Stoke City hosted the Arsenal in their 2012-2013 Premier League home opener and judging by the huge grin on Stoke manager Tony Pulis’ face as he jogged off to the showers the hosts were more than happy with a dour 0-0 draw at full time.
Stoke City’s game plan was to close space whenever the Arsenal midfield had possession anywhere near the half-way line and try to kick, pull, shove, and basically harass Arsenal off the ball. When they won possession, the instructions were equally clear; look long quickly to “Crouchie” for the knock-down or a flick-on header and have Walters try to smash and grab a goal.
After that first 20 minutes, whether they had a goal or not, they would sit back in defense and rely on Shawcross and Huth to soak up pressure and try to hit Arsenal on the counter. They were also obviously instructed to take a 90 minute game and compress it down to about 30 minutes of actual game play by taking at least 30 seconds on every free kick, throw-in, and goal kick. Arsenal’s traveling support cottoned on to this tactic and began loudly counting any time Stoke’s keeper, Asmir Begovich, took a free kick. By my estimate, Stoke’s keeper wasted 10 minutes of game time all on his own.
To Stoke’s credit, their six minutes of hard work nearly paid off when the exceptionally mediocre Walters did smash home a Crouch flick on, only to be rightly ruled out for offside.
Just one minute later, The Arsenal response was swift as Giroud played a lovely pass for Podolski who was in on goal. Stoke fullback Andy Wilkinson slipped to the ground and with yards between him and the ball, somehow managed to desperately scramble in front of Podolski’s shot to get in a perfectly timed intentional handball block. How referee Lee Mason missed this only he will know as it was obvious from every angle that the only possible way Wilkinson could have blocked that shot was by throwing his hand out. Replays confirmed that the Stoke player denied Arsenal a goal with his hand and it remains to be seen if the FA will take any further action for Wilkinson’s unsportsmanlike behavior. Or if the Daily Mail will now run an anti-handball cheat campaign.
The rest of the first half and in fact the game followed that familiar pattern as Arsenal poked and prodded the Stoke City defense in vain. In terms of final ball or end product however, Arsenal may have four of the top ten dribblers in the League (Gervinho, Walcott, Cazorla, and Diaby) but only one player in the top 10 of the League in terms of creating goal-scoring chances (Cazorla). If you take Cazorla out of the equation Arsenal’s top three dribblers have combined for 21 dribbles but just 5 key passes in the first two games of the season. Lots of huff and puff from the Arsenal attack but as Arsene would say “lacking a little bit that final quality.”
Moreover, midfield maestro Cazorla not only leads Arsenal in terms of chances created but also in shots per game and again in this game took the lion’s share of the Arsenal shots — getting Arsenal’s only two shots on goal. Podolski and Giroud have surprisingly few attempts on goal for Arsenal and are combined for fewer shots and fewer key passes than the Spaniard.
If you take all of the Arsenal forwards as a unit (Cazorla, Giroud, Gervinho, Walcott, Ramsey, and Podolski) they have created 18 goal scoring chances and have taken 32 of Arsenal’s shots. 9 of the goal scoring chances have been created by Cazorla (50%) and 10 of the shots have been taken by Cazorla (31%).
This wouldn’t be much of a problem except that over their careers Cazorla, Giroud, Gervinho, Walcott and Ramsey are not efficient finishers: they need a lot of shots in order to score goals. Cazorla, Walcott and Gervinho all needed around 10 shots per goal last season and though Giroud was better at 7.6 per goal, Arsenal need to be looking at how they can either be more efficient (easier said than done) or start feeding one or two players the ball more so that they can start scoring goals. I would recommend giving Podolski more chances, as he was the most efficient of Arsenal’s current forwards needing just 4.6 shots per goal.
As the Arsenal defense, Stoke have somehow become a parody of themselves both on the pitch and in the stands. On offense, they were a “direct” team last year but they have become “directly direct” this year. Peter Crouch is now the sole focus of their offense and despite being forced into having extra width on the pitch due to the League’s change of rules, Stoke created an insane 70 aerial duels in yesterday’s match which you can compare to the 29 that they created in the same fixture last season.
Arsenal didn’t win the majority of those duels, in fact Crouch was 18/21, but they did well enough to keep both a second consecutive clean sheet and deny the opposition a single corner kick for second consecutive game. There’s also a different quality to the clearances on this Arsenal team so far this season. Less trying to play the ball out and more just directly getting the ball away.
On defense, Stoke are now almost entirely reliant on the good will (or intimidation) of the officials. Wilkinson’s disgraceful intentional handball was only one of the two offences for which he could have been sent off. In the 62nd minute, Wilkinson managed to escape what should have been his second red card of the game when he went in two-footed on Thomas Vermaelen as the Arsenal defender collected the ball on the edge of the box. This is one the FA will not have a look at since referee Lee Mason issued a yellow card.
Their longballism and parking the caravan on defense ensures that the crowd almost never has to worry about what their team is doing on the pitch and frees them up to watch the opposition manager for 90 minutes or to pay close attention to the opposition bench and boo when a player who had his leg broken by one of their players — two years ago — is substituted on late in the game. They even have special dances that they do whenever Arsenal come to town and there’s a budding economy around Arsene Wenger masks. Clearly, they are supporters who are more interested in their circus atmosphere than in their club playing any actual football.
Arsenal fans on the other hand do care about football and are starting to get a bit worried after two consecutive 0-0 draws. I looked back in the history books and the first instance I can find of Arsenal starting the season with two draws is 1978-79: those two games, though, generated 3 goals for and 3 against. The next closest example is the 1971 title winning team which started the season with two draws and just two goals for and against. I stopped looking at the records at the 1959 season because I have to get to work and if anyone wants to find a season that Arsenal started with two 0-0 draws I’m sure we would all be much obliged.
I’m not hitting the panic button just yet. Arsenal look better than their goals haul (0) suggests and as highlighted earlier just some small adjustments in playing style will almost certainly start seeing the goals go in. If the defense can stay as tight as we have been so far then surely the season will start to look much rosier.
Regardless, Arsenal are only a few points off last season’s champs and already two goals to the better defensively than they were last year. Next up Liverpool who have the League’s second worst defense having let in 5 goals already in just two games.