1) A frustrating afternoon
In an age when people bang on about the ‘gentrification’ of football (which I think means more families at grounds and less stabbings, boooo!) it’s good to know we still have at least one genuine rivalry to look forward to. The visit of Arsenal to the Potteries still feels like an event – eight years on, the mutual dislike continues to radiate from the two clubs, from managers to players to fans.
So renowned is the feud that Sky paired it with their crown jewel, Liverpool vs Manchester Utd, as part of their Super Sunday double bill. They would presumably have been disappointed by the end of a match that, while decent, delivered few real talking points beyond the performances of two outstanding goalkeepers and some unpleasant chanting.
There have been more exhilarating encounters between Stoke and Arsenal; more entertaining games, nastier ones. Ultimately, by the time the final whistle sounded it felt like an opportunity missed for both sides.
For the visitors, one suspects the performance might prove more telling than the result. Though they had two great chances to score, they were hanging on at the end. Teams with serious title credentials either win at the Britannia or at the very least are disappointed to draw. Arsenal, insipid for much of the game, appeared grateful for the point they slunk off back to North London with, reduced to raving about a ‘physical game’ that never was, as if it was still 2008.
From a Stoke perspective, this was a contest we could have won, but it shouldn’t mask the fact that our play is still sloppy and disjointed too often for comfort and our final ball was just not there. It feels as if this Stoke side is on the cusp of being the best ever, but somehow just isn’t able to put it all together with any consistency.
The first half was essentially 45 minutes of phoney war. Stoke generally defended well and grew into the game; Arsenal, like Norwich in midweek, started off fast and menacing without creating a lot, with Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain showing that they are no Sanchez and Őzil, as England are only too painfully aware.
It was a case of one pass too many for both teams in the final third. Ibrahim Afellay had Stoke’s best chance of the half when he blasted a fierce 20 yarder not far wide following a corner. Arsenal then had the best chance either side fashioned in that opening period, Joel Campbell’s brilliant through-ball putting Oliver Giroud clean through, only for a brilliant, brave reaction save from Jack Butland to deny him.
The two sides appeared evenly matched, sharing the same strengths and weaknesses, and despite Wenger’s later protestations and the whistle-happy approach of Craig Pawson (mystifyingly lauded in the aftermath), neither side was overtly physical.
It seemed as if Arsenal had started the second half with a bang when Giroud’s powerful downward header from a corner thumped its way at force towards our net. But Butland wasagain equal to it, somehow getting down in time to scramble it to safety.
That was about as good as things got for the Gunners, as Stoke began to sense they could sneak it, despite quiet showings from some of our attacking players like Arnautovic and Walters. Now it was Petr Cech’s turn to offer a reminder of his class, his anticipation of danger being one of the main reasons why he’s a world-class goalkeeper. Arnie played in Joselu centrally, and after turning inside the last defender he powered a shot on goal from the edge of the box, only for Cech to dive full-length to push it away, positioning himself to keep out Bojan’s close-range, angled follow-up from the rebound. The Gunners were reduced to little more than one big offside trap, as if Tony Adams was somehow controlling their back line with his mind, like Professor X.
Our threat dimmed somewhat when Arnie took up full-time residence as a centre forward and Mame Diouf playing on the left, but we still looked the likelier of the two teams. In the dying embers an Adam corner caused confusion and Walters’ header was headed off the line by Ramsay with Cech beaten, before the ‘keeper recovered to stop Joselu’s volley from the rebound. It was the last real chance of the game.
Cech’s post-match appraisal was a fair one, and though he was discussing his own team it applied to both – either could have won or lost.
Both teams have played better, but both will be reasonably content with a result against a strong opponent. We’re happy enough, but also disappointed.
It was Arsenal’s first point at the Brit since August 2012, only their sixth from an available 24 on our patch. We have become used to beating Arsenal (at home at least), and so maybe it’s not a bad time to have a Ferris Bueller moment and reflect on the enormity of that, given where we were at the start of the century. Life moves pretty fast; if you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.
