A farcical first half performance was responsible for yet another defeat against Stoke, which leaves the Gunners scrambling in a familiar battle for fourth place
Arsenal losing at Stoke is nothing new. They’ve only ever left the Britannia Stadium victorious once in Premier League history. But the way in which they capitulated in the first half against the Potters this time around still came as an almighty shock.
The Potters have largely shed their image of a long-ball team since Mark Hughes replaced Tony Pulis at the helm, but surely Arsene Wenger planned for a physical battle with his team during the week? By this evidence, anything that was done on the training ground was soon forgotten.
The fact that it seemed to take 19 seconds for the Gunners’ backline to let the instructions from their boss slip from their minds is nothing short of alarming.
This is an Arsenal team that is meant to have turned a corner and learned the lessons of years gone by. Their failure to get off to a quick start has almost certainly cost them a chance at the title this season, but the signs were there that they could at least build up a head of steam and make a push for Wenger’s predicted triumph within three seasons.
But after a couple of steps forward, this was a huge step back.
With Laurent Koscielny confined to the bench with an Achilles injury, Calum Chambers was thrown in at centre-back up against Peter Crouch, and, to put it lightly, he floundered. Outmuscled by the former England striker, he was finally put of his misery with a second yellow card ten minutes from time. But, at 19, it would be harsh to lay the blame entirely at the youngster’s door.
Alongside him Per Mertesasker should have spotted the danger early on and taken control of the situation. Instead, he allowed his teenage partner to be bullied throughout while his lack of desire was summed up when he trailed yards behind Bojan Krkic as the former Barcelona man made it 2-0.
Whenever the ball was swung into the box, the whole defence was sent into panic. Crouch is a handful, yes, but defences with far less talent than Arsenal’s have been able to keep him under wraps in recent seasons. The Gunners’ inability to do the same hinted at a mental issue rather than a physical one.
At the other end, the decision to start Olivier Giroud hinted at Wenger realising he was going to need extra muscle to break the Potters down. Instead, he got a showing from the Frenchman that was full of heavy touches, a lack of direction and missed opportunities – most notably when he inexplicably headed wide at 1-0.
Their second-half comeback cannot be ignored, but at the same time it is hard to place any real importance on it. The goals – both from set-pieces – were barely in keeping with some of the strikes Wenger’s men are capable of producing.
Danny Welbeck added some energy after his introduction in the second half while Alexis Sanchez’s energy and attitude continues to impress. But neither player is particularly suited to the physical battle that the north London outfit faced for much of the afternoon.
That said, Bojan is not what you would call a typical Stoke player – certainly from Pulis’ time anyway.
While Crouch, Steven N’Zonzi and Ryan Shawcross provided the muscle, the Spaniard was able to bring a touch of class to proceedings with some fine touches and an ability to skip past Arsenal players with ease.
While he was able to thrive, Alexis wasn’t. They are both players from the same mould, but the heart shown by Bojan’s team-mates allowed him to perform to his very best. The same cannot be said of Wenger’s charges.
For his part, Wenger never left his seat in the dugout other than to trudge down the tunnel at the break and full-time. The banner shown by supporters in victory at West Brom last week would have been far more apt in Staffordshire.
Stoke has never been a happy hunting ground for the Frenchman, and it never looked like changing on another chastening afternoon for the Gunners.
Lessons have not been learned, and Wenger now faces a battle to prove he can still cut it at the top level.