Follow the Ball – Game 4: Stoke City vs Arsenal

I am pleased to discover that this malarkey of two games each week is finally starting to calm down. I was worried for a second that I’d bitten off more than I can chew.

Game 1: Arsenal 1-0 Newcastle United
Barclays Premier League, Saturday 2nd January 2016, Emirates Stadium

Game 2: Arsenal (c) 3-1 Sunderland
The Emirates FA Cup, Saturday 9th January 2016, Emirates Stadium

Game 3: Liverpool 3-3 Arsenal (c)
Barclays Premier League, Wednesday 13th January 2016, Anfield

So far so good for Arsenal in 2016 – three games, two wins and one draw. Can they keep the unbeaten run going away at Stoke on a chilly Sunday afternoon in front of the Sky Sports cameras?

Game 4: Stoke City vs Arsenal
Barclays Premier League, Sunday 17th January 2016, Britannia Stadium

The Skinny: Quite a lot of the needle in this game has been removed since Tony Pulis left Stoke City a couple of years ago. They no longer play attritional, means-to-an-end football and actually possess one of the most fluid attacking units in the Premier League.

The struggles experienced by Bojan, Xherdan Shaqiri, Ibrahim Afellay, Marko Arnautovic and Mame Biram Diouf at some of Europe’s biggest clubs (and less big clubs – hello, Blackburn Rovers) over the last two or three years seems to have been enough for many to write all five players off. Instead they seem to completely forgot that huge chunks of their footballing education came at Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Inter Milan, Ajax and Manchester United to name but a few.

They are good capable players with a decent foundation behind them, and Mark Hughes has been able to slot the pieces together nicely while retaining a few blood and thunder options *cough*Jonathan Walter*cough* should he need a back-up plan. I am doing Walters something of a disservice there but I’m typing this on a bus and wasn’t completely sure if Ricardo Fuller is still kicking around the Britannia Stadium.

As for Arsenal; this is one of those games that they need to win if we are to believe they can win the league (and more importantly retain the Follow the Ball crown all the way through 2016). Manchester City, Manchester United, Leicester City and Chelsea have all dropped points so far this season away at Stoke City. If Arsene Wenger and his players can leave on Sunday afternoon with all three points (no matter the performance) it won’t go unnoticed by their title rivals.

The Match: It looked like a game played between two teams on the end of a long intense run of matches. Five Premier League matchdays in December, three more in the first couple of weeks of the New Year, the FA Cup third round as well as the League Cup and Champions League for either team.

Arsenal weren’t quite at the races – what with Mesut Ozil proving that he does not want to do it on a snowy January Sunday in Stoke – and missed the creative genius of the World Cup winner.

Stoke had more attempts (14-8) and more shots on target (6-3) than their visitors although it was the league leaders that created the best chances of the game. Jack Butland denied Olivier Giroud twice and tipped Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s drive over the bar to keep his clean sheet.

Both goalkeepers were solid although Petr Cech wasn’t forced into any truly special moments of brilliance. Jack Butland did himself plenty of favours in front of the television cameras and the discussion on his eventual succession of Joe Hart continued. Butland is some way away from being ready to be England’s long-term goalkeeper. He’s made the most saves in the Premier League this season because he is playing in a team that concedes chances; much like Joe Hart experienced when he went on loan to Birmingham City in 2009/10 and ended up being voted into the PFA Team of the Year.

England don’t concede chances very often in international games and it is the concentration levels of the goalkeeper that are more telling than their shot-stopping prowess. Butland’s next step – after a couple of years at the Britannia – needs to be into a team where he won’t be so active; and can work on becoming an elite stopper.

The Result: Stoke City 0-0 Arsenal

Fine. Job done for Arsenal and a decent point for the Potters. I sort of got the impression around the 75th minute or so that neither side would have been all that annoyed to leave with a share of the points; and so it played out.

What’s next? Arsenal vs Chelsea in the Premier League

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