Arsenal lost ground at the top of the Premier League when they were beaten by a late penalty at the Britannia Stadium, an unhappy hunting ground over the years. Stoke City were just about worth their win and will be extremely grateful for the three points, though Arsenal gave a poor account of themselves as title contenders. Even presented with an opportunity to salvage a point at the end, in a game of very few chances, Yaya Sanogo put his shot wildly over the bar and promptly covered his head with his shirt.
Arsène Wenger must have felt like doing the same. "By our standards that was poor," the Arsenal manager said. "It was a good defensive performance but offensively we didn't produce enough. We were not creative enough going forward and that's why we were punished."
Arsenal at Stoke has become one of the set pieces of Premier League football, a fixture almost certain to leave Wenger with pursed lips even if Tony Pulis and his rugby tactics have been replaced by Mark "over-physical, moi?" Hughes. After winning only once here in his past six visits, Wenger left Mesut Özil on the bench for this one and the effect was surprising. Arsenal did not look like themselves. They did not look like Stoke, exactly, they kept the ball on the floor a bit more than their opponents and did not go backwards quite so much, but in the first half at least there were two sides short of attacking ideas and genuine penetration and for either to score a goal it seemed likely a dead-ball routine or a defensive calamity would have to be involved.
The only high points of a drab opening period came right on the stroke of the interval, when Glenn Whelan forced a diving save from Wojciech Szczesny at one end, then Santi Cazorla took a pass from Mikel Arteta to test Asmir Begovic at the other. Apart from that, nothing much to write home about, except that Whelan was lucky to escape a booking when he trod on Olivier Giroud's ankle and Erik Pieters possibly took the rap a few minutes later, picking up a caution for a less obvious foul on the same player.
The match, in short, was a disappointment, with Stoke even failing in their duty to whack as many crosses as possible in the direction of Peter Crouch. When Charlie Adam did find the tall striker free in front of goal at the start of the second half, predictably from a free-kick, Crouch seemed in two minds whether to attack the ball with foot or head and ended up with an inconclusive touch.
Crouch did better with a cross from Marko Arnautovic after an hour, producing a glancing header that Szczesny did well to beat away, with Geoff Cameron wasting a decent shooting chance from the resultant corner.
Özil made his appearance shortly afterwards, just in time to see Adam stamp on an understandably incensed Giroud when the latter was on the ground. It was a deliberate foul, slyly executed in the hope the referee would not see it, and Hughes was probably wise to remove his player a couple of minutes later, especially as Adam's final act was one of those ludicrous attempts from halfway when the opportunity was never on and the shot was wayward in any case.
Özil did not get much of a chance to influence matters before Arsenal went behind, Jon Walters tucking his penalty beyond Szczesny after Laurent Koscielny had been penalised for handball. It was one of those decisions that could have gone either way as the defender jostled for a loose ball with Walters; there did not appear much intent but Koscielny had his hand raised and the ball definitely hit it. "He had no time to take his hand away, he was so close to the ball," Wenger complained. "But it is the referee's decision and we accept that."
Özil came close to an equaliser in the final minutes, sliding a shot inches wide after playing a one-two with Giroud. It is possible his delicate skills could have been of more benefit to Arsenal with longer on the pitch, though listening to the Stoke fans serenading their side at the end with Swing Low, Sweet Chariot and "One nil to the rugby team", one could understand why Wenger exercised caution, even if the rugby motif is a joke the home supporters enjoy.
Stoke have committed more fouls than anyone else this season, as Wenger pointed out, but they have also beaten Chelsea and Manchester United. To give Hughes his due, you don't do that by simply launching up-and-unders. "We seem to be able to raise our intensity and determination against the big teams," Hughes said. "Why we struggle against the so-called lesser sides is something I've been trying to work out myself."