By Ewan Roberts at the Emirates Stadium
For a team who supposedly represent Arsenal's antithesis and a kind of souped-up, uber-physical kryptonite, the Gunners are surprisingly competent at dispatching Tony Pulis's hard-hitting, tough-tackling Stoke City.
The two sides met again on a chilly Saturday afternoon in north London, where Lukas Podolski's 78th-minute deflected free kick saw Arsenal record their 11th successive home win over the Potters. The clubs have developed an odd but entirely modern rivalry, one based not on geography or competition but a clash of philosophies.
Stoke have mellowed somewhat in recent years, tapering their aggressive image and rewriting their antagonistic stereotype – before Saturday's match they had averaged just one yellow card on their last four visits to the Emirates Stadium, a far cry from Ryan Shawcross's leg-breaking challenge on Aaron Ramsey in 2010 that embalmed the club's savage reputation.
|MATCH FACTS | Arsenal 1-0 Stoke
Aerial duels won
But, unlike in previous years, Arsenal gave as good as they got. Walcott was praised by his manager for his resilience, Jack Wilshere squared up, mano-a-mano, with Owen, and Shawcross ended the match in need of four stitches.
Arsenal's display of true grit was most evident in new signing Nacho Monreal. "There's no better culture shock than Stoke when you come from Spain, because of course they have a very physical game, and I think he dealt well with it," Arsene Wenger enthused after the match.
The £8 million acquisition from Malaga was tasked with containing the bullish Jonathan Walters and coped extremely well; Monreal engaged in three aerial duels with the powerful Irishman, winning all three, and even left the Irishman dazed, confused and bloodied after a clash of heads. The Spaniard merely rubbed his temples and carried on, while Walters finished the match bruised, bandaged and requiring six stitches.
Monreal was not overly troubled on his debut, however, and though Arsenal should take heart from their first clean sheet in the league in seven games, it must be caveated that Stoke offered virtually nothing offensively.
The visitors' reputation for anti-football precedes them and their visit to north London was a hugely cautious, defensive affair – perhaps born out of their poor recent form, which had seen them concede 15 goals in their previous five league matches. They committed few men in attack and mustered just one lonely shot on target, a speculative volley from 30 yards by Walters.
|PLAYER RATING | LUKAS PODOLSKI
|Came on in place of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain with 20 minutes remaining and made a huge impact. His fizzing free kick deflected off Cameron and flew into the back of the net.|
Wenger's side may have scored more goals (33) at home than any other Premier League side but 23 of those came in just four games (against Southampton, Newcastle, West Ham and 10-man Tottenham). As such, there was a growing sense that the Gunners were mere flat-track bullies, capable of scoring and ripping teams apart only when things were going with them, not against them.
But they were forced to work for their three points on Saturday and fight against both imperious defending and a superb goalkeeping display from Asmir Begovic – Stoke have stifled a number of teams this year and been involved in more goalless draws (five) than any other side. In previous months and years you might have expected Arsenal to wilt in the face of such monolithic and stubborn defending - but not this time.
|Evens||Arsenal are Evens with Bet365 to finish in the Premier League top four
Perhaps the most pleasing aspect for Wenger will be the nature of the victory; it was hard-fought, well-earned and, uncharacteristically, ugly. A lot of the fluidity and elegance associated with the Gunners was absent and in its place was a dogged determination that produced only the second 1-0 home win at the Emirates this year. "1-0 to the Arsenal," sang the fans.
The goal may not have been pretty – a fortunate, deflected effort that cannoned of Geoff Cameron and flew into the back of the net – but it was a fitting strike that summed up Arsenal's performance.
All this bodes well for the Gunners' push for Champions League qualification, where the ability to grind out victories is an absolute necessity.
No team can play well all of the time, not every side can be obliterated with wave after wave of attack; instead control, patience and determination are required. You only need to score once to win a football match, and the more often that 'Go West' is cascading down the Emirates Stadium terraces, the greater Arsenal's chance of finishing fourth.
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