The pre-match main talking point was whether he would start today or not.
During a mid-week presser, Arsene hinted that Robin may be kept in reserve in order to give him a breather and keep his minutes from ballooning out of control. The other main point is whether or not we could continue our good recent run of results, continue climbing the league table, and add to what has become a pretty good home record this season.
Our previous three home wins came against sides really struggling at the time; Stoke are far more formidable and a far different proposition from the likes of Swansea, Bolton and Sunderland.
Last season, we struggled to scrape a 1-0 win here, and took a 3-1 drubbing at the Brittania. A win would move us closer to the top four, while a Stoke win could potentially move them up to fifth. So there was plenty at stake for both sides…
To nobody’s surprise, Robin made the bench this afternoon, with Chamakh getting the start in his place, yet another opportunity to show that he can be a reliable goal-scorer for us. JD retained his place in Jenks’ continued absence, and Ramsey and Gerv returned to the starting eleven at the expense of Rosicky and Arsh (who started at the Velodrome on Wednesday).
We lined up Szczesny, JD, Kos, Mert, Santos, Arteta, Song, Ramsey, Theo, Chamakh, and Gerv. Song led the team out as captain which was a nice show of faith from Arsene and recognition for Song’s recent excellent performances.
Our subs were Fab, Frim, Benny, Rosicky, Arsh, Ju and Robin.
Note there is no natural defender in that group, Arsene clearly intended to use Song as his emergency centre back in case something happened to Mert, Kos, or JD (with Kos possibly shifting to right in the event of a problem with JD).
As with recent matches, we started quickly, looking for an early goal. Stoke did not sit back, as they attacked as well, making for an open start. With ten minutes gone, we should have opened the scoring, as Theo won a corner, Arteta whipped the ball in and an unmarked Chamakh made an absolute mess of his header, unable to even hit the target. Not an encouraging start from our off-form striker…
Both sides continued to pressure, as both Walters and Arteta shot wide from decent positions. Ramsey then drove his shot narrowly wide but the opener was not long in coming and in the 26th minute, Gerv got us on the scoreboard. Ramsey made the goal, chipping his pass over the defence, Gerv chested the ball down and fired low past Begovic to get us on the board.
Gerv then almost created a goal, storming past Wilkinson and sending in a fine low cross across the goal face. Unfortunately, no red shirt was far enough forward to turn the cross in and the chance dissipated.
Stoke remained a threat, and on 34 minutes they equalized, albeit in slightly controversial circumstances. Stoke were awarded a free-kick for a soft Kos foul on Crouch. While our players may have felt slightly aggrieved at the whistle, they would have been better advised to concentrate on defending the delivery.
Whelan put the free kick in, we had a couple of chances to clear, didn’t, and Walters headed it across goal for Crouch to tuck away. Back to square one…
Just a couple of minutes later, Wilkinson appeared to bring Chamakh down in the Stoke box as we tried to regain the lead but the referee waved play on. Stoke got a few more free kicks and forced a corner, but we defended these reasonably well. In the first minute of stoppage time, Chamakh had another golden opportunity, beating Upson to Arteta’s fine cross, but directing his shot wide when he should have once again hit the target.
The half-time whistle went a few seconds later.
Arsene did not make any chances at the break and we started the second half quickly. Gerv continued to cause problems down the flanks, with him and Theo forcing corners which came to nothing. As we continued to labor to create an opening, the fans started to chant for Robin. Arsene waited 65 minutes, but when he finally brought our captain on for the disappointing Chamakh, it almost paid instant dividends, as his first touch was a fine cross which just eluded Ramsey at the far post.
Nevertheless, the substitution was decisive, as Robin restored our lead 17 minutes from time. First half scorer Gerv turned provider as he cut the ball back for Robin to turn it home between Begovic and his post. Pulis responded by bringing strikers Jones and Jerome on, and they combined to create a chance, as Jones headed down, but Jerome was unable to divert the ball in.
Eight minutes from time, we made the game safe. Gerv once again did some great work down the left, crossing for Robin to convert his second and our third.
We pressed for a fourth, and both Gerv and Frim (who replaced the latter just after 90 minutes) had chances. No matter, three was enough and we saw the stoppage time out comfortably. Our third consecutive win in all competitions, and sixth consecutive home win (again in all competitions) moving us up to seventh in the table, with 13 points.
