back Carl Jenkinson (knee) added to the injury list, Johan Djourou was pressed into action on the right side of defence. Aaron Ramsey returned in place of Tomáš Rosický in midfield.

Szczęsny

Djourou– Mertesacker – Koscielny – Santos

Song – Arteta

Ramsey

Walcott – Chamakh – Arshavin

In last season’s equivalent fixture, Arsenal won 1-0 at the Emirates courtesy of an early Sébastien Squillaci header. It was the team’s last game before their disastrous end-of-season run that started with the Carling Cup final, of which a tame 3-1 defeat at the Britannia Stadium in May was symptomatic.

Marouane, wherefore art thou?

Chamakh's woes continue to deepen (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Marouane Chamakh made a promising start to his Arsenal career during van Persie’s absence for most of the first half of last season before his form and confidence visibly evaporated when he was sidelined after the Dutchman’s return. That lack of self-certainty has also been obvious in his limited appearances this season, with only a single goal in the 4-3 defeat at Blackburn to show for his efforts. His current drought in front of goal is as barren as van Persie’s streak has been hot, and it showed in the first half as much of Arsenal’s patient build-up play lacked the incisive touch and movement that their captain brings to the attack.

Twice in the opening 45 minutes – the first early on, the second on the stroke of half-time – Chamakh missed presentable chances provided by Mikel Arteta that van Persie would most likely have gobbled up. The first saw him place a free header wide from a corner, while the second resulted in a prod with his outstretched foot which nearly ended up closer to the corner flag than it did to the far post.

Gervinho opened the scoring with his second Arsenal goal (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

In between, Arsenal’s real goal threats came from Aaron Ramsey and Gervinho. The pair combined on 15 minutes, when Ramsey sent a perfect ball over the top which Gervinho chested down well, but too close to Stoke goalkeeper Asmir Begović. Shortly after Ramsey himself fired narrowly wide from 20 yards out.

It came as little surprise when the Wales-Ivory Coast axis produced the opening goal. After a neat interchange of passes between Ramsey, Arteta and Theo Walcott, the ball broke back to the Wales captain, whose immediate lob down the middle found Gervinho in space in the box. This time he was able to chest it down and sweep the ball past Begović from seven yards.

Arsenal’s lead lasted just seven minutes, as Stoke scored from their first real chance of the game. Laurent Koscielny was penalised for climbing on Peter Crouch. The award of the free kick seemed soft, but Arsenal were unforgivably slow to organise themselves. Glenn Whelan chipped the ball to the by-line where Ryan Shawcross arrived unopposed to head the ball across the face of goal. Jonathan Walters was allowed to help the ball on, and Crouch gratefully accepted the chance to tap in from close range.

Another set-piece goal, and as always seems to be the case whenever they concede Arsenal wobbled, although they could easily have won an immediate penalty when Andy Wilkinson wrapped his arms around Chamakh as they contested a high ball. But referee Lee Mason waved play on, and coupled with the Moroccan’s late miss it was a frustrating end to a half which Arsenal had largely dominated, but in which each side scored from their only shot on target.

The cavalry arrives in the shape of the Flying Dutchamn

The opening 20 minutes of the second half was a virtual chance-free zone as both sides huffed and puffed, with nothing of any great note happening until Chamakh gave way for van Persie in the 66th minute as Arsenal searched desperately for cohesion. The captain had an immediate impact, using his tricky feet to work space for a cross which was just too high for Koscielny.

Another brace for Van Persie in a match-winning cameo (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

However, the uplift in the home side’s confidence and tempo was palpable, and van Persie struck twice in nine minutes to put the game beyond Stoke. He gave Arsenal the lead for good when Gervinho, who had switched to the right wing after the arrival of Andrey Arshavin, drove to the by-line and fired the ball across the six-yard box for van Persie, who darted in at the near post to poke a shot which Begović could only help over the line. It was Arsenal’s 200th Premier League goal in the 100th league game at the Emirates, and the identity of the scorer could not have been more fitting.

Then the Ivorian popped up back on the left, receiving the ball from Arshavin before a virtual mirror-image pull-back which his captain dabbed sharply with his right foot. Begović got both hands to it, but the ball dribbled into the net anyway. It was van Persie’s 25th goal in 26 league games in 2011, an astonishing strike rate to rival the best in Europe – and too much on the day for a limited Stoke side.

