After the phoney war of the transfer window, here was a real battle. Pulis’s army of slavering half-men arrived at the Emirates hoping to prey on Arsenal’s absurd Maginot Line of a defence. However, rather than the skittish Guunners of recent matches, they found a team that looked something like the better balanced unit of earlier in the season.
With debutant Nacho Monreal slotted in at left back, the team controlled the ball without too many frights, and carved out a reasonable selection of chances in the first 45. However, though we started the game better than the somnolent effort of recent matches, we also didn’t get the second half goal blitzkrieg either. Clearly there’s a balancing act going on between defensive solidity and freeform attacking. As the clock ticked on, it always felt like a game likely to be settled by the odd goal.
On came Cazorla and Podolski for Diaby (who’d offered too many reminders of how he likes to sloooooow play down and have a little look around) and Chamberlain (who’d been ineffective but for one well-saved shot). We immediately looked more dangerous, with Podolski in particular putting threatening crosses in from the left. In the end it was a heavily deflected free kick which snaffled the points, despite the best efforts of the linesman – who’d also glossed over an eye-gouge to Walcott which, regardless of intention, ought to have seen the game stopped – to rule to the goal out.
Fortunately, after an agonising wait, Foy-not-Hot correctly allowed the goal to stand. He’s one of officialdom’s perennial bottlers, so perhaps opted for the populist decision – but thankfully it was also the right one. After that matters got a little bit more heated, and I have to say I’ve no problem with the players sticking up for each other. Obviously that doesn’t mean swinging fists and getting yourself sent off, but too often we’ve been a side willing to stare at its shoes and feel sorry for itself.
On that note, it may not have come across on the TV pictures, but there were a couple of occasions when Per properly tore a strip off a teammate for being out of position or not closing quickly enough. I’ve never seen him so animated or vocal before, so would like to think that in the absence of Vermaelen he was sent out today with specific instructions to organise those defending around him, and not necessarily politely. More of the same, bitte.
Other nods go to Walcott, for again looking hugely threatening and not allowing himself to be roughhoused out of the game, Nacho for keeping it simple and earning a clean sheet on a tough debut (though tougher for Jonathon Walters), and Arteta for reminding everyone exactly why we’re a much more robust team with him in it.
My concern is that Giroud looks like he’s carrying a couple of niggles. Watch him off the ball and he winces and holds different leg muscles. No real surprise given his style of play and the number of minutes he’s getting through. I suspect the question of who deputises for him in the middle will come up again fairly soon.
Some Stoke observations: Crouch was able to win headers for fun, but not do much with them. Wilkinson is a snide prick. Begovic is a tremendous keeper – no wonder they signed Butland, as they’re certainly going to lose the big Bosnian in the summer. They don’t seem quite as relentlesly hoofy as before. I think on one occasion they even rolled the ball out from the back. What next: discovering fire? Worrying. The way we restricted the ball from them is an object lesson in how we can defend better as a collective.
A couple of other points of order. The home crowd takes stick for being too quick to get on the team’s back. Today I thought we were vocal and positive from the get go, and even more so when Arsenal began really pressing and fighting to win 50/50 balls in the second half. The relationship between any sporting crowd and the players is reciprocal. Effort from either side is likely to be rewarded.
Finally, it was lovely to meet up with a few fans who I’ve been talking to online, in a couple of case for years, in the pub before and after the game. It’s nice to remember that for all the nonsense, the Internet can be pretty brilliant at bringing people with shared passions together. Even if my main passion is ‘being a bit of a moany twat’. Restraining orders emailed to the usual address, please.