Stoke City 0-0 Arsenal: A Newfound Defensive Solidity

You know, it's going to get indescribably stupid in the mainstream football press over the next week or so. Frankly, even the one outlet I dimly half-respect (The Guardian) is going to put the words "Robin van Persie" on repeat like that awful "No. 9" song over and over until some enterprising lad in an Arsenal shirt breaches an opponent net.

Context and thinking analysis, as ever, will be in shorter supply than rainfall in the American Midwest.

Let's be honest with ourselves - "Stoke Away" has taken on a fearsome patina in the last few seasons, an annual horror show that typically results in three points for the troglodytes and some Arsenal player sprawled on the Britannia Stadium turf, the victim of some crude real-life take on the game Operation. Inevitably, some eminently preventable goal is conceded on a set piece or a moment of defensive ineptitude. Frustratingly, chances to win the game are spurned as that odious hobbit Tony Pulis gleefully cackles on the sideline.

None of those things happened on Sunday morning. Actually, hardly anything happened on Sunday morning until the late game kicked off at Anfield. However, there were plenty of positives to go along with the bitter pill of two further points dropped.

I don't make a habit of lying to my audience, so allow me to tell you just how fearful I was when I saw that Vito Mannone was forced to deputize in goal with the injuries to Wojceich Szczesny and Lukasz Fabianski. That one magical afternoon against Fulham competed in my memory with the bizarre kung-fu kick attempt at a save in that game last season (the opposition that day escapes me). The rest of the starting lineup was more promising, as last week's back four were complemented by Mikael Arteta and the surprisingly still-intact Abou Diaby in the middle. Lukas Podolski, Santi Cazorla and Gervinho were tucked in behind Olivier Giroud up top.

Make no mistake - goals will come from this lot sooner or later. It wasn't to be on the day, but given how little they have played together (the upper management of the club bears some responsibility here given our non-existent pre-season fixture list), it's a bit early to write off the entire enterprise. Meanwhile, whether it's the presence of Steve Bould or the increasing understanding between the personnel in the back, Arsenal repelled the intermittent Stoke attacks with a minimum of fuss. I don't know about you, but I didn't think I'd live to see the day.

Speaking of, the fact that Stoke had the ball in our net seven minutes in does not mean that we got off lucky or that the solidity wasn't there. Jonathan Walters was miles offside as he ran onto Peter Crouch's cushioned header, meaning he could have replicated Pele's triple-pirouette around the keeper and it still would have amounted to same result - a goal kick in the opposite direction.

That was to be the only serious attempt on Mannone's goal as far as a shot in anger goes, but the Italian did find himself under pressure throughout the match by the usual assortment of long balls, crosses, and caber tosses from the sideline. There were a few nervous moments and his footwork was iffy on a few of them (goalkeeping nitpicking at its finest, there), but he dealt with the bombardment well enough and never looked seriously like conceding.

It had to have helped him that the center-halves especially were so composed in front of him. Per Mertesacker played his part in winning a few aerial battles, but was more impressive with his positioning and reading of the game. His solid performance was eclipsed by his partner though, as Thomas Vermaelen was absolutely everywhere - breaking up attacks, bombing forward at times, and generally running the show as a true captain should.

A minute after the offside incident, Arsenal found themselves shouting for a penalty kick up the other end. It was Podolski who had gotten himself into shooting position, but the Stoke defender bravely flung himself into the path of the shot to deflect it away. While it did look to strike Andy Wilkinson's arm, we'd have been incensed if a spot-kick were called on us for the same thing. It hardly looked intentional, to be fair.

The Gunners grabbed the match by the throat from that point on, dominating possession to an almost embarrassing extent (though not quite the footballing lesson Everton handed to Aston Villa the previous day). Podolski had a good run thwarted by a professional foul from Robert Huth, though Cazorla wasted the free kick - sadly a trend on the day. The Spaniard had a subsequent better effort palmed away to safety by Asmir Begovic.

That was the sum total of incidents in the first half - though if possible, even less happened in the second. Wilkinson ran through the back of TV5, and was lucky to escape with a booking. Crouch's elbow caught Mertesacker in the side of the head, though the BFG did make somewhat of a meal of it. More along the lines of playing football, Giroud's audacious attempt at a bicycle kick didn't quite come off, though it was nice to see him make the attempt.

The much-discussed lack of cutting edge in our side was indeed on show, but much of the fault came from the wide positions. Podolski had a bit of a quiet game, and was duly withdrawn for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain with 20 minutes to go. Likewise, Theo Walcott came on for Gervinho - who once again was bereft of end product. Given that the absence of The Striker Who Must Not Be Named means that everyone else has to contribute offensively, I just don't see how the Ivorian is good enough for this squad...unless running into cul-de-sacs somehow becomes a scoring play, that is.

Diaby was also fairly putrid on the day, though it was more harmlessly so given that Stoke rarely ventured through the middle of the park. His positioning was spotty and his passing range was exactly what you'd expect from a player with a few layers of rust on him. The fact that Cazorla was the one to come off with 10 minutes left on the clock instead of the Frenchman is the latest in Arsene Wenger's mystifying substitution patterns.

Aaron Ramsey was the man to come on there, and Stoke supporters displayed their usual tact and diplomacy by booing him. There's nothing I have to add to that, really. They booed a guy for a crime of having his leg broken. You stay classy, Stoke-on-Trent.

Karma was sadly not in attendance at the Britannia, as the Welshman did have a decent shot flash by the wrong side of the far post. Imagine the reaction if that had gone in, eh? He also made a great run to break the offside trap and get into space, but Giroud had other ideas. Normally, I'd praise him for his daring in ignoring Ramsey's run to take a ferocious lash on goal from fully 40 yards out. Had it dipped under the crossbar instead of striking the woodwork, there'd be 4 paragraphs here outlining his brilliance. It didn't though, and it potentially cost us 2 points.

Still, I keep coming back to the fact that we kept a clean sheet, at Stoke, with Mannone in goal and no Laurent Koscielny. Further, we were rarely in trouble. That has to count for something, as does the fact that our apparently-fragile defense has now gone 180 minutes without conceding. Look, with the talent that this team has on the offensive side of the ball, goals will come. If they happen to arrive without a corresponding lack of focus defensively, then the rest of the league just might have more to fear from us than the journos would have you believe in the 3.8 seconds they have spent mulling over the meaning of this result before furiously jabbing on the red button marked "RVP" like a pack of Pavlov's mutts.

The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:

Mannone 7, Gibbs 7, Mertesacker 7, Vermaelen 8, Jenkinson 7, Podolski 6 (Walcott 6), Arteta 7, Diaby 5, Cazorla 7 (Ramsey N/A), Gervinho 6 (Walcott 6), Giroud 6.

Man of the Match: Coming away from the Britannia with a clean sheet is a big deal these days, and for me the captain was a huge part of the reason why. Thomas Vermaelen for me, all day.