Rarely has the difference in contribution between a confident, in-form striker and his desperately lacking understudy been so clear. Van Persie – and in all probability the rest of the first team – will certainly be rested for the visit of Bolton in the Carling Cup on Tuesday, ahead of a tough test at Stamford Bridge in the league next Sunday. You can be sure Arsenal’s inspirational captain will start there.

Post-match reaction and analysis

Arsène Wenger was being somewhat generous when he said after the match that he was pleased overall with the performance and result:

We had a solid team performance where you could see that the team improves defensively, especially against a team that is challenging like Stoke. We looked much more solid defensively and we had a good start to the game until they equalised. Then I felt we became a bit nervous and we needed half-time to calm down and then come back.

The second half basically was all us, especially after the first 15 minutes, and then the problem was to score goals. Van Persie can do that better than many people and he did it when he came on. Overall it was a good, spirited performance.

He explained why he had chosen to rest van Persie:

He had muscular tightness and I took 19 players [in training] yesterday because I was not sure whether to involve him on the teamsheet. He made a check this morning and he was medically alright to be on the bench. Before you leave him out you always think 15 times “should I really do it or not?” but if you look at the number of games he plays and the history he has, you are a bit cautious.

He rebutted the suggestion that Arsenal are becoming a one-man team:

I don’t have that feeling at all. When you want to be a team with quality you always have a player who stands out and who gets on the end of things. We had Thierry Henry before. Robin has exceptional quality and so you get these questions.

And he was quick to leap to the defence of the beleaguered Chamakh:

I think he worked very hard. He is running after a goal at the moment. I felt there were two or three occasions in the first half where he was nearly there on crosses and just didn’t get in front of Shawcross. I am pleased with his effort. I think he knows in his mind that at the moment Van Persie is untouchable. It is difficult. But he will get confidence by playing games and scoring goals like all strikers.

While it was characteristic of Wenger to defend his players to the hilt publicly, Chamakh’s problems are all too plain to see. A paltry two goals in his last 32 Arsenal appearances is in stark contrast to a return of 30 from 36 for van Persie. While much of his approach play when dropping deep was good, his touch continues to abandon him where it matters most. And he also appears unwilling to match big, tough defenders physically. Despite his early promise he increasingly looks like a busted flush, but I hope to still be proven wrong. As with so many strikers, a couple of goals can make all the difference.

Leaving van Persie on the bench as a precaution was a gamble, but ultimately Arsenal dodged the bullet. Wenger’s captain has always been physically fragile, and I would much rather van Persie miss the odd game (or part of a game) out of choice, than risk the kind of fatigue-related injury which could cause him to miss large swathes of the season. Rest and recovery are critical to the Dutchman’s long-term fitness, but right now he is carrying a team heavily reliant on him for leadership and goals. It is a real double-edged sword which presents Wenger with a major conundrum.

Elsewhere, the midfield trio worked well. Ramsey was lively as both a goal threat and a provider – he now has four Premier League assists this season (only three players have more) – while Alex Song was strong and tidy and Arteta had one of his better games in an Arsenal shirt, although he still needs to provide greater  tempo and incision with his passing.

Gervinho had his best game so far, possessing too much pace and guile for Stoke’s back four, and was involved in all three goals. Theo Walcott skinned Marc Wilson a couple of times early on, but as is so often the case faded and spent too much time running down blind alleys.

Defensively, aside from some poor organisation on the equaliser and a couple of wobbles in the passage of play following it, this was a better performance by a back four missing Thomas Vermaelen, Kieran Gibbs and Bacary Sagna (and his backup Carl Jenkinson). Koscielny was excellent and Per Mertesacker had the physical presence to deal with Stoke’s towering quartet of Crouch, Walters, Kenwyne Jones and Cameron Jerome. Wojciech Szczęsny had little to do between the sticks.

With Matthew Etherington left to shoulder the creative load in the absence of former Gunner Jermaine Pennant, Stoke lacked the outlets to really stretch Arsenal, who remain unbeaten at home against the Potters since 1981. Their improvement continues to be steady rather than spectacular, but it is tangible nonetheless. Chelsea next Sunday will provide a real benchmark of where Wenger’s hastily rebuilt team stacks up against the top three.

Arsenal man of the match: Gervinho. Van Persie was an obvious candidate for his match-winning goals, but the Ivorian winger showed his full potential here, combining his pace and dribbling ability with a great finish and the end product to set up both van Persie’s goals.

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

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