As England manager Roy Hodgson sat himself down at Southampton’s St Mary’s stadium to watch players he has made his mind up on already, Ryan Shawcross captained Stoke to a 1-0 win over Arsenal on Saturday, much like he had done against Manchester United and Chelsea in recent weeks.
While Hodgson is of the opinion those last two clubs have the "better options" at centre-back for England, Stoke’s skipper continues to impress and shut out the league’s finest. Putting in the pass of the game against Arsenal, he could be forgiven for wondering exactly what he has to do to enter into the England manager’s thinking.
Shawcross’ role in the win over old foes Arsenal was typically confident and assured and his team were impressive to a man as they turned over Arsene Wenger’s whingers. The Arsenal manager was in full effect, waving his arms in utter disbelief at the concept of his players being physically challenged; his star striker dropping to the ground at every opportunity.
None of the Arsenal players looked like they wanted the responsibility of possession as their red and white counterparts bore down on them like 11 heat-seeking missiles. I forget who coined the phrase after the sides’ first meeting in the Premier League, but once again Stoke’s players were queuing up to be heroes whilst Arsenal’s were queuing up to be substituted.
While the team as a whole played exceptionally well, there were two who stood out for me: Marko Arnautovic and Glenn Whelan. Arnautovic has really benefited from an extended run in the side and has grabbed his chance to impress with both hands with some brilliant performances in Oussama Assaidi’s absence.
It wasn’t just the clinical control he showed, nor the inch-perfect balls into the area -- he also worked tirelessly tracking Bacary Sagna back down his side. There was one moment when he passed the ball straight to an Arsenal player only to stand chuntering to himself, but a few seconds later sprang to life to sprint back 30 yards to win back possession and launch another attack. He made more key passes than anyone else, had the most successful dribbles and was behind only Whelan and Erik Pieters for successful tackles.
It was Whelan, though, who shaded the Man of the Match for me, his discipline and concentration was unbelievable, providing impressive support to both his attacking and defensive colleagues. He filled in at centre-back and full-back to cover his teammates and even managed to get off a rasping drive that had Arsenal keeper Wojciech Szczesny scrambling to his left to turn around the post.
I think the presence of the returning Steven N’Zonzi helped, who was always available for a pass when the Irishman was under pressure. He too had a great game, bringing agility and composure to the middle; allowing Charlie Adam to meander around at will.
Unfortunately, the Scot had another average game and was again brought off not long after the hour mark as he begun to tire and make mistakes. He didn’t look particularly impressed by his early exit, but it was absolutely the right move at a time when Arsenal were stepping up a gear and a bit of energy was needed between midfield and attack, a position he rarely occupied all afternoon.
It’s always nice to beat Arsenal, though it’s not really too much of a surprise having only lost once to them at home on the last eight occasions. Wenger never disappoints, either; the certainty of his side’s capitulations at the Britannia is seemingly only matched by his bitterness after every one of them. While I’m sure he would prefer to deflect his own, and his side’s, failings on the pitch, with criticism of the referee, the tactics or his morning commute, the fact remains that, as always, Stoke just wanted it more.
The Potters now enter a crucial month of fixtures where their immediate future will most likely be decided. Two or three wins in that period would see Stoke all but safe for another season and through to the summer when it is expected that major business will be done.
If Mark Hughes can bring in some new players, it will only improve a side missing that bit of pace, flair, technique and composure in the final third. New arrivals will not guarantee success week after week though; they will also need the kind of determination, commitment and attitude befitting Stoke City. The kind of attitude Arsenal, for all their bravado, fail to exhibit with each and every visit to the Potteries.