No, we are still not yet “back”, but we finally appear to get “getting there”, provided we keep the momentum going.
On thing that pleases me about our run is that we are more or less doing it under the radar. This weekend’s plaudits go to Man City, and rightly so. For our players and manager, it is past time to discuss what we can/will do, and take care of business without any background noise.
For us supporters on all sides of our current divide, it’s time to give the players and manager credit for bringing ourselves back from the depths to a respectable position. It is also time to take one result at a time without going overboard on the back of a couple of wins and ramping expectations up through the roof. Today we beat the best opponent we faced at home since Liverpool in week two, and got only our second league win by a 2-plus goal margin.
The next step surely must be to improve our wretched away league form. Last season’s best Prem away side currently “boasts” just one point from a possible 12, with a whopping fourteen conceded. Our next task is formidable indeed: Stamford Bridge in Saturday’s early kickoff. Nine-man Chelsea lost at Loftus Road this afternoon, so we will face them with Drogba and Luiz suspended. (Cole will miss the CC fixture to serve his automatic ban)
They are always difficult to beat at home and besides our excellent 3-1 home win over them at the end of last year, they have had our number recently. We should approach the match confident and looking for a result but if we don’t get one, I won’t consider it to be a halt in momentum, in light of the opposition quality and experience.
In other words, a win will be great, and a loss will not be the end of the world. Our respective performance will be a mitigating factor, but we will not be able to assess things until after the final whistle, so there is little point in even mentioning that now.
So a good result and another step forward but that is not to say that things are perfect. We still have a large injury list and our squad still shows signs that it is a work in progress. For me, this moment’s most critical issue is that of our second striker.
Once again, Chamakh was provided an opportunity and once again, he utterly failed. Arsene robustly defended the former during this past week, emphatically declaring he would not be sold in January. While I can hardly expect Arsene to slap a “For Sale” note on Chamakh’s forehead, I think it is perfectly reasonable to question the latter’s long-term future here.
While Robin came on to save our bacon, I would prefer that he didn’t have to do so. The fact that he did is more attributable to Chamakh’s ineffectiveness than anything else.
From this comes the question, how many chances are enough?
Since Robin returned to our lineup at the end of last year, Chamakh has contributed two paltry goals (one against Leyton Orient in the FA Cup), and little else, despite numerous substitute appearances and the occasional spot start. Even the performances where he didn’t score but looked good and dangerous are few and far between…
This is not to heap all the blame on our lack of other-than-Robin-scoring on Chamakh. That claim is grossly unfair, as there are plenty of starting eleven players who get far more minutes than he, and show little for it. Robin and Theo were the only players who scored regularly in the first few weeks, and the latter has now dropped off the proverbial cliff. Gerv got his second today, and the likes of Arsh, Ramsey, Benny, Song and Arteta have chipped in with the odd goal here and there but not nearly enough as a team.
But Chamakh is under the spotlight for two reasons: he is Robin’s direct substitute, and is therefore expected to contribute the scoring; and he showed during last autumn that he is (was) capable of carrying the load. That is now a distant memory and each successive ineffective performance does less and less to justify his place in our squad.
I just hope Arsene clearly knows when little/nothing will be enough with Chamakh. I don’t think this can continue indefinitely – either Chamakh finds some semblance of form, or its someone else’s turn to try and provide goal scoring cover for Robin…
I want the guy to succeed, I admired his work at the start of last season but this is a results-driven business, not a charity. If Chamakh can no longer do the job, then we have look elsewhere for a reliable second striker…
Chamakh conundrum aside, this was a solid win and a reasonably good performance.
While everyone did not shine, I thought we combined better than in recent weeks – perhaps a sign of the gelling process our squad is undergoing. In addition to Robin, I thought Gerv in particular stood out. Ditto for Ramsey, especially considering the emotional scars he may still carry from the Brittania two seasons ago.
At face value, this win isn’t that much more than a routine three points. Beneath the surface, it’s tangible evidence that improvement is taking place before our eyes, with results and league position further reflecting this.
So let’s quietly keep this run going, stay under the radar and win our matches; one morning the rest of the league will wake up to see us right near the very top of the table, and wonder “Where did THEY come from?”
Written by Oliver