As Stoke looked to end their Arsenal hoodoo, Mark Hughes brought back Joe Allen for the unlucky Walters and decided to stick with the 3-4-3 formation which had previously seen off Watford and Burnley. With no Super Jon the captain’s armband was passed to Charlie Boy and once the match commentator informed us that it was the Scot’s birthday everything felt right with the boy as if this confirmed his theory that, in the absence of The Captain, the honour to lead the team was being based on star sign rather than footballing ability.
Indeed, this theory seemed to be confirmed as Adam misplaced a pass early on which led to Arsenal rushing forward to attack Grant’s goal and, maybe buoyed by this mistake, it was evident Arsenal had been told to press the Stoke Captain quickly every time he received the ball. Yet despite Stoke’s midfield’s tendency to give the ball away needlessly it was Stoke who looked the more dangerous in the opening exchanges with Arnie being Arsenal’s tormenter in chief as he twice laid the ball back only for Joe Allen and Shaqiri to fluff their lines. There was even a potential goal of the season contender as Muniesa forced Petr Cech to tip over after a perfectly struck volley from what seemed like the centre circle.
It was therefore no surprise to anybody, apart from the Christmas Grinch on the Arsenal touchline, when Stoke took the lead after Xhaka assaulted Joe Allen in the Arsenal penalty area and Adam stepped up to stroke the resulting penalty home. Should Xhaka have been sent off? Initially I thought no but after seeing the replays, which Lee mason didn’t have the luxury of to be fair, it is clear Xhaka deliberately elbowed the Welshman and who knows what the result might have been if the Swiss midfielder, who was easily Arsenal’s best player, had been sent for an early bath. And of course on the side line the Christmas Grinch clearly thought Lee Mason got it wrong, presumably believing that Allen should have gotten his face out of the way!
One nil up at the Emirates might have seemed a dream scenario and things might have been different if Mustafi hadn’t injured himself a few minutes before Stoke took the lead but with Bellerin coming on at right back Arsenal began to look a lot more potent and Pieters in particular will not be wanting to see the Spaniard anytime soon as Bellerin continually looked to join the attack. Potent as he is going forward Bellerin may be the weakness in the Arsenal defence that other teams will look to exploit because he does leave the Arsenal right exposed as he looks to influence the attack.
But it was the Spaniard’s attacking intent which finally undid the Stoke defence three minutes before the interval when his low cross was met superbly by Walcott who volleyed past a helpless Grant in the Stoke goal. 1-1 quickly became 2-1 five minutes after half time when Pieters, out of position after receiving treatment, could only watch on as Ozil ghosted through a disorganised defence to head past a stranded Grant.
Even a goal behind you still felt Stoke had a chance even after Grant made a smart save from Oxlade-Chamberlin and if Mame had managed to do better with a free header from six yards out we might have been lucky enough to see the Christmas Grinch throw a festive tantrum. Instead Stoke seemed to lose a little spirit after this miss and to shake things up Mystic Mark decided to turn to one of his go to men in Two Meter Peter and if Crouch’s first touch, a downward header, had sneaked in we may have talking about a substitution masterclass but instead the truth was as soon as Stoke introduced the veteran striker they began to fade from the game.
And it was left to the Arsenal sub, Alex Iwoba, to put the final nail in Stoke’s coffin as he steered a low shot past the diving Grant and into the bottom corner to seal yet another defeat for Stoke at the Emirates.
This game was always going to be difficult and in the main Stoke can take some comfort in the way they created chances against a team who are going to be up near the top of the table come the end of the season but as we enter a hectic festive period there are still a few points to consider:
- It seems 3-4-3 is here to stay, at least until the Captain returns, and so the next question has to be who gets the nod to play in the front three. Arnie played well, at least for the first half, in the false nine role but at home where Stoke will be expected to attack a more dedicated striker will provide a greater threat. At least for the Southampton game I would bring back Super Jon.
- I know I am beginning to sound like a broken record once more but why is Adam still playing when Glenda is fit again? The Scot may be our best striker of the ball we have but he gives the ball away too cheaply to play the covering role in front of the defence. Arsenal clearly noticed he could be ruffled and every time Charlie Boy received the ball he was closed down quickly. A tactic I am sure Southampton and Leicester will have noted produced dividends.
- Another broken record moment! When we bring on Two Meter Peter we are broadcasting to world how we are going to change our game plan and being honest it is not working. It was good to see both Ramadan and Ngoy getting onto the pitch and both fit into the way we were playing, and creating chances, much better than Crouch.
- Although he doesn’t get the Giraffe of the week the improvement, in such a short amount of time, in Mame’s defending has to be noted. His last ditch sliding clearance shows he is willing to do the dirty work which playing wing back entails.
Stoke Giraffe of the Week Bruno Martins Indi
Stoke Lemon of the Week Charlie Adam
Lee Grant – 8 A couple of memorable saves and once again couldn’t do a lot with any of Arsenal goals.
Glenn Johnson – 7 An off day for the usually impressive Johnson
Marc Muniesa – 7 Defended well enough and, as always, was eager to join the attack.
Bruno Martin Indi – 9 Giraffe of the week for the second match in a row and getting a permanent deal for the Dutchman has to be Stoke’s number one priority in January.
Erik Pieters – 6 Must be having nightmares about the pace of Bellerin but showed if you push the Spaniard back he is not the best defender in the world.
Charlie Boy – 5 Captain for the day, still gave the ball away too cheaply and this weakness in his game is beginning to be spotted by the opposition
Giannelli Imbula – 6 Looked good bringing the ball forward but, like his midfield partner, gave the ball away too cheaply and too often.
Mame Diouf – 7 Played well at wing back but loses a point for not even getting a free header on target.
Shaqiri – 6 Not the little Swiss’ best day
Arnie – 7 Looked at home playing as a false nine in the first half but ran out of steam in the second
Joe Allen – 8 Ran all over the pitch and his knack of being in the right place led to Stoke’s penalty
Two Meter Peter – 6 Could have been the ultimate impact player if his first touch had gone in but in the end didn’t bring much more to the party
Ramadan – 7 Didn’t have much time to make any impact.
Julien Ngoy – 7 Like Ramadan didn’t have long on the pitch but good to see a product of Stoke’s academy getting their debut
Mark Hughes – 6 I’m more convinced after this display about the change in formation but the reliance on substitution by numbers is beginning to grate
Lee Mason – 7 Maybe could have sent Xhaka off but the man in the middle didn’t have the benefit of television replays that we did. Otherwise refereed the match well.