07 December 2014

It should've been 6-0. Still, there's a silver lining...

Wow. That was terrible...and the scoreline flatters us. But for a goal-line clearance, a goal-disallowed to an offside call, and a generous penalty against Stoke, this debacle would have gone down as one for the ages, along the lines of the 8-2 loss to Man U or 6-0 to Chelsea, the key difference being that Stoke don't have the resources or the World Cup-quality players to hang such a scoreline on us. We knew that going into the Britannia Stadium would be difficult; I don't think any of us predicted Stoke scoring not one but three goals (and very nearly four) in the first half. Don't delude yourself, though: the fightback we showed, such as it was, amounts to a bit less than the final scoreline showed.

The record will show that we conceded three goals, but the record should also reflect how shoddy our defending was. Mertesacker, never spry even at the best of times, was looking slower than he ever has, and even his height or positional awareness matter little if he can't get from point A to point B. Chambers showed every bit of his inexperience, getting caught out of position or called for silly fouls—so many, in fact, that he was sent off in the 77th minute and will also have to serve a one-match ban for having earned six yellow cards already. With four more matches to play before the 31 December cut-off, missing the Newcastle trip might just be a Good Thing™ for the youth. Ahead of the two of them was Mathieu Flamini, who reprised his usual role of running around like a chicken with its head cut off without, surprisingly, seeing yellow. Without Koscielny, whom Arsène apparently adjudged we could go without (he was an unused sub), our defense looked, well, like it was likely to concede goal after goal.

As a result, we were caught out so often that it's a wonder that we kept the scoreline down. There was that goal-line scrum from which Stoke somehow failed to score, and Bojan had a goal called back—eventually—because two teammates were offside and screening Martínez. Moments later, Flamini went down in a very dodgy way and Cazorla slotted home the penalty. Barely. Instead of 4-0, it was 3-1. Manna from heaven, it was. Minutes later, it was Ramsey who finally found his own scoring-boots, volleying in from an Alexis corner. It was a goal that might mean more going forward than it did today, as it at least showed that Ramsey has rediscovered a bit of the technique that had abandoned him to this point in the season. That was it, though. Shortly after, Chambers was sent off, and it would be almost 15 minutes before Joel Campbell came on to chase a stoppage-time equaliser.

Yeah, we'll have a few calls to complain about, none worse than Adams's mugging of Alexis; he had the Chilean in a stranglehold and probably should have been sent off. However, we made our own bed and shouldn't scream at Taylor for tucking us in a bit too tightly. Against Stoke, we really shouldn't have needed the help we did (or didn't) get. Yes, Stoke can be tough to break down. There's little shame in struggling to score against them. However, for us to ship three goals in 45 minutes is shocking. It lays bare our greatest weakness. We can't defend, not with the current players we have. Gibbs and Kos are world-class or close to it. Debuchy is up there as well. After that, there's Monreal and then what feels like a large drop-off to Mertesacker, Chambers, and Bellerin. That's something that we'll have to hope Arsène addresses in January. Given his allergies to paying above his own valuation of players and what looks to be more and more like a seller's market, we may have to wait until June or July before the situation improves.

As it stands, bleeding goals on the pitch is bad enough that it's led to bloodshed—perhaps literally— off the pitch. Outside Britannia, there were fistfights...among Gooners. Potters, presumably, looked on with delight. For as bad as this result felt—and, let's be clear, it felt awful. Then again, we showed some admirable fightback, even after going down to ten men. For as flimsy as the Flamini foul was, Ramsey's finish reminded both us and him that he can produce when needed. Alexis was his usual scintillating self, hitting the post after a dizzying dash up the pitch, after which he chased the rebound for 30 yards while his mates watched on. Begovic came up with a number of crucial saves. Looking beyond this result, yes, Man City won, but Chelsea and Everton lost, while Tottenham and Liverpool drew. The weekend is not a complete loss, for as much as it may feel like it. The worst that we'll finish the weekend is 7th, a spot lower than we went in, and that's if Swansea manage to defeat West Ham at Upton Park on Sunday. Southampton hosts Man U on Monday. We may yet emerge from the weekend little worse than we were. Anyone who pegged a trip to Britannia Stadium as an easy win is blinkered. Let's not let the loss blind us to the possibilities...or the problems. Keep both in perspective.

We have a run of interesting fixtures coming up, and it might be worth writing off the midweek trip to Galatasaray in order to recuperate. Winning Group D is possible but might be Pyrrhic if it wears us down ahead of next weekend's visit from Newcastle, who, it must be noted, did just beat Chelsea to claim their seventh win from nine matches in all competitions. They've now beaten Chelsea, Man City (in the league cup), Liverpool, and Tottenham. We'll have to look sharp if we're to recover from our own setback. I hope I'm not alone in hoping we can.