The Mythical Plan B: A Comprehensive Stoke Review

This time last year, Arsenal were in a dark place. Identical to this season, we’d not scored in our first two games of the season, and were in a bit of a rut. This is where the similarities end. In late August of last year, we had lost Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri and Gaël Clichy. We had no adequate cover for any of the recently vacated positions, and were laboring through the season in 17th. This year, same as last, we lost key players. Song and RVP were the team’s main source of goals, it must be said. However this year, the change in approach to the transfer market has gone from reactive to proactive, with our two outgoing stars being replaced by Lukas Podolski, Olivier Giroud and Santi Cazorla; three world-class players who are starting to find their feet already. We’ve got a cohesive back line despite two of the strongest players recovering from injury. We finally have a world-class playmaker again. We have two full international strikers who both came off of good seasons for the former clubs, and are working hard in training. Morale is high, and rightly so. Arsenal are slowly coming back to their days of old, with our near post flick on headers and aggression in midfield. We have a ruthless, strong centre forward, which has been sorely lacked since the days of Eduardo and Emmanuel Adebayor. We look a team primed to succeed. All we need now are a few more signings and some time in training. Fret not people, for the Arsenal are back.

Aside from what’s already happened this summer, we need to analyze the present and what it means for the immediate future of the club. Back to the match, which we dominated. Looking at the numbers, you have to wonder how Stoke have stayed in the Premiership for so long, as they’ve always been a very average side.

Let’s start off by looking at our lineup and is dynamics during the first half.

The most surprising about the match today was our positional sense up front, which in a word, was awful. Gervinho and Lukas Podolski were drifting centrally almost every chance they could get, which made progress into the 18 yard box extremely difficult due to the density of the midfield. Many times, I found Cazorla cutting a slightly frustrated figure as he only had one person ahead of himself to pass to.

Talking Points

1. As the match wore on, Podolski made better use of the wing, either occasionally putting Gibbs through from an overlapping run, or beating fullback Andy Wilkinson to cut into the box. Of the two wingers, I’m of the opinion that Podolski had the better game, but both were average at best today. A quick statistical breakdown of their attacking performance today.

Player Lukas Podolski Gervinho
Shots (On Target) 2(0) 1(0)
Successful Dribbles 3 0
Dispossessed 1 2
Total Passes 33 31
Pass Accuracy 85 94
Key Passes 1 1

Podolski was as dangerous as you’d expect someone who didn’t score to be. He managed  dribbling past the defense 3 times before passing it off. While he was less accurate than Gervinho in his passing, you have to say that the Ivorian was a shadow of himself compared to preseason. Not once do I recall him beating a man, and the stats back me up. he tried, but just couldn’t find any sort of spark that we’re so accustomed to with Gervinho. I hope he can steer himself back on track, as he could be a very important player for us in the coming months, considering we don’t have too many wingers in the club.1

2. After our 3 substitutions, the game became stretched due mostly to Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade Chamberlain using the wings to full effect. You could see right away that Stoke were looking more vulnerable, being exploited for pace down both flanks. Wilkinson going from marking the comparatively conservative Podolski to explosive, fresh-legged Oxlade-Chamberlain took it’s toll on the already tired fullback, and was often caught out after being dispossessed by our young charge. Brilliant stuff from the Ox. Walcott was a lot quieter, but I suspect he has contract issues on his mind, and as a result, wasn’t focused.

3. One problem that seems persistent is Santi Cazorla’s stamina levels. By the 70 minute mark, his influence on the game tapered off considerably, taking only 40 touches in the last 45 minutes as compared to 60 in the first. He had a good match overall, but Wenger should think about giving him a rest or at least an appearance off the bench against a weaker team in the coming weeks to help recharge his batteries.

4. Abou Diaby. Most say he didn’t play well, and it looks that way judging by the stats. I assure you however, that this game is a precursor to a good season, the catalyst being his ability to steer clear of the injury table. While Arteta outclassed him an almost every front, it must be said that Diaby was always pressured by Stoke’s midfield, as they singled him out due to his stature; one of the main reasons he was so effective. The Frenchman was a formidable force in the middle of the park, winning 6 aerial duels; joint highest alongside Thomas Vermaelen.

Player Abou Diaby Mikel Arteta
Total Passes 65 77
Pass Accuracy 72% 87%
Long Balls (Accurate) 3(1) 9(9)
Tackles 5 6
Interceptions 3 1
Clearances (Effective) 4(2) 0
Fouls 2 2

Arteta vs. Diaby paints an incomplete picture, but one that we can analyze nonetheless.
Abou comes into Song’s old role, which was supposed to be a pivot: One where he spent most of his time defending, but eventually finds his way up the pitch. A solid preseason under his belt, Diaby has picked up where Song has left off, and I think he has a lot of room to improve. He found himself in dangerous positions, especially when he had the ball right in front of goal, but unfortunately made an inaccurate pass towards the 80th minute. Overall, Diaby is poised to finally make a statement after years of rehabilitation. The player we’ve been promised so many times has reared his head, and I like what I’m seeing so far. If you’re not convinced, have a look at some of his highlights in preseason.

