17th January 2016: Stalemate at Stoke sends us top

Evening all. Arsenal returned to the top of the Premier League table after playing out a goal-less draw at Stoke City earlier today and considering the players we were missing through injury, for me at least, it feels like a very valuable point earned indeed.

Although Arsene Wenger had suggested Alexis Sanchez may play some part at the Britannia stadium, when the teams were announced the Chilean was missing from the squad altogether. As was Mesut Ozil, who we later learned had been ruled out with minor foot inflammation. Thankfully, Arsene expects both players to be available again when we entertain Chelsea a week today, which is just as well based on today’s attacking performance.

With Santi Cazorla missing from our engine room, we were again far from fluent from the middle of the park, and Ozil’s absence unsurprisingly resulted in us lacking creativity as well as rhythm in our play. Alex Oxlade Chamberlain was the man chosen to replace the German in midfield, for what was our only change to the team that started Wednesday’s game at Liverpool.

After conceding a goal in the first minute on our last visit to Stoke, we seemed determined not to let the hosts enjoy another fast start and began the game today bossing possession in the opening exchanges, without creating any goal-scoring opportunities. In fact, the vast majority of the first half was played out in the middle portion of the pitch as both sides failed to establish superiority in the contest.

That said, we did create the clearest opening of the half, and arguably the game, when Joel Campbell sent Olivier Giroud clear on goal down the right with only Jack Butland to beat, but the goalkeeper raced off his line to close down the target and smother Giroud’s shot. Other than that, I can only really recall Oxlade-Chamberlain’s fierce strike from the edge of the box, which was tipped over by Butland, as an instance we came close to scoring in the opening 45.

In the second period, Giroud nearly scored with a header from a corner but saw his effort saved by Butland and Campbell should have done better a little later when he had a sight of goal inside the Stoke penalty area on his favored left foot, but put too much on his curler, sending it high and wide of the far top corner.

At the other end, Laurent Koscielny’s poor pass out from defence resulted in Petr Cech been forced into a very impressive double-save. First the keeper denied Joselu, Stoke’s German-born, Spanish striker, before diving to prevent Bojan knocking in the rebound at the near post. It was a typically outstanding piece of keeping that helped Cech claim the man-of-the-match award and again underline how important he is to our side. Then towards the end, as Stoke pressed for a winner, Aaron Ramsey cleared a header off the line before Cech repelled the rebound as Stoke threatened to snatch all three points.

In terms of talking points about individual performances, I thought on the whole we looked solid defensively, with both fullbacks especially impressive. But the distribution of our central defenders – particularly Koscielny – was below their usual standard. In midfield, Mathieu Flamini enjoyed a good game and the Ox tried hard but was still some way away from his best. Ramsey was less adventurous than usual going forwards – I can’t really remember him breaking into the Stoke box at all – and when that happens, he struggles because he’s not really a passer.

In fact, that was one of the most frustrating aspects of our performance for me today – Ramsey’s dreadful passing, and as far as I’m concerned, it really was that bad. I like him a lot as a player and he has many good attributes, but his passing, particularly the seemingly straight-forward, five-yard ones under no pressure, needs serious attention on the training ground.

I would suggest his history at the Britannia and the abhorrent abuse he’s subjected to whenever he plays there should act as mitigation, because that combination would put any player in the world a little off their usual game, but it’s a recurring issue with Aaron unfortunately – he’s just not a very good passer.

Elsewhere Campbell was his usual industrious, silky-smooth self, passing well and tracking back diligently. That said, he should have done better with his chance and like Ramsey and passing, shooting is probably Campbell’s glaring weak point. But overall, he was again one of our better performers.

On the other side though, Theo Walcott really struggled, going missing for long periods, looking clumsy in possession and being far, far, far too easily dispossessed. I’ve been his biggest fan over his Arsenal career and still maintain his problem is more mental – i.e he has the on-pitch personality of a little boy lost – than ability, but in this form he deserves no more than a place on the bench against Chelsea.

I think Walcott’s variety and quality of finishing, at it’s best, is superb, and his pace is virtually peerless, so perhaps what we’re finding out once and for all this season, is that he’s a very good striker, but a very average winger. It was no surprise then, to see him replaced after 70 minutes or so by Alex Iwobi, who instantly brought a bit more composure to our left flank. Calum Chambers for the Ox in added time was our only other substitution so we’ll have to wait to see Mohamed Elneny make his debut, at least until next weekend.

Gripes aside though, as I said at the start, I’m pleased with the point today and I think Cech summed it up best when he spoke to Sky after the game:

We could have won, we could have lost. We can take the point.

Now to rest, recuperate, train and prepare for the visit of relegation-haunted (God I love being able to say that) Chelsea next weekend.

See you next week.

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