Arsenal 1-0 Stoke City: Victory with a Price

While I normally cannot watch mid-week fixtures due to pesky "work" considerations, this time at the cost of skipping my lunch entirely I was able to bust out of my cubicle world an hour early and head over to the Pig to catch this one. Of course, I got there at the 14' mark, meaning I had already missed every moment of excitement that would occur in the match. That said, I haven't been happier to be bored in quite some time.

As I made the short subway journey from work, Theo Walcott had hit the post early and there were apparently one or two other half-chances besides. The big news though was that once again, an Arsenal defender came up with a big goal in a key situation - they're making a bit of a habit of that this season, aren't they? It was off a Jack Wilshere corner, which that big dummy Ryan Shawcross was unable to clear (despite this being one of the few attributes in his game). It came out to Nicklas Bendtner on the edge of the area, and he cushioned a header back into the danger area. Sebastien Squillaci was there to nod home from point-blank range, and Arsenal had the only goal it would need. You won't see a more anti-Arsenal one all season, but on the other hand, there's some poetic justice in having beaten this lot at their own game.

I don't want to sound churlish, but I'm not going to lie either. This one was bloody turgid at times, much like the Leyton Orient match with the minor exception that we fielded a goalkeeper this time around. Actually, I should say that the similarity was in Stoke's dogged defensive play. What Orient didn't do though was foul us all over the pitch (but hey, Gael Clichy made one bad tackle, so we're just as bad...AMIRITE?). As it stands, I've managed to acquire an exclusive picture of Stoke City training for this one:

Photo: Magners League official website

One aspect that was lacking in the post-match articles I've seen was that while Arsenal's attacks kept dying at the same stage that they have been lately (such as in the Orient match), the boys tried a much wider array of means to break down the opposition defense. Some of the more frustrating Arsenal performances of the last season or two have seen them bang their heads against the wall (or banks of four, as the case may be) over and over again with an endless array of short passes around the perimeter of the the penalty area before someone tries an over-ambitious through ball that doesn't come off. Don't get me wrong, there was quite a bit of that here, as well. But, other options were tried - some shots from distance, a few attempted chips over the center-halves, a few crosses from the wings. To me, it almost doesn't even matter that they didn't really work on this one occasion. If they stick with adding some variety in, against teams with less capability in defense, they WILL work. That's the key.

I feel that special praise has to go to Johan Djourou once again. Stoke largely stayed true to form, relying on a series of long balls to target man John Carew allied with Rory Delap's javelin-hurls into the area. The entire back four dealt with it well when required, but Djourou seemed to be the leader back there. When a ball absolutely had to be cleared out, chances were it was the tall Swiss guy clearing it away. All of us here at TMG keep going on about it, but his calmness and composure are spreading throughout the rest of the team defensively, and it's no small reason why we're still competing for honors this heavily at this stage of the season.

Besides him, you also have to give a lot of credit to our mad keeper, Wojciech Szezscny. When the situation warranted it, he was decisive on his line and punched effectively when he had to. There was one instance where he came out for one he was never going to get to and left his net unguarded, but thankfully Robert Huth failed to take advantage and skied his header into low Earth orbit. He more than made up for it though by plunging spectacularly to his right to palm out Stoke's one good chance, a volley from the aforementioned Carew (by the way, just getting to it wasn't the spectacular bit - you'd expect most professional keepers to get there based on placement alone - the spectacular bit was how despite the pace on it he still controlled the rebound so that it went out to safety rather than back into the danger area). Yet another good game from the Pole, and yet another reason why he BETTER be in between the sticks for the Cup Final on Sunday.

There isn't much to tell, other than the two elephants in the room. Two more Arsenal players went off injured, but for once, it wasn't due to Neanderthal tactics from our esteemed opponents. In fact, I thought that by their standards it was as clean of a match as you can expect from them. Of course, that's somewhat tantamount to congratulating a serial killer for restricting himself to assault for a week, but I try not to look gift horses in the mouth whenever possible.

Picture: The Guardian

Cesc Fabregas trudged off the field right before I got to the pub with a recurrence of his ongoing hamstring problems, while Walcott got tangled up with one of their sub-human mutants (not that it was the mutant's fault, as mentioned) and sprained his ankle. Both will miss the League Cup Final, which is a devastating blow both for them and for us. Still, one would hope that more than enough firepower remains to see off a hopeless band of triers like Birmingham City in a neutral venue.

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The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:

Szezscny 7, Clichy 7, Squillaci 7, Djourou 8 (MOTM), Sagna 7, Wilshere 7, Song 7, Fabregas N/A (Arshavin 6), Nasri 6, Walcott 6 (Denilson 6), Bendtner 7 (Chamakh N/A)