Arsenal gets back on track with victory over Stoke
Arsenal got their Premier League campaign back on track Saturday with a nervy 2-0 win over Stoke at home thanks to a goals from Theo Walcott and sub Olivier Giroud.
The result took the Gunners up to second in the table ahead of the late game between Manchester United and Liverpool.
But despite collecting a full share of the points, the result will leave many Arsenal fans with a sense that their team is still not firing on all cylinders ahead of a busy European week.
Stoke were poor, and should have been on the wrong end of a far bigger scoreline. Yet, despite having a good half-dozen chances, Walcott struggled to finish today as a pure striker; and Giroud, who has struggled, whiffed so badly on a chance that even his teammates looked disgusted.
As has been typical for this team, Arsenal dominated possession, but too often found themselves impotent in the final third.
The Gunners jumped all over Stoke early, with Theo Walcott and Alexis Sanchez exploiting the space behind the back line with Santi Cazorla and Mesut Ozil simply dinking little balls in to force keeper Jack Butland to make a series of early saves.
Alexis showed what was to come when Cazorla found him in just the second minute, but only a superb save from Butland to push the ball onto the post kept out of the net. Alexis then fired a ball low and hard across the face of goal six inutes later, only to again be denied by the upright.
Walcott had two great chances early as well, whiffing on a rebound in the third minute, and then cutting past American Geoff Cameron to drive a shot right into Butland’s arms in the 12th minute. On both occasions, it is fair to say it probably would have been easier to score.
Xherdan Shaqiri didn’t help Stoke’s cause, sending a dreadful backpass across the face of Butland’s goal that Walcott could not latch on to.
Cazorla also had a gilt-edge chance foiled by Butland in the 25th, catching a ball on the bounce and half-volleying to the near post to force the keeper to make a superb reaction save.
But Walcott finally came good on the half hour, converting what was perhaps his most difficult chance of the game to that point. Francis Coquelin stole the ball at the middle of the pitch and slipped it up to Ozil.
Ozil booted a fine pass right down the gut, and with Walcott on the wrong side of Marc Muniesa, shrugged off the defender and blew the ball through Butland’s legs.
Stoke simply couldn’t get a hold of the ball and while Petr Cech was occasionally called upon to make sure a ball went out of play, he cut a far different figure today than in games past. Instead of having to cover up for what at times has been an indifferent defense, he was largely idle, forced to make just a handful of routine stops.
Arsenal, on the other hand, could not put the game to bed, despite having chance after chance. Walcott wasted two super chances, with the worst coming twenty minutes from time, allowing Butland to recover after the keeper had been rounded. Ozil also had close looks, but his shots were tame.
Sub Giroud had arguably the best chance of the half when the ball fell to him all alone with only Butland to beat, but incredibly, he pulled his shot wide of the far post. The look of his teammates on the sideline – stunned and incredulous – spoke volumes about Arsenal’s well-known struggles up top.
Giroud would redeem himself with six minutes to play, heading home an easy cross from Cazorla after eluding Muniesa. It was surely no less than Arsenal deserved – but it will hardly quiet Arsenal’s critics, who have rightly judged them to be a piece short up top to make a serious run at the title.