Arsecast Extra 45: Stoke, Wenger and the screams of Joel Campbell

Thanks to @MattGCorbett for the image.

Hello all – just a quick note to urge you to have a listen to the latest Arsecast Extra, in which Arseblogger and I dissect the weekend’s events. This Arsecast Extra is brought to you by Audible.com – turns out you can get a free audio book download and a 30 day free trial. Click the banner below to sign up or go to audibletrial.com/arsecast.

You can subscribe to the Arsecast Extra on iTunes by clicking here. Or if you want to subscribe directly to the feed URL you can do that too. To download this week’s Arsecast Extra directly – click here – 40mb MP3. Thanks to Arseblog as ever for the mighty hosting power.

The Arsecast Extra is also available on our SoundCloud channel, where you can leave comments and such, as well as via the SoundCloud app for iPhone and Android. Alternatively, you can find it on the Stitcher podcasting app for iOS and Android.

Once you’re done with that, why not have a read of my new column for SportsLobster: 5 questions raised by Arsenal’s defeat at Stoke. Cheers all.

Stoke 3-2 Arsenal: Own up, Arsene

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Stoke City v Arsenal - Britannia Stadium

Believe it or not, I was actually considerably cheerier at half-time than at full-time. When the whistle went for the break with the score 3-0 to Stoke, I was actually able to laugh at our risible performance. By full-time, any sadomasochistic smiles had faded.

Perhaps it’s because there’s something purgative about an unadulterated thumping. There’s no need for caveats or contemplation. You can just let loose and get it out of your system. In a funny sort of way, our incomplete comeback robbed me of that catharsis.

It also means you have to sit through tired platitudes from the manager about the team’s “great spirit” and admirable “mental response”.  What tosh. Real mental strength is about focusing for the full 90 minutes, not mounting a response once the game is already lost.

I wonder if Arsene ever considers stepping in front of the press and saying:

“Fair enough, guys: this is one’s on me. I didn’t buy enough defenders and I didn’t organise the ones we do have sufficiently. It’s not good enough and, given that we have the January window ahead of us, I can assure you that we’re doing all we can to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

While it would cost his ego, it might make win some favour among an increasingly disaffected fanbase.

Most managers don’t admit guilt in press conferences because they’re afraid of giving their board an excuse to dismiss them. Wenger has no such worries, so it wouldn’t hurt him to take responsibility sometimes — I actually think it could even help to relieve the pressure. There’s a fine line between single-mindedness and myopia, and from his public comments it’s not always clear which side Wenger sits on. At least owning up would prevent people from saying he can’t see the problems.

And let’s be honest, the reason we lost is clear as day. Arsenal’s defending – and defenders — simply weren’t up to the task.

From the minute the team-sheets came in, Arsenal’s inexperienced back five looked like trouble. Within a minute of kick-off, those panicky predictions proved correct. This was actually one of the worst defensive displays I can remember seeing from an Arsenal side. People will compare it to last season’s drubbings, but at least those tended to be against decent teams. This weekend, we made an average side look good: Arsenal applied lipstick to the pig that is Stoke City.

In truth, Wenger didn’t have much choice about his selection. Ludicrously, those were the only defenders available. Wojciech Szczesny and Laurent Koscielny might have been on the bench, but one suspects they were merely making up the numbers.

One area where Wenger retained a degree of flexibility was in the deployment of those defenders he still had at his disposal. I don’t know why he insists on playing Calum Chambers on the right-hand side of the centre-backs, thus displacing Mertesacker to the left. Mertesacker spent the entire match seemingly unaware of his surroundings, but perhaps that’s no surprise when he is playing in an unfamiliar zone. Every angle must be adapted, every body position altered.

Maybe Wenger feels Chambers is more comfortable on the right of centre, but he has not played enough games at centre-back to be settled in either role. The reality is that, after the Spaniard’s recent run in the team, Chambers has probably played less games as a centre-half than Nacho Monreal. His inexperience makes him adaptable.

Lining Chambers and Mertesacker up like this has caused problems before: the pair were in chaos in the same arrangement at Goodison Park. Repeating that error is foolish. Keep the reliable defender where he’s happy, and let him guide the novice through the game.

