Arsenal professionally rode the wave of a 15 minute second half Stoke effort before putting the game to bed and earning a first win in the Potteries since 2010.
Just as it was Arsenal’s wing backs who shone brightest in the FA Cup Semi final against Manchester City, and the central midfield pair against Manchester United and Southampton, Saturday was the turn of Arsenal’s superstars either side of their striker to shine in the new system.
Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Özil were quietly brilliant in drifting and creating situational overloads on either flank to pull the Stoke defensive unit off balance and generate space for teammates to pop up and thrive. Alexis was far more intelligent with his movements and the positions he picked the ball up in than he had been against Southampton.
Following the victory over Southampton and with Tuesday night’s home game against Sunderland on the horizon, Aaron Ramsey’s hamstring was rightfully rested with the cup final in mind and Francis Coquelin came in. To accommodate for the Frenchman’s basic ball skills, Nacho Monreal was shifted to a more advanced left wing back position in place of Kieran Gibbs, with Koscielny restored to the backline after his Achilles was rested at Southampton. Olivier Giroud also came in for Danny Welbeck up front.
The first half was categorised by frequent spells of Arsenal pressure, using Monreal as their main weapon looking to target an ageing Glen Johnson, whose own apparent disinterest in defending was compounded by a lack of help from Xherdan Shaqiri.
Arsenal were able to work these crossfield switches to Monreal by creating situational overloads on the opposite flank. Özil and Alexis would drift, forcing Stoke to slide their protection to deal with the most immediate threat and overload of players, providing ample opportunities for Monreal to get in to dangerous areas 1 vs 1 with a reluctant Johnson.
Coquelin also added to these overloads, confusing a largely indifferent Stoke midfield, with all of Glenn Whelan, Joe Allen, and Geoff Cameron offering as little without the ball as they did with it. While the Frenchman was the point at which a couple of first half attacks broke down, he was on hand to play a timely through ball to Hector Bellerin ahead of Giroud’s opener, after a wonderful pass between the lines from Granit Xhaka.
Xhaka again impressed in the new formation, even though he didn’t play alongside his usual partner in Aaron Ramsey. The key adjustment from the Leicester game where the midfield didn’t really work was that he had Monreal as an option to his left, as opposed to the less expansive Gibbs.
After a slow start to the second half, Arsenal’s two superstars combined superbly in a throwback to the first third of the season. Alexis dropped off into a pocket of space, received the ball from Özil, who then continued his run past his Chilean cohort into the box, cushioning the ball superbly, before firing past Jack Butland for 2-0.
After an hour of tepid indifference, Mark Hughes withdrew Allen and the hapless Mame Biram Diouf for Peter Crouch and Saido Berahino and Stoke started to have a go. Arsenal withstood a spell of corners in quick succession that teams of the early Emirates era may have caved under.
Stoke eventually pulled a goal back, after Mike Dean’s failure to call a couple of fouls resulted in Marko Arnautovic getting into a good position and providing a cross for Crouch to punch in. The home fans woke up from their slumber, started half-hearted chants about Ramsey and Wenger, and started to get behind their team.
In the past, conceding an unjust goal in intimidating surroundings, could have caused Arsenal teams to fold under the pressure and become a self-fulfilling prophecy. This current team knew they had to dig in for a spell, ride it out professionally, then look to hit a Stoke side growing in confidence on the counter. In short, they had to play how they played in away games in the first half of the 2013/14 season.
And they did.
After some dogged defending and a couple of strokes of luck in the nine minutes after Crouch’s goal, Arsenal were able to cut their hosts apart on the counter and Alexis restored the two goal margin with a handy deflection off Ryan Shawcross. This was to be his last contribution to the game, going off as a precaution against a thigh injury.
Alexis was replaced by Ramsey, who did a superb job in the forward line, demonstrating another facet to his game than what he offers in central midfield.
In the forward line, Ramsey offers you well-timed runs beyond the striker, defensive contribution, ball retention, and a final ball. His cameo on Saturday had all of this. He again demonstrated his unparalleled understanding with Giroud, playing a crucial role in the goal that proved the final nail in Stoke’s coffin, as he had done at Southampton.
Ramsey’s performance demonstrates that, when used appropriately, he is one of Arsenal’s best and most important players, and that Wenger was fully vindicated in resting him and preserving his hamstring ahead of a cup final where he will have to play an integral role if Arsenal are to win a 13th FA Cup.