Arsenal 1 Stoke 0
As Jon Walters received stitches and new arrival Nacho Monreal stood ready for more, it made for an interesting reversal of perceptions: Stoke City suffering from the physical side of a game against Arsenal.
It wasn’t the only time on a Saturday afternoon that saw a lot more tackles than technique.
What’s more, it perhaps offered proof that Arsene Wenger had finally signed a player who could immediately improve his squad. He certainly thought so — and asked for a bit of praise.
“We are quite lucky to have found Nacho because [Kieran] Gibbs got injured for four to six weeks and we found in 48 hours a player of that calibre... I found at least one. You have to give me credit for that. I know that I don’t get a lot but that is true.”
What is more open to question, though, is whether Wenger will regret not signing any extra options in attack. Although they eventually found a way to beat Stoke, it was only through a deflected Lukas Podolski free-kick rather than any dynamic interchanges. And, as much as Olivier Giroud regularly bothered the likes of Robert Huth with some impressive lay-offs, he still didn’t have enough conviction to properly hurt them. That may well come with time, but it could have been accelerated with a bit of extra help.
Wenger, though, returned to an old argument.
“I said yesterday, give me Manchester United, who did they buy? Chelsea, who did they buy? Liverpool, bought. Man City didn’t buy. Because just for one single reason. The top, top, top clubs, it’s difficult to strengthen your team in the middle of the season.
“I would have loved to take somebody else but... we were everywhere. In the African Cup of Nations, the best player is Gervinho. It’s simple. Why should we go there when the best player is Gervinho? We already have Gervinho.”
At the least, Arsenal also now have something else: more backbone. Wenger felt the Stoke result illustrated his team can no longer be bullied — either physically or, more importantly, mentally.
“We are a bit more mature, but we dealt well with it,” the Arsenal manager maintained. “In England you have to cope with all kinds of football without losing the quality you want to play, and that is not always easy because, if you have 10 [Santi] Cazorlas, you would have a very good technical team, but against Stoke you would struggle.
“I think it is more mental preparation.”
Wenger believes that kind of fortitude is going to be essential in a very open Champions League chase that may now include up to five teams.
“Four certainly, yes. Maybe Liverpool can still have hope. For us, I always said that it’s the first year you cannot predict the results of anybody and that’s why it’s down to consistency.”
And, possibly, conviction. Another stand-out image of the game was Jack Wilshere squaring up to Michael Owen after the forward appeared to lash out at Mikel Arteta for a very Stoke-like challenge. The FA will decide today whether the incident needs to be reviewed.
“If you look at the challenge, I think it is a poor challenge,” Tony Pulis said. “He has reacted because of that. He shouldn’t do that. He’s old enough but he’s desperate to play.”
Arsenal, though, showed they can finally do more than play themselves.
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