What this video shows is something all great central midfielders have that simply can’t be measured: their ability to manipulate possession in the offensive half, and their work ethic to regain possession in the defensive half. In short, total football from midfield. Diaby has the technique, vision, grit and power to do these things, and he’s shown what he’s capable of this summer. He keeps us ticking, and doesn’t have to rely on hopeful long balls to open up space. He can dribble, pick a through ball, see oncoming runs that open space on flanks, head the ball, get stuck in a challenge etc. the list goes on and on. Keep him fit, and Diaby will blossom into our best midfield in the next 18 months.

5. This could be the most exciting thing to come from our goalless draw: our team showed a willingness to change their style. Finally, after so many years of moaning from so-called pundits like Alan Hansen, Arsenal have a Plan B. Funnily enough, it was Stoke’s Plan A: Long balls through the middle of the park, and long pops on goal.

Team Stoke City Arsenal
Total 282 562
Crosses 17 28
Through Balls 1 4
Long Balls 58 62
Short Passes 206 468

We passed them off the park. The fact that we played more long balls than Stoke -the least creative team in the world- really surprised me, but it shows that with our two strikers, we really are a new look side.

Gone are the days where RVP is out-muscled in an aerial challenge. Now we have hulking centre forward setting out with only one goal: bullying the defense. Giroud confused and harried Stoke’s defense, who didn’t have a clue at stopping him. Giroud had the second highest amount of aerial duels, with 5. He also has decent vision for a striker, with 3 key passes. What Giroud brings to the table is versatility and unpredictability. One minute, he’s winning headers against players 5 inches taller than him, the next he’s threading balls through the eye of the needle, and then he’s going up for a scissor-kick volley and long-range chips. At no point did Stoke’s defense have Giroud pegged at what he was going to do next, and that’s exactly what we need.

Back to the rest of the team, and we find that Stoke couldn’t quite crack us. No one knew who would be marking who, and it ended up with them sitting back, marking a zone, waiting until someone came to close to the 18 yard box, at which point at least 2 players would descend upon the ball carrier like a pack of angry wasps. Not the most intricate plan, but it was effective against our smaller players. The only way to avoid losing the ball would be to move it quickly, and shoot should any opportunity present itself, which we executed well. Taking 17 shots in total, 0 shots were from 6 yards are closer. Let me repeat that. Arsenal Football Club resisted the urge to try to walk the ball into the net for 90 minutes. We took 9 shots from outside the box, and 8 from inside 18 yards. We showed some real menace at points yesterday, specifically from Giroud’s Suarez-esque low, long-range effort over Asmir Begovic. Our new-found shooting boots are a welcome change, and could prove useful against sides who are tough to break down, like Liverpool who are playing us next Sunday.

Speaking of being tough to break down, we need a round of applause for our back four (five with Diaby) for a solid display. As a casual way to judge our defense after a match, I think to myself “How many times did I say a defender’s name while stressed?” The answer was once, after Gibbs’ rash tackle in the box which Lee Mason quickly dismissed. Good show from everyone, but the bright spot overall had to be Gibbs. Between him and Vermaelen, I’m more pleased with Kieran, because a match like this highlights his recent improvement and massive potential.

Player Kieran Gibbs Thomas Vermaelen
Tackles 1 4
Interceptions 1 4
Clearances (Effective) 6(4) 10(5)
Total Passes 47 25
Pass Accuracy 79% 72%
Crosses (Accurate) 3(0) 0

Not the most potent attacking display we’ve seen from Gibbs, but a showcase of his development at the back. He’s no longer a liability, can hold his own when challenging, and doesn’t have to rely on pace or another play to recover the ball. His positioning was superb last game, and I’d like to think Steve Bould had a hand in this marked significant jump in Gibbs’ performances. Good to see that 99% of our defensive problems seem to have been eradicated.

Final Thoughts

I think only after September is it fair to criticize anyone harshly. Right now, our team is still quite raw, and everybody is still adjusting to one another. After all, we’re still seeing players get in each other’s way, hesitance in making runs, and some confusion as to who goes where in attack. There are some loose ends to be fixed, which Arsène is capable of taking care of, so the main thing is to stay calm and positive until we come to a complete understanding of how this team performs together. Unfortunately, we’ll have to think of this month as an extended preseason due to many factors. Goals will come, but for now we’ve got a solid defensive foundation to build on. Don’t worry Gooners, Victory Through Harmony is the motto, and harmony is what we’re lacking right now. All we need is time.

That’s it for now, thanks for reading.


@MarshallArsenal– regular account
@AndresFavGay– site account


2 comments on “The Mythical Plan B: A Comprehensive Stoke Review

  1. Gud article. Goals will surely come. What supprises me about this team is how everybody is ready to defend. Did u all noticed how giroud raced down in the 1st half 2 close a stoke player for gibbs,poldoski did same

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