Stoke’s win over Arsenal at the weekend is by no means a mathematical end to Arsene Wenger’s hopes of a first Premier League title in 10 years, since he and his ‘Invincibles’ dominated the domestic scene.
But based on that feeling of deja vu we all feel, and I’m sure Arsenal supporters feel it especially, it will probably be looked back upon as the game where the Gunners slipped from title contenders to a team facing another top-four finish.
There was a large degree of irony to the 1-0 loss, too. Stoke developed a strong reputation for one-dimensional, roughhouse, at times bullying tactics under Tony Pulis in order to survive in a top flight full of money and power clubs for five years.
While I know the idea behind appointing Mark Hughes was to change those perceptions of Stoke and add a more technical side to their game, and I can appreciate that there are a few gradual signs of this happening, I’m almost certain ‘Sparky’ threw his long-term plans out of the window, just for this one game.
Hughes gets some stick as a manager, but he’s not blind to football history. He will be as aware as the rest of us that of all the clubs to have ever taken exception to Stoke’s brutish ways, Arsenal have always been the most vocal.
Wenger, the players and especially the fans at Arsenal are more critical of Stoke’s very existence in the Premier League than anyone else. That Stoke still gets a rise out of them was surely not lost on Hughes, who appeared to put the club’s evolution on hold in order to give Arsenal a taste of what they hate the most.
And, cynical as it was, it worked.
Wenger does come across as a bit of an idealist in the way he sets up his tactics most of the time, and while many will say they prefer his ‘brand’ to Stoke’s ‘brand’, I still cannot fathom why he did not start Mathieu Flamini, the closest they have to a midfield enforcer at present.
It’s one thing to regard his own style as superior to route one, or to getting stuck into your opponents to the point where it crosses the line of player safety. But if you don’t respect other styles, they can beat you.
You’d never meet someone who always uses scissors in a game of ‘rock, paper, scissors’, because they think scissors are much cooler than the other two. That’s because their ‘cooler’ scissors would be beaten by everyone, every time, who’d just use rock non-stop.
And that’s why we see Arsenal have this slump around the same time of year, every season. It’s almost as if Wenger can see what’s about to happen coming, but refuses to compromise his ideals to do a single thing about it.
In the end, they were roughhoused for almost 90 minutes by Stoke, and for all of the outcry and possible future punishment over Charlie Adam’s stamp on Olivier Giroud, City left the pitch three points further away from the relegation dogfight, and Arsenal left the pitch three points further away from the title race they led for much of the season.
As for what Arsenal need to do to address this, it will sound like a broken record (only because they continue to overlook the problem time and time again) but I feel they need a better striker and a stronger defensive midfielder as soon as possible.
With their upcoming fixtures, a win at Stoke was perhaps vital for their title hopes. Now it’s another case of ‘try again next season’. And as much as signing Mesut Ozil galvanised their campaign compared to recent years, they need more than his inconsistent showings to pick up the points when they’re not performing.
Giroud and Yaya Sanogo are fine players, but as Robin van Persie proved – especially in his first season after leaving for Manchester United – a striker constantly scoring goals is more useful than a striker who is just a hard worker who links up with midfield well.
Those sort of goals out of nowhere and a defensive midfielder who will take the fight to teams who, like Stoke, feel as if they have Arsenal’s number by turning the game into a scrap, will get Wenger wins even when the likes of Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere, Santi Cazorla and Ozil are not at their most magical.
It remains to be seen whether that happens, as Wenger strikes me as a manager who signs players he likes more so than players who will do an effective job for the club.
That degree of stubbornness is why - although I feel the top four is now set in stone as being Chelsea, Man City, Liverpool and Arsenal - the North Londoners are the only ones I just cannot envision being top of the pile come May.
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