It says a lot more than an evasive Arsène Wenger ever could about his team that, after a match as exhilarating and invigorating as this, the key issues were the same old Arsenal failings.
Their inexperienced and insufficiently bolstered defence collapsed, conceding three goals before half-time, again raised questions about the hapless Per Mertesacker as well as Wenger’s own recruitment policy.
Stoke City, and particularly the reborn Bojan Krkic, took full advantage with brilliant attacking, and Arsenal couldn’t even get close to that until a brief period in the second half. A penalty from Santi Cazorla and volley from Aaron Ramsey brought it back to 3-2, only for Callum Chambers’ second yellow card to prevent any possibility of a third goal for an Arsenal point.
Wenger again loses at the Britannia, making it four defeats out of seven trips here in the Premier League, and still no win since February 2010. Those bare facts, however, don’t even begin to describe the nature of this game.
The first minute set the tone, as Arsenal were the first to succumb to the utter chaos that would define this game. Of course, that isn’t exactly a new feeling for Wenger’s defence, especially not at Stoke, and it showed within a remarkable 18 seconds. Steven Nzonzi cruised down the right, neither stand-in Hector Bellerin nor notional leader Mertesacker could deal with the cross, and Peter Crouch was on hand to simply slide the ball home.
Wenger described it as an “early present”, and praised Stoke’s start, but he couldn’t praise his captain.
The goal was particularly poor from Mertesacker’s point of view and seemed to bring his recent poor form to a nadir, as he struggled to recover. It said a lot that, on 26 minutes, the 5ft 7in Bojan got 100 per cent out of what was supposed to be a 50-50 with the German, someone supposed to set a tone for Arsenal in terms of physicality.
It also indicated what was to come. On 34 minutes, Bojan again got in front of the German, but this time to slide the ball past Martinez for the second goal.
“Stoke started strong and we were not decisive enough in the defensive challenges,” Wenger said. His captain was one of the guiltiest parties. Wenger pointed to the fact he didn’t have Laurent Koscielny or even Nacho Monreal alongside him, but that only raises questions about Arsenal’s purchases, and was pretty irrelevant to the next goal, particularly given that it came in a manner his side are susceptible to, regardless of who fills the backline.
Just before half-time, Stoke scored their first set-piece goal of the season, as Jon Walters powered in from close range but with no Arsenal defender close to him. Stoke in general were just powering past Wenger’s side.
Arsenal’s problems were as much up front as at the back, given that Olivier Giroud was so conspicuously pedestrian despite the match being played at highway speed. His removal for Lukas Podolski did change the attack, and Wenger’s team were performing better even before Bojan had a 66th-minute strike ruled out for a marginal offside.
Stoke manager Mark Hughes bemoaned that decision which suddenly seemed even more important when, within four minutes, Arsenal pulled it back to 3-2.
This was where the real chaos began, even if Cazorla kept a creditably cool head to fire home a penalty after Mathieu Flamini had been felled in the box by Mame Biram Diouf. Ramsey followed with a volley past Asmir Begovic on 70 minutes, and all the momentum was back with Arsenal.
The problem was that it also went to Chambers’ head, and gave Wenger his own decision to criticise. The centre-half received a second booking, and Arsenal’s chances of a full comeback left the pitch with the 19-year-old.
Hughes was particularly appreciative of the crowd’s help in Stoke’s win. “This fixture always seems to generate a really good atmosphere,” he said. “It started before my time I would suggest. It’s an incredible atmosphere inside the stadium for matches like this and it takes a good team to deal with it.
“For the most part Arsenal are an outstanding team but in recent times we’ve done very well. The help we’ve had from our crowd has been part of that. It’s a huge part when you’re trying to get positive results. I enjoy coming up against them and I am sure the lads do, too.
“If we play as well as we have done recently then we will soon start to win matches in a convincing manner.”
Stoke City (4-2-3-1): Begovic; Bardsley, Shawcross, Muniesa (Whelan ,63), Pieters; Nzonzi, Cameron; Walters, Bojan (Huth, 87), Diouf (Adam, 69); Crouch.
Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Martinez; Bellerin (Welbeck, 45), Chambers, Mertesacker, Gibbs (Campbell, 90); Flamini, Ramsey; Oxlade-Chamberlain, Cazorla, Alexis; Giroud (Podolski, 69).
Referee: Anthony Taylor.
Man of the match: Bojan (Stoke)
Match rating: 9/10
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