For 78 minutes the Emirates was engulfed by an all too familiar feeling of frustration as Arsenal seemed unable to get the better of well-drilled opponents but then a deflected free-kick from their German substitute secured three valuable points.
Arsenal drafted a new Spaniard into their line-up, welcomed back a valuable one and gave a tiring one a rest. Nacho Monreal went straight into the left-back slot after his transfer-deadline-day signing from Malaga, while Mikel Arteta returned after nearly a month out with injury and Santi Cazorla, who has looked jaded in recent weeks, stepped down to the bench.
There could be few more abrupt introductions to English football for Monreal than a clash with Stoke. Meetings between these club could almost be described as derbies, such is the depth of the ill-feeling spawned by Arsène Wenger's long-standing objection to Stoke's "rugby style" and, of course, the Ryan Shawcross challenge that left Aaron Ramsey with a broken leg three years ago.
It seemed fitting that this fixture coincided with the opening day of Six Nations, especially as the visiting fans regularly chanted 'Swing Low Sweet Chariot', revelling in their club's capacity to ruffle Wenger.
Their manager may resent Stoke's tactics but Arsenal had found a way to win each of their previous 10 meetings with Tony Pulis's troops and here they began as if confident of doing so again. That was a minor surprise in itself, since tentative first-half performances have been a recurring affliction for the home side at the Emirates this season.
Here Walcott made the first incursion, darting in off the right wing to fire the ball across the face of goal, just beyond the reach of Olivier Giroud. Arsenal continued to monopolise possession but did not threaten to circumvent Stoke's sturdy sentinels again until the 15th minute, when Bacary Sagna and Abou Diaby combined trickily down the right and Diaby drilled a low cross towards the front post. This time Giroud did well to connect with it but could not direct his header on target.
Then Stoke began to find their feet. And Peter Crouch's head. Excursions into Arsenal territory followed, but the closest they came to bothering Wojciech Szczesny in the first half was when Shawcross headed a corner wide and Glenn Whelan whacked a 20-yard shot over the bar. So not very close. But, thanks largely to the dynamism of their five-man midfield, they did succeed in curbing the early enthusiasm of Arsenal, who looked like they were sinking back into another stodgy first-half performance.
The hosts perked up in unlikely circumstances as Stoke, normally so vigilant at set-pieces, allowed a Jack Wilshere corner to bounce in their six-yard box. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain seized on it and got off a strong shot but Asmir Begovic saved superbly, showing why Pulis was content to loan the January recruit Jack Butland back to Birmingham and why Begovic is expected to depart for one of the top clubs in the summer. The goalkeeper reinforced the point moments later when he produced another fine stop from Laurent Koscielny's header.
Begovic came to Stoke's rescue again in the 41st minute when Arsenal created their most cutting move of the match, Wilshere piercing the visiting defence with a cunning ball to Oxlade-Chamberlain, whose attempt to curl the ball into the far corner from the left-hand side of the area was foiled by the goalkeeper.
Just before the break Monreal gave an indication that his adaptation to the Premier League was proceeding apace, as he and Jonathan Walters inadvertently banged heads and the Stoke player was left with blood streaming down his face.
Monreal showed his keen attacking instincts in the 54th minute when he exchanged clever passes with Wilshere and clipped an inviting cross towards Giroud, only for Robert Huth to stop the striker from applying a clean header. As Arsenal chances dwindled and the clocked ticked towards 70 minutes, Wenger introduced Cazorla and Lukas Podolski as he sought more inspiration.
Cazorla was quick to get involved, sending an inviting cross to Giroud in the 73rd minute but again the final touch was missing, as the striker headed way wide. In the end, it took a stroke of luck for Arsenal to beat Begovic, who seemed to have a 20-yard Podolski free-kick covered until it deflected off Geoff Cameron and rolled into the net. For a moment Arsenal thought the goal would be disallowed as the assistant referee flagged for offside but, after consultation between the officials, the referee, Chris Foy, correctly allowed it to stand.
Pulis decided it was time to attack and threw on three strikers but, as venom seeped into the game and dark overtones seeped into tackles from both sides, Stoke finished without getting a shot on target.
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