Arsenal needed a quick response from the droll first half performance against Liverpool in midweek and against a stalwart and dirty Stoke side the Gunners came out hard and got a deserved win from second-half substitute Lukas Podolski’s powerful free kick.
Arsene Wenger made several changes from the 2-2 draw against Liverpool on Wednesday. New guy Nacho Monreal started, Arteta returned from injury, Koscielny came in for Vermaelen who has an ankle injury, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain started up front letting Wenger keep Podolski’s powder dry. Wenger also picked Diaby over Cazorla, pushing Wilshere into the most advanced midfield role and letting Cazorla get a much needed rest.
Arteta took the captain’s armband and showed the way for Arsenal early when he released Walcott with a great ball down the wings. The Englishman blazed past Wilkinson, as he would do time and again all night, but his cross went dangerously across the box without finding an Arsenal player. It would be the story of the first half, Arsenal abusing both of Stoke’s fullbacks with speedy wing play from Ox and Theo.
If fans were looking for a quick start by Arsenal, Ox obliged with a 2nd minute effort that was just pulled wide. The Gunners took a while after that shot to get warmed up but soon the brilliant wing play of Theo and Chambo would result in 14 Arsenal shots in the first half with Oxlade-Chamberlain taking the lion’s share of those shots with 6.
Stoke’s first shot came from a predictable big diagonal in to Crouch who flicked on and Walters’ attempted volley was straight at Szczesny. The Stoke game plan was simple, bomb the ball to Crouch who is second in the top 5 leagues in aerial duels won per game with 7.5. Crouch won 10 aerial duels in the first half alone.
Referee Chris Foy showed his intent early on as well, giving a foul on Arteta for a slide tackle that didn’t come close to the player. Later, Whelan would clearly foul Jack Wilshere in the Stoke final third but Foy swallowed his whistle. Foy was giving Stoke calls for Arsenal “intent” fouls but not giving Arsenal calls for Stoke’s constant “actual” fouls.
Arsenal’s best chance in the first half came in the 32nd minute from a corner. Mertesacker flicked on, Ox chested down, and struck the ball hard but Begovich got down quickly to make the save.
From that point, Arsenal sparked to life. Ox earned a corner and Giroud was left wide open but inexplicably headed back across the box instead of going for goal. Stoke half-cleared and Wilshere’s cross back into the box found Koscielny who headed hard and low forcing another fine save from Begovic.
Minutes later Chamberlain would force another save from Begovic when his blazing run was picked out by Wilshere and he curled a nice shot toward the far post. Begovic reacted perfectly to palm the ball around the far post.
Monreal had a good contribution at the end of the half when he opened a huge wound in Johnathan Walters’ head. Now Stoke played with two men with bandages on their heads since Huth started the game with a bandage. Despite the hard work and effort, Arsenal couldn’t get a breakthrough and the first half ended 0-0.
The second half started with Foy deciding to call a few Stoke fouls, though clearly missing a rugby tackle on Walcott in the 50th minute and missing Wilkinson slapping Walcott in the face, twice. It’s no surprise that the linesman “missed” both fouls, he was shucking and jiving with Wilkinson on the sidelines when the Stoke player took a throw in. Still Arsenal got on with the game and Monreal created a great chance for Giroud when Wilshere played a 1-2 with the Spaniard and the fullback floated a lovely cross into the middle. Huth got lucky on the clearance.
Seeking the winner, Arsene made changes at the 67th minute, bringing on Cazorla for Diaby and Podolski for Chamberlain. Almost immediately, Glenn Whelan got the first yellow card of the game for a cynical foul on Cazorla which ended a promising Arsenal counter attack. Cazorla looked like he was struggling to catch up to the pace of the game but even a slow Cazorla is better than no Cazorla as he amply demonstrated seconds later with a great cross to Giroud. Giroud put in a looping header that nearly bothered the keeper.
The moment that changed the match came in the 78th minute. Wilkinson picked up the second yellow of the game when he fouled Walcott on the edge of the box. Podolski took the ensuing free kick and powered in a left footer that took a deflection off a Stoke defender.
There was a moment of confusion as the linesman tried to have the goal disallowed because Theo Walcott, who had nothing to do with the play, was offside. Chris Foy showed a moment of good judgement and allowed the goal to stand.
The goal woke Arsenal up and Cazorla had two bites at the apple when he drove straight at the Stoke defense only to have both his shots blocked.
Seeking the draw, Stoke countered by bringing on three players, Cameron Jerome, Kenwyne Jones, and Michael Owen. Stoke changed formation and played a front three, leaving lots of space for Arsenal to surge into. With Stoke forced into attack, the game was suddenly open and Stoke tried their level best to get forward. When they inevitably lost the ball, the Potters resorted to ugly tackles and rugby tactics to try to get back into the game.
In the 88th minute Ryan Shawcross tried to dribble the Arsenal midfield but the ball, predictably, went away from him. Koscielny made a brilliant tackle to clear and Shawcross punished him with a studs up tackle to the nuts. Foy gave Shawcross a yellow card for what should have been a straight red and tempers threatened to boil over.
In injury time, Arteta won a hard tackle on Michael Owen and the Stoke man showed his true colors by elbowing Arteta in the head while the Spaniard was on the ground. Arteta took exception to this and there were a few minutes of handbags but Foy decided against showing any cards. Perhaps the FA wil have a look at Owen’s cowardly elbow though I’m not holding my breath.
As the clock wound down the Arsenal supporters sang “one-nil to the football team”. And at the final whistle Arsene Wenger shook Tony Pulis’ hand despite the fact that the man is an horrible goblin commanding a pack of cowardly orcs. The Arsenal win and the fact that Newcastle beat Chelsea leaves Arsenal just 5 points off the pensioners who are in third place on the table.