On a frantic afternoon at the Britannia when there was so much to criticise about Arsenal, one stark fact stood above all others. It was not that they conceded after 18 seconds, or were 3-0 down by half-time because of the most basic errors. It was that, when Mark Hughes took one look at their team-sheet, he knew his Stoke City side had a big opportunity. That’s what Arsenal looked like: a roll-over. It was exactly what they were.
“Yes,” Hughes bluntly answered when asked if he fancied his chances after seeing Arsenal’s back five. “We expected (Laurent) Koscielny to play to be perfectly honest, so that was no surprise for us.
“When you’ve had changes in the back four, as we’ve had to deal with in recent weeks too, it can upset you and the balance of your team. It takes a while for guys to get used to play with each other.”
The bigger issue for Arsenal is that they never seem to get used to such problems at any point. Or, at the least, Arsene Wenger shows no inclination to properly get his hands dirty and fix them.
That’s what Hughes’ comments really summed up — how dismally predictable all this was. Wenger’s failure in the transfer market compounded the flaws in his team structure, meaning there was insufficient back-up for this game. That almost turned what is always a difficult game into a defeat before they even started. In any case, it didn’t take long for the result to be set. Crouch took advantage of the huge gap between stand-in Hector Bellerin and the hapless Per Mertesacker to open the scoring so swiftly, before the resurgent Bojan Krkic claimed a second and Jon Walters powered in the third on half-time.
Arsenal came to the brink of a second-half comeback through Santiago Cazorla’s penalty and Aaron Ramsey’s volley, but it is indicative of their flaws that the only surprise out of so much chaos was Wenger’s mood.
The manager was asked whether he was angry at half-time, with his team 3-0 down. He certainly didn’t look angry at full-time. He was oddly neutral, as if content to just be getting out of Stoke, and satisfied that the defeat wasn’t as bad as it could have been.
“Of course you’re angry when you’re 3-0 down at Stoke, but anger doesn’t help, you know,” Wenger rationalised. “You have to see what you can do to come back and honestly I feel the spirit of the team is great and they want to do well, but Stoke was just off the block sharper and we have to learn from that.”
When will they learn, though? These problems have been going on for so long, and have arguably just got worse. Once, they were at least only surrendering matches in the first half against the likes of Liverpool and Chelsea. Now, it’s happening against Stoke.
They weren’t the only curious comments from Wenger. There was also the lament that, after the mini-comeback, “it’s unbelievable (we) didn’t get anything out of this game just because we didn’t start well”.
The only thing that’s unbelievable is that someone could say this, especially given his team’s recent history with bad starts. Wenger also pointed to Callum Chambers’s “killer” red card at such a crucial point in the game and attempted to frame the defeat as Stoke getting up for this fixture in a way they don’t with others, saying they are “especially motivated” against Arsenal.
Hughes’s side were undeniably excellent, not least Bojan, who Geoff Cameron described as “like a little (Leo) Messi”. Peter Crouch also enthused how their game plan “worked to perfection”, but that was the case in their 1-0 win over Manchester City too.
In short, as excellent as an evolved Stoke were, that doesn’t sufficiently explain this result. It is about Arsenal and their long-standing problems — not least in this very stadium.
Saturday was Wenger’s fourth defeat in seven Premier League games at the Britannia, and it’s now almost five years since his solitary victory there.
This particular defeat threatened to become a new low. Instead, it only underlined old failings.
That may actually be worse.
STOKE CITY (4-2-3-1): Begovic 7; Bardsley 7, Shawcross 7, Muniesa 7 (Whelan 63; 7), Pieters 6; Nzonzi 7, Cameron 7; Walters 8, Bojan 9 (Huth 87), Diouf 8 (Adam 69;) ; Crouch 7 ARSENAL (4-2-3-1): Martinez 5; Bellerin 5 (Welbeck 45; 7), Chambers 5, Mertesacker 4, Gibbs 5 (Campbell 90); Flamini 5, Ramsey 5; Oxlade-Chamberlain 7, Cazorla 6, Alexis 6; Giroud 4 (Podolski 63; 5)