1 – 0 Walters (75 pen)
The most damning statistic about this match is that Arsenal failed to muster a shot on target during the second half. They weren’t much better in the first half either such was the indifference displayed towards the attacking game. Beaten by a contentious penalty, Arsène freely admitted afterwards that his team need to perform and they didn’t. In the space of ninety minutes, Arsenal dropped from title contenders into the safer, more comfortable territory of fighting for fourth place. Defeat in the North London Derby in a fortnight will bring fifth-placed Tottenham to within three points assuming they beat Cardiff City this afternoon. A season of promise is in danger of falling into disrepair.
Arsène felt that it was a good defensive performance from his side but I would not have gone that far. It was certainly a good goalkeeping performance, Wojciech Szczesny emerged from this defeat with his reputation intact but the rest was more a case of getting bodies in the way as opposed to marshalling the troops to neutralise Stoke’s tactics. The hosts had a number of opportunities which were spurned and the breakthrough came from the most likely source: a set-piece. Laurent Koscielny was penalised for handball and whilst there is an argument that it was not intentional, changing the course of the ball in the area is most likely going to result in a penalty kick. Could the defender have headed it? He would certainly have taken a boot in the face but it would have cleared the ball one way or another. As it was, Walters sent Szczesny the wrong way and the points as well.
For whatever reason, Stoke continue to jinx Arsenal. The players on both sides change but the outcome rarely does leading to the suspicion that the manager has as much of a problem with the Potteries club as anyone else. It is hard to work out why, tactically they don’t offer much difference down the years with Adam and Whelan both fortunate not feel the referee’s wrath for stamping on Olivier Giroud. The Football Association are reportedly reviewing the incidents but that is a distraction and of no concern to Arsenal as they slumped to their second Premier League defeat in four matches. Of more concern is that they have won the same number from their last six. Hardly the form of title contenders.
Wenger’s refusal to be drawn on what this defeat means says everything. Arguments will rage as to whether Özil and Oxlade-Chamberlain should have started, on the wisdom of omitting Flamini who by his own admission revels in being the ‘water carrier’ of the side. Hindsight is a wonderful thing in that sense but certainly Arsenal lacked width and energy until Oxlade-Chamberlain entered the fray in the second half, creating two chances which received a half-arsenalled effort from Giroud and a wayward strike from Sanogo. The latter is a promising youngster and condemnation for the inability of the club to land a more experienced forward in either the summer or January window.
Liverpool’s victory at Southampton contrasted with this defeat and how Arsenal’s passing was meandering and without purpose. It was the same against Manchester United at The Emirates in a point that is increasingly looking a poor result. Had three points been taken in that match, a stumble can be accommodated. If that was the slight trip, this was the match which left Arsenal flat on their faces. Points are always precious at this stage of the season, more important that performances and for a team which has vastly inferior goal difference to the other top four teams, Arsenal need to accumulate more points than anyone else. They don’t have the luxury of being level and it is why, to the chagrin of some, Liverpool are considered title contenders despite being on the same number of points; that and form. How costly the five goals shipped at Anfield seem now.
It isn’t often that you welcome an international break but on the back of this defeat, Arsène might welcome the break for his players ahead of the FA Cup Quarter-Final with Everton. How important has that fixture now become? The domestic cup has long been regarded as the best chance of silverware this season, this morning it seems the club’s only chance. Victory in Munich seems even more unlikely than last season and unless there is a considerable change in fortunes, the title has gone. For once, Arsène has no alternative but to prioritise the FA Cup if he is intent on winning a trophy this season. The question is whether he views that as important?