18 January 2016

Arsenal seize a point from the graveyard of empires...

Zero. Manchester United. Manchester City. Chelsea (sorry, forgot my thesis). One: Leicester. Arsenal. Among the serious contenders for the Prem title, only Arsenal have faced a full-strength Stoke at the Brit and come away with a point. The Mancs combined to lose by a collective 4-0. Chelsea, for what they're worth, also got blanked 1-0. Only Leicester, facing a Shawcross-less Stoke, had emerged relatively unscathed, earning a point after falling behind 2-0. Arsenall, playing without Alexis or Özil showed very little fluidity going forward but still bested our chief rivals by grabbing that point. It might not be inspiring stuff to celebrate a point, but it's enough to keep us top of the table for at least another week.

Man of the Match honours might have to go to referee Craig Pawson, though, who thrice ignored legimitate penalty-shouts as Giroud was dragged down twice in the box and Walcott was clattered just outside it. For what it's worth (relatively little, I acknowledge...), Stoke were lucky to finish the match at full-strength. Arnautovic scythed Campbell from behind without Pawson seeing fit to book or send Arnautovic off as he likely deserved. Moments later, Giroud would be whistled for a foul while fighting for a header but couldn't earn a the same call despite being fouled in a much-worse fashion in the area. Say one thing for Pawson's performance; he kept his whistle in his back-pocket for long stretches. In a match in which Stoke played much more physically than Arsenal did, you can guess who gained the advantage.

Stoke do deserve some unqualified credit, both for generating chances and for denying ours. They carved out a number of shots, forcing Petr Čech to prove that he was worth the money spent to secure him on numerous occasions—none more vital than in the waning seconds of the match—and the efforts of Jack Butland can't go unnoticed. Whether he was tipping over the Ox's swerving strike from distance or snuffing out Giroud's close-range shot, the lad did everything asked and more to help Potters forget Begovic. He answered every single question put to him (not that there were many) by our attack.

To return to the original point, we went in without a fair few of our most-vital players—Alexis, Coquelin, and Özil, to name just three—and still came inches away from seizing all three points. In that first half, the Ox (playing centrally in a 4-3-3) tested Butland twice from 20 yards out, and Campbell threaded a perfectly weighted ball in for Giroud only for Butland to deny him. The inclusion of either Alexis or Özil might have tilted the advantage to us, but at what cost? Both players excel with the ball at their feet, of course, but that would have only exposed them to all sorts of mayhem and manglings. To have secured a point where so many others have dropped all three does count—even on a weekend when most everyone else secured three points. Leicester performed a minor miracle by drawing at Villa Park.

No, this was not Arsenal at its finest, but it was Arsenal at its "good enough". It might suffer by contrast with Man City's 4-0 blitzing of Crystal Palace or Man U's 0-1 escape from Anfield, but the Prem is not won or lost on weekly results but on the season-long haul. Pit our result at the Brittania against Man City's or Man U's—a more-direct appples-to-apples comparison—and we come out smelling like a rose (apologies for mixing the metaphors). Champions have been built on less than that.