Arsenal's Stoke Mental Block Bites Again

Arsenal, in terms of the title race, are done now, and should concentrate on the FA Cup, after their psychological problems with Stoke manifested themselves again...

Last Updated: 03/03/14 at 08:47 Post Comment

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"March is the month: we play Spurs, City, Chelsea, Bayern, Everton in the cup. We have a great opportunity to show that we are strong, which is what I think. At the end of March we will know much more. The aim is to win the next game."

Perhaps you read too much into these things. Perhaps we at F365 are just as guilty as Fleet Street journalists for looking for the 'narrative', as Mediawatch suggested this week, drowning in context rather than regarding each game, incident or quote individually. Perhaps Wenger just misspoke.

Perhaps. But it looked telling before, and obviously even more so after, that Wenger chose not to mention Stoke in his assessment of Arsenal's nightmare month. Looking at the league table, which told us that Arsenal were playing a team 15th at the start of the day, just three points above the relegation zone, it might have been understandable that Wenger chose to omit Stoke, but like the humble scribes, Wenger knows the context.

Arsenal have won just once at the Britannia since Stoke were promoted in 2008, oddly in the game in which Aaron Ramsey's leg was broken back in 2010. For whatever reason, Arsenal have a blind spot when it comes to Stoke, and it's difficult to avoid the conclusion that it's a self-perpetuating psychological problem now.

Of course, Stoke played as Stoke so often do, rough-housing their opponents throughout (Olivier Giroud's ankle was stamped on twice, once by Glenn Whelan and once by Charlie Adam, who we can surely say now definitely is that sort of player), but that isn't a surprise, and should not be an excuse for Wenger.

But this should not prevent Arsenal playing in the way they usually do. Stoke were physical, but not excessively so, and it's worth pointing out that several Arsenal players, most notably Jack Wilshere, gave their fair share back, too. It seems that Arsenal are cowed by the prospect of playing a collection of brutes dressed in red and white stripes, rather than the reality of what they face when they come to the Potteries. Their passing was disjointed, their attacks ponderous and on the break they were incredibly slow (at least until Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain came on) and without purpose.

Incidentally, Mark Hughes brought a new phrase into the footballing lexicon after the game, when asked whether Adam's stampy funtimes should be punished, he said it was a shame because it "wasn't that sort of game". Perhaps he's realised that simply identifying individual players for that excuse became ridiculous some years ago, so if you say it about the whole game...maybe that will work? Or perhaps he was just trying to annoy Arsenal fans. If he was, then it worked, with some gusto.

Arsenal are done now, in terms of the title race at least. At the time of writing they're second, four points behind Chelsea, but Manchester City have two games in hand, there of course is the ever-unpredictable Liverpool factor to consider, and as M. Wenger pointed out, they have a horrible run ahead, of which they could conceivably not win a single game. Of course, that's technically true of any team, but given their record against the best in the division so far this season, would you back them to get more than, say, four or five points from Spurs (a), Chelsea (a), Manchester City (h) and Everton (a)? And all with that trip to Munich chucked in as well?

The most sensible thing for Wenger to do now is make the FA Cup his priority. They still have a glimmer of a chance of springing something on Bayern (by the by, as I write this Bayern have just scored their fourth against Schalke, the 136th goal since they last lost a Bundesliga game), but the chances of them actually winning the Champions League are on the slim side of none. With Liverpool, Manchester United and Chelsea out of the FA Cup, and the chance to eliminate another contender in Everton in their own hands, this is by some distance the best chance Arsenal have of actually winning something this season.

Nobody expected Arsenal to win the league this season, and while their start to the season may have raised hopes and expectations, a trophy and perhaps an improved league performance would represent a decent campaign.

Nick Miller - follow him on Twitter

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