Arsenal suffered further misery at the Britannia Stadium, with a second-half fight back unable to prevent a 3-2 defeat to Stoke City. Arsenal had won three games on the bounce and Stoke lost their last three, scoring just twice in the process, but it took the hosts just 19 seconds to go in front when Peter Crouch finished from close range after some calamitous Arsenal defending. More woeful play from the visitors’ back line followed to allow the superb Bojan Krkić and then Jonathan Walters to incredibly make it 3-0 to Stoke at halftime.
Helped by a Bojan strike being wrongly ruled out, Arsenal stormed back after the interval with a penalty from Santi Cazorla and a superb volley by Aaron Ramsey, but a second yellow card for Calum Chambers helped Stoke to hang on and claim a fifth victory in their last eight home meetings with Arsene Wenger’s men.
On a day that had earlier seen Premier League leaders Chelsea lose for the first time this season, Arsenal reinforced the fact that they are some way short of being able to think about a title challenge. While in the second half they showed some of their undoubted attacking potential, the damage from a dreadful first 45 minutes proved too much to overcome. Without Laurent Koscileny, who was back on the bench as he continues to be troubled by an Achilles complaint, Arsenal’s defense was a shambles. Per Mertesacker was missing in action on several occasions, but Chambers, Kieran Gibbs and teenager Hector Bellerin were all culpable in providing a familiar soft center for what was, none the less, an impressive Stoke side to take advantage.
Struggling for results and especially goals, Stoke couldn’t have wished for a better start. Straight from the kick off, Mertesacker was twice beaten in the air by Crouch and then ambled aimlessly back into the box to see Mame Biran Diouf’s cross fly past him and over the head of Chambers to leave Bellerin with two men to defend. The still rough around the edges former Barcelona youngster fatally slipped, allowing Crouch with the simplest of finishes.
While Arsenal were still offering little, in the 11th minute they had a chance for a goal that could have changed the whole complexion of the match. Supplied by Bellerin’s cross, Giroud had a free header at the far post but put it wide of the target. It was a moment that summed up the France international’s sluggish display as he continues to make his way back from injury. It was no surprise that Danny Welbeck came off the bench at halftime, but by that point Arsenal had a mountain to climb.
Arsenal had been torn apart in first halves by the likes of Chelsea and Liverpool last season, but being done so by a previously struggling Stoke side was perhaps even more galling. The visitors were horribly culpable in their own downfall. The second goal arrived 35 minutes in, with Mertesacker and others ball watching to allow Bojan to run in and continue his fine recent form with a perfect volleyed finish. Right before the interval it was 3-0 when a host of Arsenal players tired and failed to beat Crouch in the air from a corner and Walters was left free to fire past a beleaguered Emiliano Martinez.
Arsenal improved after the break, they could hardly have gotten worse, and came close to an early goal back when Alexis Sanchez raced clear, making light of defenders and goalkeepers, but hitting the post rather than a gaping net. But it should have been game over when Bojan found the net for the second time midway through the half. Instead it was incorrectly judged that Diouf was in an offside position before standing in front of Martinez as Bojan’s strike crept in the near post.
Arsenal immediately capitalized on their piece of fortune. Diouf tangled with the legs of Mathieu Flamini in the box and Cazorla just about got his penalty past Asmir Begovic to get his first goal since January. When Stoke’s set-piece defending came up short and Ramsey volleyed in a corner just two minutes later, a comeback looked not only possible but probable.
Yet once more Arsenal proved their own worst enemies and Chambers received a second caution for a second innocuous but unwise foul to earn a first red card of his career. A man down, Arsenal couldn’t force a dramatic equalizer to paper over what was again a hugely concerning display.