There’s also the question of preparation. Wenger must have known there was a good chance we’d be tasked with facing Peter Crouch. Had we made any special plans to deal with his aerial threat? Not by the looks of it.

There’s been a lot of talk about the referee, and with a degree of justification: Chambers didn’t deserve to have his dismal day capped by a red card. However, the officiating impacted on both teams. The decision to disallow Stoke’s fourth goal, for example, was clearly incorrect.

Our momentum has ground to a hurtful halt. If your glass is half full, you’ll be point out that many of our rivals for the Champions League places are also slipping up. If it’s half empty, you might argue that fact is disguising quite how bad a season we are having.

Chelsea’s defeat ought to be cause for some joy, but our own performance made that delicious delight short-lived. On the weekend the Invincibles’ immortality was assured, our modern mediocrity was painfully underlined.

Stoke 1-0 Arsenal: Gunners fall to familiar foe

In truth, Arsenal couldn’t really afford to draw this game, let alone lose…
In isolation, a draw at Stoke is a decent result. However, this game was not played in isolation. It was played in the context of a title race, and all our other results. A draw would not have been good enough, and a defeat is a disaster.

There were only so many times we could afford to drop points between now and the end of the season. Given that we face the most difficult fixture list of any of the four title-challengers, this was a game we probably had to win.

I know Stoke’s not an easy place to go. However, when we dropped points at home to United, it effectively narrowed the margin for potential error. Some hailed that as a good result “in isolation”. I wonder if they still think so now.

We have now won just two of our last six Premier League games.

Do I think Chelsea could slip up? Maybe. Do I think that Chelsea, City and Liverpool will pick up less points than us in the run-in, given our respective fixture lists? Probably not.

I know some will consider this an unnecessarily grim assessment. After all, we might go and beat Tottenham, Everton, Chelsea and City in succession. However, given the evidence of our performances against our biggest rivals thus far this season, such a run seems improbable at best.

Our title challenge has been mounted upon our capacity to put away the lesser teams. Today, we failed to do that. It looks costly.

Saying all that, the penalty award was incredibly harsh…
I’m not sure how the referee can possibly give that as a deliberate handball. Still, it seems that The Curse of Laurent Koscielny has struck again. That was the sixth Premier League penalty he’s given away in his time at Arsenal (h/t @OptaJoe). However well he’s playing, he can’t seem to escape those big controversial moments.

You could question the line-up…
I can understand leaving out Mesut Ozil. Tomas Rosicky was outstanding against Sunderland and didn’t really deserve to be dropped.

However, was Jack Wilshere really better equipped than Mathieu Flamini to cope with the tumult of the Britannia’s midfield battle? I’m not sure. This was one of those games in which Wilshere seemed to spend more time on the floor than his feet.

I’m also surprised that Wenger didn’t see the need to start with The Ox. Against Liverpool, he showed that his penetrative running is invaluable to a side desperately missing Theo Walcott. A rest against Sunderland made sense, but there was no reason for him to be left out today.

That late Yaya Sanogo miss felt telling…
When we desperately needed something to rescue the game, we turned to an unproved 21 year-old without a Premier League goal to his name. I’m by no means holding young Sanogo accountable, but he way he scooped that late chance over the bar reminded me of our inexplicable failure to recruit a new attacker.

The priority in January was to find a striker who was better than Bendtner and Sanogo. I refuse to accept that was an impossible task.

The FA Cup feels massive now…
Arsenal are still just three wins away from winning a trophy. I pray that we don’t witness any rotation against Everton. Our league hopes hang by a thread, but the FA Cup remains a very real possibility.

To end on a positive…
Congratulations to @bentayloruk for winning the Bergkamp print – I’ll be in touch shortly about your prize. If you missed out, you can use the discount code ‘GUNNERBLOG’ to get 10% off any Arsenal canvas print.

Arsenal 3-1 Stoke: A football match, believe it or not

It sticks in my craw, but I have to credit Mark Hughes…

Funny idiom, that. Apparently a craw is the throat of a bird. I googled it. I don’t have a bird’s throat, but if I did, having to be nice about Mark Hughes would certainly clog it right up.

