Arsenal suffered their first defeat to Stoke City, their old bête noire, in five Premier League meetings here, but this was different to those we used to see. This time, they were not carved up by kick-and-rush but by a slick move that, just like those long throws in the days of Rory Delap, badly exposed the inherent weaknesses in Arsene Wenger’s team.
Wenger felt aggrieved at full time, having seen an Alexandre Lacazette goal disallowed for offside, but Stoke were good value for their win. The decisive win came from the excellent Jese Rodriguez, a Real Madrid academy graduate handed his debut after arriving on loan from Pairs Saint-Germain earlier this week.
This was Stoke’s first home game of their tenth Premier League season and they met the club on the end of their most memorable top-flight matches. Back in the Tony Pulis days, meetings between these two clubs pitted direct, route-one football against expansive, technical play and, especially on those famed ‘wet and windy nights’, it was usually score one for the old school.
Those encounters revived a rivalry that has existed since the early 1970s, with the mistaken identity of an ice-cream seller at its root, but recent meetings have been more sedate. Here, Arsenal met a Stoke side that, three years on from Hughes’ appointment, is still searching for a new defined identity. The club’s increasingly disgruntled supporters began the day hoping that a certain new signing would go some way to achieving that.
Jese and Stoke began with a sign of things to come. After being fed by fellow summer signing Darren Fletcher, he evaded Shkodran Mustafi’s limp tackle and ran through one-on-one only to shoot at the legs of the onrushing Petr Cech. This first glimpse of his talents was warmly received by the home support, but Stoke’s early momentum ebbed away and Arsenal began to enjoy more of the ball.
The visitors seemed to find particular joy down Stoke’s right-hand side, where striker Mame Biram Diouf was again deployed as a right wing-back. Arsenal’s best chance of the half duly came in that area of the pitch when Danny Welbeck found enough space to test Jack Butland’s reactions and force a fine save. It was the best moment of a fine game for the goalkeeper.
When Stoke threatened, it came on the counter and particularly through Jese, who looked eager to make an impression from the first minute. After the clearance of one Arsenal corner, he broke at pace, eliminating three opponents with ease while making a brilliant solo run to the byline. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Granit Xhaka and Hector Bellerin were all left in Spaniard’s dust, but his fellow new arrival Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting could not convert the resulting cross, scuffing his effort into Cech’s arms.
What began as an open and engaging affair slowly started to tighten up and each side’s next chance to break the deadlock came from a set-piece. First, Ramsey, back at the site of his infamous leg break, sought to silence the boo boys by connecting with Mesut Ozil’s free-kick at the far post, but Butland was out to block with his body. At the other end, Stoke captain Ryan Shawcross should have found the target with a header after Choupo-Moting’s cut-back from a Diouf throw, but his effort went over.
The remainder of the first half petered out but Stoke began the second with a bang. The winning goal started with a loose pass by Xhaka, which led to Jese being fed the ball in his own half. The winger embarked on yet another adventurous run at the Arsenal backline. After slipping the ball to Saido Berahino, on for the injured Xherdan Shaqiri, Jese then darted in front of Nacho Monreal and collected the return pass. A moment’s hesitation from his compatriot gave him the space he needed to angle a tidy finish past Cech. It was a fine goal.
Arsenal went in search of a response and a raft of half chances followed. Kurt Zouma, otherwise excellent on his home debut, was fortunate not to concede a penalty after appearing to handle a Ramsey cut-back and Butland’s excellent display could easily have been blemished when he failed to cleanly collect a Bellerin shot.
The best opportunities however, like in the first half, fell to Welbeck. First, he looped a header harmlessly over Butland’s bar despite having time and space to direct his effort. Then, after being neatly slipped through by Olivier Giroud, he dallied and saw his lofted effort turned away by Butland. Welbeck’s fellow forward and Arsenal’s record signing, Lacazette, fared no better, miscuing from six yards out and then seeing his a powerful effort ruled out for offside. The £46.5m signing's foot appeared to be marginally beyond Stoke's last defender.
Stoke posed no threat themselves after going ahead, save when Berahino stole a yard on Monreal to meet an Erik Pieters cross and head powerfully into the ground, forcing Cech to palm the effort over. Hughes’ side were more than happy to let their guests toil in search of an equaliser and toil they did, with Butland on hand to collect every time Arsenal thought they had an opening. In the end, Arsenal had no choice but hope their big man could get a head on it. Giroud connected with a late header but it slipped wide. They were out of ideas and leaving empty-handed.
Stoke City (3-4-2-1): Butland; Zouma, Shawcross, Cameron; Diouf, Allen, Fletcher, Pieters (Martins-Indi 89); Shaqiri (Berahino 25), Jese (Ramadan 71); Choupo-Moting.
Substitutes not used: Grant, Johnson, Crouch, Bojan.
Arsenal (3-4-2-1): Cech; Mustafi, Monreal, Kolasinac (Giroud 66); Bellerin, Ramsey, Xhaka (Iwobi 79), Oxlade-Chamberlain; Ozil, Welbeck; Lacazette (Walcott 78).
Substitutes not used: Ospina, Mertesacker, Coquelin, Elneny.
Referee: Andre Marriner (West Midlands)