One thing that struck me while watching Arsenal feebly surrender to a mediocre Stoke team was how timid we were throughout. It was obvious that Arsenal were the better team on the ball but did very little to show any superiority at any point during the match. Some nice build up play frequently led to nothing in the final third. For years Arsenal have been praised for their passing game and you often hear supporters saying how they would rather watch a team that passes the ball than one which resorts to the perceived 'outdated' tactics Stoke deploy. Well, on the day, Arsenal's so-called 'better football' was just as tedious, frustrating and quite frankly boring as anything Stoke did. At some point, Arsenal need to escape the mindset that simply being able to keep the ball and play pretty triangles 40 yards from goal is enough to win football matches.
During the must discussed trophy drought of the last 8 years, the subject of Arsenal lacking the mentality or fortitude to stick it out in title races or compete in the cups often crops up. The burden of expectation and history seems to be too much for a group of highly paid professionals to cope with. It's not even just 'big' games. It would appear that when pundits and observers talk about somewhere like Stoke being a 'tough place to go to', the players actually get caught up in it too. As a result, we get a poor performance against a poor side that, at this stage of the season, we ought to be beating comfortably. The home side presented nothing that should given Arsenal any real problems yet the we retreated into our shell, played with a sense of fear and came away from Staffordshire with nothing. Why? Simply because we were told it would be a tough game and swallowed all the rhetoric. Until Arsenal learn to overcome this mental block, the barren years will continue.
One of the players in the current squad one might argue isn't likely to be overawed by a so-called 'tough' game is Mattheu Flamini. Since his return, the tenacious Frenchman has been lauded for adding that much sought after 'steel' and toughness to Arsenal's midfield and in the eyes of most, would have been tailor-made for the battle at the Britannia. Inexplicably however, Flamini was left out. It's easy in hindsight to look at the team selection and criticise the manager's decisions after the event but leaving out the Midfielder, as well as Oxlade-Chamberlain and Ozil, was odd before the game and in light of the result, looked borderline absurd. Ok, the team he picked may have been mostly the same as that which comprehensively dispatched of Sunderland a week prior, but if that really played on the manager's thoughts then it shows a worrying level of tactical naivety. Team selection should be as much about your opponent as it is about form. What works in a 4-1 home win over a Sunderland team with one eye on a cup final isn't necessarily going to work for an away game against a Stoke team desperate to claw their way away from the relegation zone. The manager must adapt the team accordingly. He failed to do so on this occasion and it proved costly.
Gir's of War
While he wasn't exactly helped by his teammates' failure to create anything of note for him, Olivier Giroud was at his frustrating worst at Stoke. Less to do with his performance but more due to his inability to stand up for himself. While you cannot ignore the 'treatment' he received at the hands (and feet) of the animals masquerading as footballers in Stoke colours, there comes a point where you have to, if you pardon the expression, stamp your authority on the game. I'm not saying resport to the kind of thing they were guilty of, but don't allow yourself to be pushed around and at try and show that you won't be messed with. When you go down and make a meal of the first challenge, it's like a red rag to a bull. You've signalled you're not capable of withstanding any sort of physical play and you make like very easy for pricks like Adam, Whelan and Peiters to – almost literally – get under your skin. At 6 foot 3 with the physique like an MMA fighter (we've all seen the pictures), a player like Giroud should be ready to give it back once in a while rather than constantly writhing around on the floor and throwing a hissy fit after every challenge.
While not one to get caught up in the Yaya Sanogo hype (especially after his embarrassing miss at the end), I think it is safe to say, given what we've seen of him already, he at least wouldn't have allowed himself to be 'bullied' like Giroud did. Our current number one striker needs to toughen up, fast.
Paying the Kost
The game was lost thanks to a second half penalty which Jon Walters easily slotted home. The penalty was awarded after Laurent Koscielny handled a bouncing ball while under pressure. Some have desperately tried to suggest the award was harsh but what he was doing with his arm that high up is anyone's guess. About a clear a penalty as you are likely to see for me. As is always the case with Kos, his frequent brilliant performances are always punctuated every so now and again by truly horrific and often important clanger. The Frenchman has conceded three penalties this season alone which is a worrying amount for a defender in any team let alone one with aspirations of challenging for top honours. There's no denying his talent but you cannot legislate for these continued lapses.
This impact of this defeat cannot be understated. All of a sudden, Arsenal are down in third place, four points off top and and two points ahead of Manchester City in fourth having played 2 games more. With just two wins in our last six league outings, our form is worryingly precarious. While it isn't necessarily 'over', it would be foolish to get caught up in title talk when realistically we need to start looking over our shoulders. In the unlikely event Tottenham beat Chelsea next weekend, we could be heading up the Seven Sisters Road for our next league match with a mere three points lead over our neighbours. The difficulty of our forthcoming fixtures has been well documented and at the moment, the team don't look anything like capable of picking up the points needed. In the blink of an eye, a fanciful title challenge immediately becomes a battle for fourth. It's a real sink or swim moment and I for one hope we haven't drowned by this time next month.