2) The Britannia curse has become a self-fulfilling prophecy for Arsenal
In the back of many fans’ minds, this one included, was the fear that this would be the day when Arsenal did us at the Brit. With the league title there for the taking this season, it’s surely now or never for The Gunners, and in spite of the occasional walloping they still receive, this looks like the most ruthless, clinical Arsenal team in years.
Had their two star creative turns, Sanchez and Őzil, been available, maybe they would indeed have brushed us aside, as they did convincingly at the Emirates in September. However, this new, ‘stone cold’ Arsenal was nowhere to be seen on Sunday, and for most of the afternoon their threat equated to the occasional mild Chinese burn. I was expecting a team of title contenders to arrive and pepper our goal with shots from all angles, but beyond the two Giroud chances that forced incredible saves from Butland they really, in the cold light of day, didn’t create much else at all. They didn’t cause us more problems than Norwich four days prior, and they weren’t any better than a Stoke side who themselves were playing in no higher than third gear most of the time. It was the home side who took the most shots, and had twice as many shots on target.
It appears that Arsenal, even the new, improved Arsenal, have something of a mental block when it comes to ST4. They routinely pulverise us at their place but at Stoke they are cowed from the first whistle – we’ve scored in the opening 10 minutes of five of our nine encounters in the last eight seasons.
We might not have scored this time, but Arsenal again were unable to find any kind of rhythm or pose a regular threat – they were a shadow of themselves. Maybe it’s the crowd noise, maybe Wenger puts the fear of God into them before kick-off, but they arrive expecting the worst.
Their manager is surely a big factor. It’s an occasion that brings out the worst in him and he can’t seem to go one season without somehow embarrassing himself here. He was at it again today, imagining a “physical, direct game” that, ironically, he had seen but nobody else had. It was such obvious bilge that even Match of the Day picked up on it.
The only difference between this and previous Arsenal visits was that they’ve got themselves a goalkeeper. But title-winning sides, even without their best players, step into the orcs’ lair and slay them, rather than sneaking away relieved that they didn’t wake them up.
3) Whisper it, but there’s a little bit of Arsenal in this Stoke team
Boo and indeed hiss, but like the best rivalries, Stoke and Arsenal have more in common than either would care to admit.
To an extent, that’s always been true. Pulis and Wenger are polar opposites, but both are stubborn individuals incapable of change, who only know one way to play. It proved Pulis’ downfall at Stoke. It may yet prove Wenger’s at Arsenal.
The similarities between the sides have evolved since the dawn of the Hughes era however and were crystallised on Sunday. We shared traits that have been symptomatic of Arsenal’s weaknesses for Wenger’s 20 years in charge. Both teams have a habit of overplaying, trying to walk it in or score ‘the perfect goal’ rather than pulling the trigger when the opportunity presents itself. Stoke have been doing this since the managerial change, passing the ball around the final third until the chance goes begging altogether.
Most of our best chances against Arsenal came from shooting early – Afellay and Whelan’s long-range efforts, Joselu’s late volley being obvious examples – and even Joselu’s strong shot that Cech pushed away might have been better taken first time when Arnie played him in, rather than waiting to free himself from the close attentions of the defender.
Stoke’s overplaying is not restricted to our attacking moves either, with a seat-moisteningly worrying insistence on dithering with the ball at the back another feature – there is a time and a place to play football in defence, and the jury is still very much out about whether we know when that is.
In the end the teams cancelled each other out because they were good and bad at the same things. Both ‘keepers had stormers. Both teams atypically gave the ball away needlessly, overplayed and were generally a rung or two below their best. We were almost a ‘little Arsenal’ at times, which only served to make Wenger’s post-match comments all the more laughable.
It’s a comparison that will no doubt make some queasy, but if we’re honest there are plenty of Arsenal’s on-field traits that are worth embracing – they can be a joy to watch, a fluid, fast, footballing flurry.
4) Why has Arnautovic stopped playing on the wing?
Once again, Arnie spent a lot of time away from the wing and occupying a central position. This. Is. Not. Working.
It started in the first half, during which he frequently drifted into the centre and left his wing unattended. This apparent whim was then adopted as official policy after the break, when Diouf was thrown on to play on the left, effectively meaning that two of our best attacking players had swapped places to far less effective secondary positions.
