By Michael Bedard
There’s a saying that between Quality, Quickness, and Quantity you’ll almost never see all 3. On Saturday Arsenal attacked a poor Stoke team with pace creating chance after chance. While the result was unquestionably positive the game itself betrayed the limitations at the point of Arsenal’s attack. With the unfortunately placed international break on the calendar Arsenal had a slight advantage in that they weren’t integrating new talent into the squad. The first four games of the season have been marked by a lackluster performance against West Ham and 3 grinds resulting in 2 wins, 1 draw, 7 points, and the emergence of Owngoal as Arsenal’s top scoring option. With a need in attack the transfer window clamor for a striker reached a typical pitch for Arsenal and for better or worse players like Benzema and Cavani eluded the team’s efforts to add to a talented team despite hints, lies, rumors, and innuendo to the contrary.
Saturday’s game gave a glimpse of everything positive Arsenal can be while reinforcing doubt about the overall ability to win games. Stoke’s lineup without Ryan Shawcross and Charlie Adams was markedly less physical in terms of talent while Mark Hughes gave Arsene Wenger an assist by employing a strangely high and uneven defensive line. I’ve often surmised that when teams see Theo Walcott they sit back and allow him to run into their defensive line stunting his motion and leaving him without space to operate. Stoke did the opposite, daring Arsenal to make runs behind their line and the Gunners happily obliged. While Tony Pulis easily ranks as one of my least favorite managers his teams arrive prepared to make us work. On Saturday there was no sign of capable or competent defending as Arsenal ripped Stoke’s defense to shreds.
From a statistical standpoint the numbers were indicative with 29 shots, 12 on goal, 68% possession, 86% of passes completed, 13 corners, and across the board dominance for Arsenal. Goals came from a sublime Ozil pass that Theo Walcott calmly converted in the 30th minute and an Olivier Giroud header off of a perfect cross from Santi Cazorla. Two wonderful goals that, given the slog of the last 3 games, were welcome and on most days would have satiated a fan base that has simply said the two goal scorers aren’t enough to reach the club’s ambitions. Unfortunately those goals came surrounded by chances they failed to convert.
Alexis Sanchez is getting closer to the form of last season and we saw how close within the first 4 minutes of the match he clattered the woodwork with a header off a perfect feed from Cazorla. The ball fell directly to Walcott whose shot was the antithesis of his goal. With the far half of the net wide open he launched a near side howler testing row 30. 5 minutes later Sanchez found the woodwork again with a probing shot from outside the box. It was incisive movement from the left that created the shot with the miss promptly cleared for Arsenal to reload. Disturbingly Walcott followed up his first shot 60 seconds later with a brutal header off of a Bellerin cross. At 8 minutes in Arsenal could have been up 4-0 but had only worked Butland on one of their chances. Thankfully Walcott scored his goal because without it the day could be described as a damning indictment of his future as a central attacking option. For all his speed and ability to judge runs the finishing form of Walcott remains poor. There is a lack of power and direction with his shots from both foot and head. Where I trust Alexis to bury the ball and work the keeper with power from Walcott I expect goals like the one we saw today and, unfortunately, I expect poor misses. What I don’t expect is an alarming 25% success rate at directing the ball towards wide open portions of the goal exceeding 40%. Walcott came off in the 75th minute giving us a chance to see Olivier Giroud in action. With Stoke’s defense continuing to put on an awful performance Giroud had an open chance from the box within 2 minutes. With 15 feet of net open Giroud’s shot rumbled wide. It was a gut wrenching miss on top of Walcott’s misses. Similar to Walcott he scored a goal that silenced some legitimate criticism. He would get a chance late in stoppage time but with Erik Pieters and the remains of Stoke’s defensive dignity hanging off of him an open net opportunity was pushed wide. Given the location and action it could have been a penalty but given the chance of it being launched above the net I almost preferred the lack of stress provided by the game just winding down.
The result was positive but the team’s ability to capitalize must improve if Arsenal is to have a chance at winning the Premier League. Outside of the forwards the team’s play was excellent. Cazorla, Ozil, Coquelin, and the backline dominated the game. At no point did Stoke look like they were ready for what Arsenal brought and the strategy of Mark Hughes today is a mystery to me. Xherdan Shaqiri was able to create on occasion but this was a Stoke team with no teeth and seemingly no fire. Jack Butland played exceptionally well given the nature of his defense but the truth is Arsenal failed to hold him and Stoke accountable for mistakes throughout the day. Arsenal won’t be given the chances they received on Saturday with regularity and despite a win with sparkling play unless Walcott, Giroud, and Sanchez take advantage where they fell short today this team isn’t capable of winning top level trophies.