Delap throws spanner in the works
Not since the battle of Agincourt, perhaps, has a Frenchman been wounded so badly by arrows launched from afar. As Arsene Wenger may have exited the title race, the architect of Arsenal's demise was Rory Delap. That is scarcely something that would have been anticipated a few months ago, but the long-throw expert claimed his biggest scalp to date.
On the afternoon when four may have become three in the quest to win the title, the numbers do not stack up for Arsenal. They have mislaid five points and conceded six goals from their last two games. They have three defeats this season, all to teams predicted to be among the relegation strugglers, and they lost three players to injuries - Emmanuel Adebayor, Bakary Sagna and Theo Walcott - and a fourth, Robin van Persie, to a red card. Yet the loss of personnel may not be as damaging as the loss of points.
But Arsenal's flaws are so apparent, and they have been exploited so often. They offer less talented teams a chance to beat them and render beautiful passing a sideshow. Few struggle with set-pieces more than Arsenal, and two of Delap's throws condemned them to defeat. None of the Premier League's superpowers can be unsettled as easily by awkward, abrasive teams and Stoke City, described as the 21st-century Wimbledon, have the requisite blend of strength, energy and an uncompromising attitude. "People who love the traditional English game must be very happy," said Wenger, but Arsenal failed their physical.
So there was an inevitability about Stoke's victory. Arsenal altered their team to combat their supposed inferiors, rather than vice-versa. Shorter or quicker players, men who offered flair and finesse were sacrificed, as van Persie, Walcott and Samir Nasri were named on the bench.
Yet it seemed Arsenal were beaten before they even arrived. The spectre of Delap looms large to visitors. As Tony Pulis said: "People are worried to death before he even throws them." Arsenal appeared petrified. They had, according to Wenger, a plan to stop Delap. Whatever it was, it didn't work. Pulis had sympathy. "They're so flat," he said. "They're not lofted in the air. It's very difficult for defenders and it has caused all sorts of trouble."
After 10 minutes, Ricardo Fuller glanced in a goal after Delap propelled the ball to the back post, though Wenger said: "I'm not sure the first throw was touched by anybody." But Kolo Toure's challenge to Fuller was ineffectual and Manuel Almunia got nowhere near the resulting header. "It is not our greatest strength, dealing with that," Wenger admitted.
It is not. The Stoke crowd, named the loudest in the Premier League in a recent study, were more excited by throws than corners, and it was little wonder. Delap's delivery produced a second goal when Seyi Olofinjana bundled a throw over the line after Ryan Shawcross had flicked it on. Once Stoke's definition of a winger was Stanley Matthews. Now it is Olofinjana, a hulking central midfielder, yet the ends justified the means.
For such a simple game as football, interpretations can vary wildly. Wenger's concept of it is not shared by Pulis. There is nothing sleek and stylish about Stoke, nothing smooth and sophisticated. Yet Delap has now created more goals than any of Wenger's gifted technicians, and he said: "We conceded two goals on throws and that is basically the game. Stoke deserved their win."
"It was a fantastic result for the football club, the football team and the city," added Pulis, displaying the civic pride newcomers to the Premier League often display. Arsenal, meanwhile, showed little though van Persie, by brandishing his studs at Thomas Sorensen, was dismissed 11 minutes after his introduction. Until Gael Clichy's injury-time consolation, the first goal of his Arsenal career, Sorensen's goal was only seriously threatened once, when Toure volleyed over the bar.
It was an inadequate response to the challenges Stoke posed. "Jaded," was Wenger's description, but lacking the appetite for the battle or the defensive resolve to repel the aerial assault, they showed how future opponents to overcome them.
For Stoke, meanwhile, there was an element of déjà vu. Like the last visitors from North London, Arsenal finished with nine men, with Walcott injured after all their substitutions had been made. Like Tottenham, they were beaten 2-1. And as then, the defeated manager was told: "You're getting sacked in the morning." Having ushered Juande Ramos towards the exit, Stoke won't succeed with Wenger.
They will just have to settle for defeating scared opponents at the Britannia Stadium, courtesy of the most feared throw in football.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Rory Delap - It is a strange situation when Delap is technically the most creative player in the Premier League, but the long throws have produced the majority of Stoke's goals. As part of an industrious quartet in midfield, he certainly played his part in open play as well.
STOKE VERDICT: They have 13 points now, 12 of them earned at home, and there is no doubt the Britannia Stadium is among the most inhospitable venues in the Premier League. Bringing in Amdy Faye for Tom Soares made them still bigger and still more awkward.
ARSENAL VERDICT: Their defeat was deserved. Frailties were exposed again but, even ignoring the defending, too few chances were created and the majority of the team underperformed. Perhaps only Walcott, Cesc Fabregas and Gael Clichy can be spared criticism.