Stoke are a changed team. They’re playing football now. Proper football. Rory Delap has been let go and has found his rightful place in League Two. Ryan Shotton and his towel have been dispatched to Wigan. The long-throws are out and short-passing is in.

I have to admit, I was impressed. Marc Wilson has transformed from a lumbering utility player in to a technically competent and positionally intelligent holding midfielder. In Marko Arnautovic, the Potters have acquired a number ten with both imagination and industry.

I don’t know if the speed of Stoke’s adaptation says more about Hughes’ innovation or Pulis’ intransigence. However, the latter option allows me to reduce Hughes’ credit and have a pop his predecessor, so I’ll plump for that.

There was a bit of role-reversal going on…

Stoke controlled a lot of the possession, yet Arsenal scored from three set-pieces. Still, at least the Stoke fans were forced to abandon their usual boast of supporting an “English” team – Kieran Gibbs and Jack Wilshere outnumbered Ryan Shawcross on today’s team-sheets.

Opportunity Gnocked for Serge…
…and I thought Gnabry did very well. His touch was superb, and the only criticism you could level at him is that he sometimes looked a little timid. After beating the first man he’d generally look to pass the ball to a more senior colleague.

His body-shape and running style remind me a little of Chelsea’s Eden Hazard. I certainly hope to see more of him in next week’s Capital One Cup tie with West Brom.

It was good to see some familiar faces on the bench…

The return of Mikel Arteta gives us back some depth in midfield. It will be genuinely difficult to choose between Arteta and Flamini, who was at his rambunctious best against Stoke, putting as much energy in to pointing and cajoling as tackling and harrying.

In difficult away games, it could be an option to field both, with Aaron Ramsey patrolling the area just ahead and Mesut Ozil stationed on the wing. It’s one of those “nice problems” Arsene Wenger will be delighted to have.

It was good too see Nicklas Bendtner back on the bench. Yes, he is hugely out of practise. Yes, he is a little overweight. Yes, he looks like he’s come to a fancy dress party in disguise as ‘The Mandarin’ from Iron Man 3. However, I’d still rather call on the Dane than either Yaya Sanogo or Chuba Akpom.

For Aaron Ramsey, confidence is everything…

His opening goal looked like a simple tap-in, but was in reality far trickier. He had to react in an instant to find a very narrow gap between goalie and post with his weaker foot.

Of course, in his current form, he pulled it off. Confidence is an extraordinary thing. It can do incredible things to a footballer. Ramsey is at the crest of a wave, and I hope he can stay there as long as possible. When he inevitably reverts to somewhere approaching the mean, I still think we’ll still have a very fine footballer on our hands.

Ozil’s set-pieces are a bonus…
The German is not renowned as a dead-ball specialist but as an assured technician is able to get the ball beyond the first man and in to dangerous areas. That’s more than most of our current crop.

I am continually amazed that a group of such technically gifted players are unable to consistently deliver a decent set-piece. Even the wondrously-gifted Santi Cazorla seems to have inherited the Arsenal disease of lumping the ball directly in to the first defender.

Hopefully Ozil’s immaculate technique can give us a new attacking weapon for our Arsenal.

Have Arsenal ever had so many one-footed players?
We frequently celebrate Cazorla’s ambidexterity, but I can’t remember an Arsenal team containing so many players who simply refused to use their wrong foot. The likes of Jack Wilshere and Olivier Giroud seem allergic to kicking the ball with their right boot.

Perhaps its because we have so many lefties in the squad. Left-footed players aren’t encouraged to develop their two-footedness as much as they’re generally allowed to flourish as specialists.

It’s time some of our squad got working on moulding their chocolate legs.

Arsenal miss Tomas Rosicky…
Arsenal struggled to maintain their tempo for long periods of this game. I can’t help but feel that’s because of the absence of the metronomic Tomas Rosicky.

It seems there will not be room for Rosicky and Ozil in the same team. Hopefully one of the other midfielders – Ramsey perhaps – can pick up the baton and start picking up the tempo in the middle of the park.

For all Ozil’s gifts, he won’t replicate the persistent pressure that Rosicky is able to put on opposition defenders.