Saturday, November 1, 2008

EPL Week 11: Stoke City 2 Arsenal 1 — And Then There Were Three...

After drawing with Spurs midweek, Arsenal fans called for Arsene Wenger's head. They blamed their side's late capitulation on their much heralded manager. And after today's loss away to Stoke City, it will be interesting to see how the Gooner's respond as the slow realisation of another season as also rans dawn on them.

Pressure had mounted on Arsene Wenger's young side after their 4-4 draw with arch-rivals Tottenham on Wednesday. Arsenal had led 4-2 going into the 89th minute, and conspired to throw the points away as the players decision-making under pressure was questioned.

And after dropping points to Hull, Sunderland, Tottenham, and Fulham already this season Wenger and Arsenal were well aware that anything less than full points against the newly promoted side would mean an early end to their title aspirations.

And on this fateful Saturday afternoon Arsenal capitulated with their poorest performance in years, as their title aspirations went up in flames and—possibly for the first time in Wenger's magnificent career as Arsenal manager—questions surrounded his ability.

Arsenal were undone by two Rory Delap long throws, but to suggest Arsenal's beautiful game was beaten by such a crude tactic would be grossly unkind to Stoke, who out-battled, out-thought, and out-played Arsenal for long periods.

Stoke played the match as Wenger would have expected. The troublesome Ricardo Fuller was at his very best up front as he bullied Kolo Toure throughout the match. Cesc Fabregas barely had a moment to settle on the ball as he was harried and hassled at every opportunity. And the Spaniard seemed to suffer more than any other Arsenal player, as he struggled to make any kind of impact on the game.

His cause wasn't helped by Wenger's decision to drop van Persie and Walcott to the bench. Without these two in the starting line-up Arsenal lacked creativity and they badly missed the out-ball the diminutive winger provides to his team when they are under pressure.

Without their creative forces in the team, and with Fabregas having an off day, Arsenal struggled to fashion any kind of penetration and were reduced to long efforts. Adebayor, shooting straight at Thomas Sorenson, was as good as it got in the early stages.

To their credit, Stoke worked extremely hard, they sensed that this young Arsenal side were susceptible to their long ball game and their physical approach, and they went into the game with gusto, bringing the game to Arsenal right from the start.

They were rewarded for their early endeavours as Ricardo Fuller's deft header from a Rory Delap long throw missile took the ball past a stranded Manuel Almunia, to give Stoke a 1-0 lead after only eleven minutes.

This early goal had a huge effect on the course of the game, for while it spurred Stoke on it seemed to suck the life out of Arsenal and they struggled to get into the game for the rest of the half.

Stoke almost doubled their lead as man-of-the-match Rory Delap looped a header over Almunia, only for Gael Clichy to clear it off the line.

Neither side created much of note until the second half, but every set-piece and long throw caused confusion for Arsene Wenger's side. They got to half time 1-0 behind and still in the game, and one could only imagine what Wenger said to his team during the interval.

Whatever he said, it didn't work as Arsenal continued to struggle after half time. In an effort to get back into the game Wenger sent on Theo Walcott for the injured Sagna, as Wenger made a statement of intent.

Initially the move had an effect, giving Arsenal some impetus as Toure fired over after a Fabregas corner. Sensing a way back into the match, Wenger played his second ace-in-the-hole and sent Van Persie in to replace the ineffective Denilson.

But Stokes biggest weapon was rolled out again, as a Delap long throw once again caused problems as Almunia tipped Salif Diao's effort around the post as Stoke pushed on.

Minutes later, another long throw, more confusion and another goal as Stoke doubled their lead through Olofinjana, who chested the ball past Almunia (73).

Unlike Spurs in midweek, you knew that this Arsenal team were incapable of coming back from the dead as they had struggled all day.

And to make matters worse, Robin Van Persie got himself sent off (76) for a petulant push on Sorenson as discipline deserted the Dutch man. He had only spent 12 minutes on the pitch, and Wenger looked furious as he trudged off.

Clichy eventually pulled a goal back deep into injury time as his deflected effort made it's way past Thomas Sorenson.

And just to cap an incredibly bad day at the office, both Adebayor and Walcott got injured, the England man leaving the pitch with his arm in a sling.

And so Wenger heads into his Champion League tie against Fenerbahce with his squad at an all-time low. Their title ambitions have been all but ended after only 11 games. They lack leadership on the pitch as senior players have all gone missing when Wenger really needed them.

They will know a result on Tuesday is imperative, as they need to finish top of the group if they are to have any chance of winning the Champions League.

Judging on today's evidence, the chances of this side winning any trophy this year is slim.

Arsenal fans will need their manager to be at his mercurial best if they are to challenge for trophies, or to even finish in the top four positions.

If they let him.

twitter / WillieGannon