Arsenal 1 – 0 Stoke City
1 – 0 Podolski (76)
A biting, chill wind and a grey sky overhead providing an entirely appropriate welcome to The Emirates for Tony Pulis’ desolate and distorted view of football. That they went home with nothing was just reward for a destitute performance, one which relied purely on putting men behind the ball with the hope that one long ball might provide reward. Little wonder Pulis is vilified, a soul destroying exercise in futility laid its’ vile cape across the turf and sapped the will from the soul of the game.
Arsenal struggled to break free of the insidious grasp in which the visitors held them but there was a strength of purpose evident in the much-changed line-up from midweek. Nacho Monreal made a sterling debut, solid in defence, offering support on the overlap. He did not face much opposition in truth, the rationale for the swiftness of his first appearance evident as Stoke failed abysmally at any attempt of attacking intent. There was a confidence in the Spaniard’s demeanour, a sense that he felt he belonged and was comfortable in his new surroundings, bringing assurance in his distribution and to colleagues in the back four.
From kick-off, Stoke’s intentions were made clear. Attacking was entirely absent from view, long passes to Crouch brought sporadic efforts, never troubling Szczesny in the Arsenal goal and more frequently returning possession to Arsenal. All gifts are greatfully received but the hosts toiled and when openings appeared, inexplicable nerves or good goalkeeping – and combinations of both – saw fit to deprive Arsenal of a deserved lead. Oxlade-Chamberlain on the left in place of the rested Podolski, thrived in the space afforded himself and with the distraction of Monreal overlapping, was able to pull his markers out of position. Stoke are nothing. If not well-drilled, with bodies quickly filling the spaces left. Any aerial threat was quickly snuffed out with defenders willing to put limbs in the way, head bandages bond not just split skin but a commonality of cause in the darkest recess of English football.
Chances after a fashion appeared in the opening stages, the England youngster shot wide as did Wilshere whilst not for the first time Giroud did not bring a save from Begovic. The pain of previous first half catastrophes was apparent, caution taking precedence over overwhelming attack; there was a strong sense that not conceding the first goal was the first thought going through Arsenal minds. It need not have been so; Stoke offered little beyond exceptional ball control from Crouch but then he has so much practice, it should not be a surprise. Where the Arsenal defence played very well was to put him under pressure but not to commit to the challenge, letting Crouch win the first ball before putting the player in receipt of his lay-off under quick and often tackle.
At the other end, space appeared in the Stoke area as markers shackles were broken. The media-driven futility of crosses into the area was broken as Giroud found space and with a goal gaping, inexplicably chose to head across the area; from the ensuing scramble, another cross found Koscielny with his back to goal, drawing a save from Begovic. Oxlade-Chamberlain had previously tested the Stoke custodian, his shot at the far post followed good work from Walcott.
The England international would have the best chance of the half as the interval approached. The years rolled back as open spaces opened on the Arsenal left. Oxlade-Chamberlain gambolled into the area, picked his spot with an Henry-esque finish, foiled by the fingertips of Begovic as his shot contained too much loft. Arsenal were turning the screw on the visitors, the half-time break affording them no respite when the action recommenced.
Giroud offered the immediate threat in the second half as the visitors became increasingly ragged with the physicality of challenges rising exponentially. Free kicks were becoming more frequently ignored by the appalling refereeing of Chris Foy, begging the question of whether the coaching revolution that English football needs is still light years ahead of that of the officiating? Are the quartet of officialdom on the pitch and touchlines so imbued in the culture to notice the cynical foul play employed by Pulis’ army of darkness?
Walcott was singled out for treatment by the Stoke defence and consequently, Arsenal’s medical staff. Unbelievably, a denizen of the Clock End stated with some authority that the England striker needed to “Get up or get off“, following some further harsh buffering which left him prostrate on the turf. But Arsène knew change was needed to effect the desired result. In the age when magicians thrive, they hid themselves from view, content to lurk in the shadows before emerging into the open, to push the dark forces further back into their shellsuits.
And they emerged onto The Emirates turf, the Knights of the Comfy Bench. Podolski and Cazorla strode into battle, impacting immediately with a sense of urgency injected into the Arsenal game. The Spaniard scurried through the Stoke tackles but still the bodies were too numerous to breach. In the end, the pressure told on the defence and officials. For the umpteenth time Walcott was upended, this time on the edge of the area. Podolski took charge and as the wall elevated, the ball remained low and clipped the trailing foot of Cameron, deflecting into the net. The controvesy only began at this point with the Assistant Referee signalling offside; Walcott on the far left of play was deemed by this errant flagmeister to be interfering with play. In a rare outbreak of commonsense, Foy overruled him and the points were won.
The final minutes descended into petulance. Signalling his complete fall from Grace, Michael Owen reacted with swinging fist and boot to a challenge from Mikel Arteta. It encapsulates everything which is wrong with football; a former darling of the English game reduced to a bar-room brawler by an insidious interpretation of the beautiful game. A salutory warning to all who enter the citadel of Evil. Thankfully, they shall not sully our paths again this season.