Saturday, September 12, 2015

Arsenal 2 Stoke City 0: Three Things We Learned

Arsenal dominated Stoke Saturday but had to wait until Olivier Giroud's 85th minute header to secure a 2-0 home win.

The Gunners struggled in front of goal, with several shocking misses among the 27 attempts that did not find the net, but that's no revelation at this point. Here are three things we learned instead.

Maybe atypical goals should become the objective

When Arsenal's goal-scoring form wanes, the team often intensifies its efforts to execute the perfect pass-and-move action. We saw this in the last Premier League outing against 10-man Newcastle, which Arsenal won by virtue of an own goal.

There were a few occasions against Stoke when similar attacks were unsuccessful, most notably the one-two between Santi Cazorla and Mesut Özil that sent the German through with only Stoke keeper Jack Butland to beat. Özil tried unsuccessfully to coax the ball past Butland at the near post.

Arsenal succeeded, though, with different approaches. The first goal was a long-range counterattack, commenced by a Francis Coquelin tackle in the Arsenal half and served up by a wonderful long pass from Özil to Theo Walcott. Walcott exploited Stoke's relatively high line, found just enough space, and rolled the ball under the onrushing Butland.

The second goal came from a Cazorla free kick and an accurate header by Giroud, who had eased between two dozy Stoke defenders. The free kick resulted from muscular play by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who drew a foul from Stoke's Phil Bardsley in a threatening area.

Again, the source of the play was not an intricate Arsenal move. Perhaps this diversified approach to goal is worth more attention.

Gabriel brings the pain

The Brazilian earned his third consecutive start in the center of the Arsenal defense and gave as good as he got with Stoke's physical forwards. The highlight, of course, was his second-half tussle with villain Marco Arnautevic, the culprit in Arsenal right back Mathieu Debuchy's shoulder separation last spring.

This time, Arnautevic fared worse. He clearly initiated the set-to with Gabriel, throwing an elbow and then a forearm into Gabriel's face as they chased down a ball. Gabriel fended off the second blow and, in one motion, clocked Arnautevic across the face.

The arm of justice.

It was just the most notable of Gabriel's successful interventions. He and Laurent Koscielny marshaled Stoke's rare attacks well, save for one loose headed clearance by Koscielny. Their quickness and physicality give opposition forwards a tough time.

On these performances, Per Mertesacker faces a real challenge to break back into to the starting lineup, especially if Koscielny's passing continues to improve. The Frenchman was Arsenal's top passer against Stoke, completing 75 of 83 passes. (Stats via FourFourTwo's StatsZone app.)

Arsenal have two point guards to lead a transition offense

The selection of Theo Walcott at center forward, coupled with Stoke's decision to push defenders slightly higher up the pitch, created excellent conditions for Arsenal's two skilled playmakers to shine. Santi Cazorla and Özil did.

Playing deep in midfield, Cazorla shook off some indifferent recent performances and showed his quality, particularly in the first half. He spotted runs by Walcott and Aaron Ramsey and launched pinpoint long passes to each of his teammates.

In the second half, Cazorla was at his dancing best, avoiding the inevitable Stoke challenges, getting himself into dangerous positions, and launching four shots, two quite threatening. His assist to Giroud and a similarly precise free kick to Koscielny in the waning minutes were two of the seven chances he created for teammates.

Meanwhile, Özil made the decisive impact with his assist for Walcott's opening goal. That pass, so quickly made after Coquelin had won the ball, caught Stoke off guard because they had moved slightly forward, thinking the biggest risk was a more involved Arsenal build-up. It was the most eye-catching and important of the eight chances Özil created in the match.

Extra Time: Arsenal's fullback combination is tough to beat

When Stoke manager Mark Hughes sent Xherdan Shaqiri and Arnautevic out as his wide forwards, he handed the initiative to Arsenal's fullbacks Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal. They took it and ran.

Bellerin attempted 20 passes in the final third, completing 17 of them (85 percent) and creating four scoring chances for teammates. His cross to Walcott in the first half really deserved a better finish.

Monreal posted less impressive attacking numbers, but he identified the gaps in Stoke's defense and made runs to exploit the openings. His work in the air, winning three of three duels against an historically airborne opponent, suggests that he could also be a worthy outlet (as Bacary Sagna was) for the goalkeeper's kicks in Giroud's absence.

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