Monday, 12 January 2015

Arsenal Beat Stoke To Go Fifth

Only a few weeks ago Arsenal had an awful performance away to Stoke and ended up losing 3-2 after being 3-0 down by half time. Questions were asked of the players and the manager and they had the chance to make amends in the reverse fixture yesterday afternoon. Stoke came to the Emirates with an awful away record against Arsenal having lost all six of their games since their promotion to the Premier League.

Arsene Wenger chose to keep David Ospina in goal after he played there in the FA Cup victory over Hull last week with Wojciech Szczesny confined to the bench. I can't say I was surprised to see Szczesny dropped after a poor display in his last game when Arsenal last 2-0 away to Southampton. Szczesny has always been better when he feels his place is under threat and he will have to work hard to keep his place if and when he gets back into the team.

Laurent Koscielny and Mathieu Debuchy both returned to the defence with Calum Chambers missing out through illness and Hector Bellerin dropping to the bench. The other players to miss out were Theo Walcott and Joel Campbell who also dropped to the bench with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Olivier Giroud coming into the team. Aaron Ramsey, Mesut Ozil and Mathieu Flamini also returned from injury to take their places in a strong looking Arsenal bench.

Arsenal came out with attitude and commitment from the first minute and were ahead in the sixth minute when an unmarked Koscielny headed home an Alexis Sanchez cross. Asmir Begovic had already made two good saves to deny Arsenal at that stage and the omens were very good. As always with Arsenal they took a blow just as things seemed to be going so well.

Debuchy shielded the ball out of play at the Arsenal end and as he did so he was shoved in the back by Marko Arnautovic. Debuchy was already off the pitch at that stage and the shove saw him career through the gravel and into the advertising hoarding. He had cuts to his face from the slide and it looks like he has dislocated his shoulder from the collision too. 

Just as Arsenal's injury problems seemed to be sorting themselves out it looks like Debuchy now has his second bad injury of his first season with the club. There was nothing made of the incident by the referee and none of the commentators or pundits seemed to lay any blame at Arnautovic's feet. If what he did wasn't dangerous or reckless I'm not sure what is and the consequences for Debuchy were far from nice. I would be shocked if the FA have any intention of looking at the incident at a later stage as they are far more interested in making sure yellow cards are issued for players removing their shirts in celebration and such like.

Arsenal continued to play well and that man Alexis doubled their lead just after the half hour mark after recovering the ball when he had given it away. He dribbled into the Stoke box and beat Begovic at his near post when we all thought he would go for the other corner. It gave Arsenal some breathing space and they kept that lead until half time.

The second half got off to a great start too with Alexis adding to Arsenal's lead only three minutes in from a free kick on the edge of the area. He kept his free kick low and it went through the wall with Begovic failing to keep it out despite stopping it on the line. After that Arsenal rarely looked troubled at the back and they had good chances to add to their lead too.

Bellerin had come on for the injured Debuchy in the first half and Walcott replaced Chamberlain mid way through the second half. I thought Chamberlain had a good game and was a real thorn in Stoke's side with his direct running on the right hand side. About five minutes after Walcott's introduction we saw the return of Ozil to the team after a three month injury absence as he replaced Giroud. 

It was great to see Ozil make his return and we got to see Alexis, Walcott and Ozil on the pitch together for the first time. Arsenal didn't add to their lead but Walcott did miss a great chance after Alexis set him up perfectly near the end of the game. It will be another while before he's back to his best after a full year out of the team, but he is still getting into the right positions which is at least great to see.

With Southampton winning away to United later in the day Arsenal closed the gap on United to one point and remained three points behind Southampton who moved up to third. They also moved ahead of Spurs into fifth place and they face a crucial test away to the champions City next week. It's exactly the type of game where Arsenal have struggled badly in recent seasons, but the returning players have to give them some hope of getting a result.

Arsenal should bring a very strong squad to that game and the likes of Ozil, Walcott and Ramsey will all have another full week of training ahead of the game. The boss will have plenty of options and plenty of tough choices to make in his team selection for that game. If he can get his team right and Arsenal can get a positive result on the day it might just be the impetus they need to finish the season on a high.

I thought yesterday's performance was right up there with their best performances so far this season, but they will have to be even better against City. I was impressed with Alexis of course and it's hard to find words to express his importance to the team at the moment. I thought both Bellerin and Nacho Monreal  had good games too while Francis Coquelin was again impressive in the holding role in midfield.

The whole team did well really and it won't be easy to leave anybody out for next week's game. I would be surprised if there are no changes though with players of the calibre of Ozil, Ramsey and Walcott on the bench and Danny Welbeck possibly available for selection too. Those selection headaches are ones the boss could only have dreamed of a few weeks ago and he will be happy to have them.

There's still no sign of Arsenal signing anyone in the transfer window, but the boss did say after the game that the injury to Debuchy might just force his hand. He sees Debuchy and Monreal as cover for the centre of defence but Debuchy is out and Monreal is needed on the left with Kieran Gibbs nursing a knock. I think he would be crazy not to bring in a central defender if the opportunity arises and I can only hope he has a player in mind and can move quickly.

That's it for today.

See you tomorrow.

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