I just don’t get this. Arnie’s best role is out wide. It always has been. Yes he’s played centrally before in Holland and Germany, but his best form throughout his career has come on the left side of a front three, and his best form at Stoke has come as a left-sided forward. His box of tricks, his late dashes from wide into scoring positions, his delivery are all boosted by playing in that position, and you lose them when you move him infield. In the centre he gets lost in the shuffle, with less space and less influence, with more bodies to mark him.
So whose idea is it? At first it looked as if the player was doing it off his own bat. It almost appeared as if he was hiding at times, perhaps due to fatigue or an injury he’s carrying. But Hughes has clearly approved it in some fashion, so where’s the logic?
The practice first started creeping in at West Brom, where Walters and, oddly, Joselu took turns on the left while Arnie wandered around centrally. It happened sporadically against Liverpool and then against Norwich, where the Austrian star casually trotted over from the middle to where he was supposed to be before whipping in a perfect cross for the opening goal.
Just because he’s our top scorer doesn’t mean he can play as a striker – the runs into those positions he makes come because he is better equipped to find space from wide positions. With Shaqiri injured and Bojan out of form the creative burden rests largely on the number 10’s shoulders. We need to find ways to get the best out of him – playing him centrally is having the opposite effect.
5) The bond between captain and crowd is strong
It was predictable that the aftermath should focus on the chants of “Aaron Ramsey, he walks with a limp” that emanated from sections of the home crowd during the match. The hand-wringing came from the usual sources and has been whipped up into full-blown ‘think of the children’ hysteria, largely, you can’t help but feel, because it was the nasty Stoke fans again. Given that the player involved has made a full recovery, it hardly ranks up there with Munich chants and hissing noises at Spurs games as some have suggested. In many ways the most offensive element was that it was sung to the tune of Sloop John B, the dirge that will not die at football stadiums, though at least the adaptation of ‘Vindaloo’ as a Joselu homage suggest Block 19 have worked their way into 1996.
There’s no denying though that the chants were classless and unnecessary and provided our numerous detractors with an open goal, broadcast to the world. This is not the image any right-thinking fan should want for Stoke City.
I appreciate that this isn’t a popular sentiment, but we have a section of fans who seem hell-bent on making us all look like a bunch of simpletons. The droning “you’re f***ing s**t” song has a certain crass charm when we’re playing Man United off the park; not so much when you’re drawing with Doncaster or being played off your own pitch by Liverpool. Equally, that song to the tune of The Pirahnas’ ‘Tom Hark’ about the Vale and the IRA has mysteriously found a new lease of life, despite referencing two organisations that could not be less relevant in 2016. ‘Small time’ doesn’t cover it. Maybe one of the songbirds woud care to give us a detailed treatise on the troubles in Northern Ireland? And don’t even get me started on singing the Marc Muniesa song ad nauseum when he’s not even on the bench. If you like La Bamba that much lads, request it in Reflex…
While occasions such as this can bring out the worst in fans however, they can also bring out the best. The loyalty and pride the home crowd displayed for its captain was genuinely moving. Everyone was right behind him from the get-go. His name was cheered to the rafters when it was announced, and it rang out from the stands as the game kicked off. His every contribution met with a roar of approval, and he walked away with man of the match honours.
It was richly deserved. Ryan repaid the faithful with a performance that underlined how little this fixture fazes him. No player won more tackles or more aerial duels, and only one player made more interceptions. The club’s longest-serving player, he is our on-field presence, the beating heart of Stoke City. A skipper who is actually worthy of the title ‘captain, leader, legend’.
He’s been put through the wringer over the years and it’s felt like we’ve been with him every step of the way. Through the ire of Ramsaygate, through being hung out to dry on his England debut, through the worrying back injury, he has come back stronger every time, and that has galvanised the support. He isn’t just the players’ leader. He’s ours.
Stoke fans get a bad rep and often don’t help themselves, but we’re fiercely protective of our own, and Ryan is one of the family.
When it comes to Ryan Shawcross, ours is a love that doesn’t so much dare speak its name as bellow it.