Arsenal flatter to deceive with late goal flurry to beat Stoke
LONDON -- Three thoughts on Arsenal's surprisingly lopsided late win over Stoke at the Emirates.
1. Late goals give Arsenal a flattering win
Pundits say that the sign of a good side is winning without playing well, but few observers will come away from this match believing that Arsenal are back in business. This was a flat, sluggish performance from the home side, who only started properly playing in the final half-hour.
Arsene Wenger's side were rescued with two goals from Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang, the first from the penalty spot and the second a controlled low drive from Mesut Ozil's corner. Substitute Alexandre Lacazette rounded things off with another penalty and from a 0-0 game heading into the final 15 minutes, Arsenal's 3-0 full-time margin was somehow comfortable.
From the outset, neither side appeared entirely interested in this contest. In front of a disappointing crowd, with the Emirates no more than two-thirds full, Arsenal started sluggishly. Their passing was too slow, their pressing non-existent and the speed up front of Aubameyang barely used despite the fact Stoke were playing surprisingly positive football and keeping a high defensive line. Arsenal's best technical talents weren't on their game: Aubemeyang mis-controlled the ball out of play, Ozil lost the ball clumsily, Jack Wilshere played a pass behind Danny Welbeck. The home supporters groaned.
What Arsenal did offer, however, was quality from their bench. The added threat of Lacazette allowed Arsenal to pile more pressure on the Stoke back line and in the closing stages, you finally sensed Arsenal were likely to win this.
Questions persist about whether Lacazette and Aubameyang can play together from the outset, while Lacazette was noticeably determined to take Arsenal's second penalty himself, getting onto the scoresheet while denying Aubameyang a hat-trick. But as an all-out-attack Plan B, Arsenal's two record signings proved decisive together on Sunday.
2. Ramsey impresses again for Arsenal
The most threatening player on display all afternoon was Aaron Ramsey. Arsenal's No.8 wasn't particularly imaginative with his passing but there are fewer better players in the Premier League at timing runs to the edge of the box. Ramsey had two decent chances, first when knocking the ball onto the bar after Jack Butland had failed to claim a high ball and later when typically arriving late to latch onto a pass from Wilshere, although his attempt was blocked.
It's questionable whether this 4-3-3 system suits many other Arsenal players but just as Manchester United's Paul Pogba probably needs that system to showcase his all-round, box-to-box abilities, Ramsey is perfectly suited to the formation.
Curiously, the Wales international seemed to play deeper after half-time as more of a partnership with Mohamed Elneny, although it was the Egypt midfielder who had Arsenal's first good opportunity of the second period, his low shot blocked by Bruno Martins Indi after Hector Bellerin's typically intelligent cut-back.
For the first time, Arsenal mounted a spell of pressure, the home supporters were audible and an hour in, it felt like we finally had a game on our hands. Lacazette made his return from injury after seven weeks out, in place of the misfiring Welbeck. He went up front with Aubameyang, who played from the left and with 20 minutes remaining, Arsenal had their first clear-cut chance.
Ozil played a delicate through-ball in behind the defence for Aubameyang, Arsenal's new No.14 now working the inside-left channel like one of his predecessors in that shirt, Thierry Henry. His shot, however, was tame, stabbed directly at Butland.
But Arsenal, led by Ozil, kept coming. He dribbled hopefully into the box and was tripped, somewhat unfortunately, by Martins Indi. Craig Pawson pointed to the spot, and Aubameyang stepped up to calmly roll the ball into the bottom corner, sending Butland the wrong way. The lead flattered Arsenal but they had steadily increased the pressure.
Stoke collapsed in the final stages, completely failing to mark Aubameyang at a corner for his second, and then Badou Ndiaye needlessly shoved Lacazette to give the Gunners their second penalty. In the end, the visitors were well-beaten.
3. Shaqiri gives Stoke a fighting chance
While Stoke came into this game with a dreadful record at the Emirates (played nine, lost nine) their manager Paul Lambert had tasted success here before with a 3-1 victory with Aston Villa, also causing problems in a 3-3 draw in his Norwich days. Lambert is a studious and intelligent tactician, capable of creating an approach to exploit opposition weaknesses. Stoke were surprisingly proactive and positive here, probably enjoying the better of the opening exchanges.
The game's bright spark was Xherdan Shaqiri, who has been performing impressively in recent weeks, consistently showing an ability to engineer scoring situations in tight spots just outside the box. He nearly opened the scoring with the game's first good effort here, cutting inside from an inside-right position onto his left foot and whipping a curler just past David Ospina's far post.
Shaqiri has often been fielded on the right this season but Sunday saw him deployed in a central No.10 position just behind Mame Biram Diouf. Shaqiri was intelligent with his positioning, creeping in behind Elneny when Arsenal's deepest midfielder pushed forward to always offer a threat on the break. He did, however, waste Stoke's best counter-attacking chance when performing a couple too many step-overs and allowing Shkodran Mustafi to make a fine sliding tackle to dispossess him. Arsenal's German centre-back was their best performer in the first half.
Stoke struggled after the break with Diouf departing through injury to be replaced by Saido Berahino, now without a goal in two years. The closest they came to goal was, surprisingly, from a corner. Shaqiri's in-swinging, left-footed shot curled over everyone and bounced off the far post. Stoke used to be renowned for their set-piece threat but rarely in such a direct manner. It was their last moment of promise before Arsenal's opening goal.
Lambert's Plan B, with 10 minutes left and only one goal down, was obvious. Only Wayne Rooney and Robbie Fowler have scored more Premier League goals against Arsenal than Peter Crouch, who replaced Ramadan Sobhi as Stoke went 4-4-2. He had a decent impact, too. His knock-down from Shaqiri's crossfield ball found N'Diaye, who should have done better, his tame curling effort never truly threatening Ospina.
This was something of a "bonus" game for Stoke, a contest where few expected them to collect points. 'With their final two matches of the season coming against Crystal Palace and Swansea, Lambert's men are likely to be involved in a couple of crucial late-season games, but they'll need to collect points in April to ensure they're still fighting come May.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.