Arsenal 1-0 Stoke City: Orc-Slaying

The dirty, cheating orcs made their annual raid on Ashburton Grove - and as per usual, they weren't that imposing away from the unfriendly confines of Mordor.

The truth is, Arsenal beat them at their own game today. How often can you say that? This was a gritty, physical match - the kind in which our boys have been found wanting in seasons past. This time, the Gunners gave as good as they got and found a way to snatch all three points.

No complaints today, in other words.

The boss made several changes to the side that disappointed against the Scousers, most notably throwing new boy Nacho Monreal straight into the team. Mikel Arteta also made a welcome return to the center of the park, supported by the returning Abou Diaby.

Unsurprisingly, the home side looked far more solid than they have in weeks past. Stoke had set out their stall to defend, which was not their ideal tactic. If I were Tony Pulis (and I thank your deity of choice every day that I am not), I would have started Kenwyne Jones, Cameron Jerome and Peter Crouch all together and tried to take advantage of our recent defensive frailty. 

Instead, their conservative team selection allowed Arsenal to get comfortable in the game, and they quickly dominated possession. Chances were at a premium, but that was down to Stoke's excellent defending. Whatever we may think of Robert Huth and Ryan Shawcross, they are top-class defenders and they kept their team in it with many timely interventions.

That said, it should be noted that Arsenal attacked with a sense of purpose. Far too often this season, the first half has seen our guys dally on the ball with no impetus to get forward. There was a different feel around this game though, and it was nice to see.

Stoke goalkeeper Asmir Begovic is arguably the best in the division though, and he played his part in keeping us off the board as well. A half-hour in, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain knocked down Jack Wilshere's corner and did well to collect the ball, turn and shoot. Begovic's positioning was spot-on though, and he was able to fend off the shot.

He wasn't done, though. Both Olivier Giroud and Laurent Koscielny had decent chances off of headers, but both times Begovic was equal to the task. It was frustrating, but also heartening that we were winning airborne chances against our mutant guests.

The Bosnian stopper's best save came a bit later though, Oxlade-Chamberlain again the unlucky victim. Diaby and Wilshere combined to set up the Ox with a good shooting chance from the left side of the penalty area. It wasn't a perfect angle, but the Ox struck it well towards the far post. Begovic's positioning was perfect again though, and he was able to tip it wide at full stretch.

As a member of the goalkeeping fraternity, I have to salute the man's efforts. He is a top-class keeper. If the rumors of him leaving Stoke are true, I'll be thrilled for him - he deserves to play at a higher level.

That about took us to halftime, but there was one incident left to come. Our newest Gunner went for a 50-50 header with Jonathan Walters, and the two met head-on. I never wish injury on anyone, even a Stoke City player, but it was fantastic to see an Arsenal man not shirk away from the physical side of the game. Even better, he came out ahead in the challenge, arguably striking a further psychological blow against the visiting Mongol hordes.

I'll go one better - I think Arsenal have finally sussed this lot out. The boogeyman was just a dumbass in a cheap plastic mask all this time.

The second half continued in the same vein, Arsenal bossing play and Stoke resisting gamely. Monreal began to assert himself after the break, his perfect cross to Giroud broken up by an excellent intervention from Huth.

Meanwhile, the linesman on the side we attacked in the second half (besides looking like an uglier version of Brad Garrett from Everybody Loves Raymond) quickly reached nemesis status with a series of missed decisions. Mr. Magoo had a less developed case of myopia than this jackass. He missed several fouls, including the straying hand of Shawcross poking Theo Walcott in the eye. More about him in a bit.

I always believed the breakthrough was coming, and it seemed likelier when the boss made his changes. The tiring Oxlade-Chamberlain came off, as did Diaby. The latter had a solid game, but was increasingly redundant as the visitors' possession dipped below 30%. Lukas Podolski and Santi Cazorla came on to give us more creative options.

As the match went on, Stoke's defending became more desperate. Chris Foy had to produce a yellow card on several occasions for cynical challenges. One of these, when Andy Wilkinson scythed down Walcott, resulted in a dangerous free kick. There was some confusion as to who would take it, but Podolski eventually took charge. His low effort was deflected by a jumping Stoke player and went past the wrong-footed Begovic. Cue bedlam - that is, until our nemesis linesman flagged me. Walcott was in an offside position, but he had nothing to do with the play.

Thankfully, Foy came over and had a chat with him. One brief discussion later, the senior official overturned his idiot companion and allowed the goal. Arsenal's perseverance paid off after all.

One positive aspect of Arsenal's play this season is that we're often dangerous immediately after scoring a goal - look at how often they've come in bunches. It almost happened again in this game after a slashing run from Cazorla. He did the hard part, but then fired his effort over the crossbar with Begovic well beaten. That would have sealed the result, undoubtedly.

It ended up not mattering. Arsenal saw out the remaining time with calm and elan. Stoke never threatened Wojceich Szczesny's goal, but they did find time for a few trademark ructions before the final whistle. First, Shawcross and Koscielny both slid for a loose ball, the former accidentally-on-purpose getting the boot in to our man. Why Shawcross is allowed outside without a leash, I'll never know.

The most hilarious was left for last though, as a fair challenge from Arteta on the substitute Michael Owen led to an epic bout of handbags. Surely, even Louis C.K. can't come up with anything more hilarious than little Owen trying to act the hardman. Whatever his pretensions may have been, Wilshere came over quickly to sort him out. Have I mentioned lately that this man should be captain?

The final whistle went soon after, giving Arsenal three massive points. Results elsewhere were kind as well; Swansea City and Chelsea losing while Everton drew. That gives us some breathing room on Liverpool, and also closes the gap on Everton in 5th to a solitary point. Chelsea are now only 5 points clear in 4th.

With all of that in mind, today can only be seen in a positive light. Points were gained on all of our rivals, and we also beat the orcs at their own game. Ironically, in the end it turned out that the northern hordes didn't like it up 'em. Have some of that, you Potters.

The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:

Szczesny 7, Monreal 7, Mertesacker 7, Koscielny 7, Sagna 7, Arteta 7, Diaby 7 (Cazorla 7), Oxlade-Chamberlain 7 (Podolski 7), Wilshere 7, Walcott 7, Giroud 7

Man of the Match: It's hard to say that anyone stood out - this was very much an excellent team performance, everyone doing their part. Still, I'll give it to Mikel Arteta for an all-action performance in the middle of the park. Welcome back, sir.